On Sunday morning, two days after Christmas, the Rev. Calvin Brooks gave his holiday sermon, the folksy drawl of a lifelong Alabamian retelling the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. He read the first 20 verses of Luke 2. He urged listeners to allay their worldly fears and find reverence for God. And he testified, “I was taught a long time ago that joy meant this: Jesus first, others next, and yourself last.”
That morning at 9, Brooks’ family gathered at home to view the online Christmas message he had recorded earlier in the week, a concession to the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic.
One of his daughters, April Shuler, clicked on the Facebook page of Brooks’ Anniston church, Fairview Heights Northside Baptist, and played the video — Its title: “Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior!” — on the television.
On the screen was their 58-year-old father and husband, who had died of a heart attack Christmas Eve afternoon.
Brooks’ family hadn’t seen the video. Neither had his congregation.
The church sought the family’s guidance, Shuler said. And the family was adamant.
“I said, ‘You know what, if Daddy had something to say, we all need to hear it,’” she said. “You don’t know what God gave him, and what God gave him, we need to hear, so let’s listen.”
It would be easy to misconstrue this, an eyebrow-raising story about a Baptist church broadcasting a Christmas sermon recorded by a pastor who’d died unexpectedly only days before. But don’t judge.
Instead, see this for what it is: a fascinating man of intense Christian faith who died after celebrating Christmas with his family and whose recorded holiday message implored others to trust in his savior as strongly as he did.
Nearly every story about him — about his family, his vocations, his hobbies, his lifelong adoration of Southern Gospel music — intertwined with his faith. They’re seemingly inseparable.
Brooks wasn’t a professional theologian. Born in Anniston and raised in Oxford, he’d sold cars for Sunny King and punched a clock at Hager Hinge before landing a job at Anniston Army Depot, where he’d worked for two decades.
But he was raised in a Christian family, Shuler said, a seed planted early on. His father was a church deacon. In the mid-1980s, Brooks began serving Baptist churches however he could, sometimes giving messages, other times leading youth groups. If the doors of his Oxford church were open, he and his family walked through them. And he pastored Alabama churches since the early 2000s.
“If you mention my daddy’s name in a lot of Baptist churches in Calhoun County, everybody is going to know him,” Shuler said. “That’s just how it was.”
Especially if they’d heard him sing.
Brooks loved singing. He’d sing anywhere, anytime, for anyone.
He sang in churches, sometimes baritone, sometimes bass. He performed with the Sunrise Gospelaires and other quartets. He wrote songs. He recorded songs.
When Shuler and her sister, Freda Roberts, were children, Brooks would load up the family on weekends and perform at nursing homes, a Southern Gospel version of the Partridge Family.
“He just liked to get people singing, and you wouldn't believe it,” Shuler said. “My mom wasn’t a singer, but my daddy even had her singing because he believed in that music.”
He’d load the family’s audio equipment into an old horse trailer hitched to his Ford Taurus and road-trip to church homecomings and gospel-singings throughout the Southeast.
On those trips — mom and dad and kids in a Taurus pulling an overweight horse trailer — or on vacation drives to the beach, the music would flow, as it always did. Everybody joined in.
“He had taught us so many songs,” Shuler said. “It didn't matter, when he struck that chord, we knew exactly where we were going with that one.”
Brooks appreciated the outdoors and took his daughters hunting and fishing, but it was at the beach where he found images that moved him. “I think the ocean was peace to God, it’s like God’s handiwork, and that’s what he liked to see,” Shuler said.
The day after gathering for his final sermon, Brooks’ family held his funeral at Fairview Heights Northside Baptist. During the service they played a recording of a song he’d written and recorded.
His voice reaching out, again.
“He Went All The Way” was its title.