Former Beacon council member becomes a pastor
John Rembert grew up in Beacon, attending the Star of Bethlehem Church, which was then on Main Street. After graduating from Beacon High School in 1983, he joined the U.S. Army, rising over 27 years to the rank of first sergeant. In 2018, he was elected to the Beacon City Council.
“I don’t ever want to stop serving — serving the Lord, serving the community, serving the people,” says Rembert, 57.
His most recent service is not to the residents of Beacon, or to the military. He is retired from the Army and he didn’t seek re-election in 2020 to the council. Instead, he’s the new minister at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Stormville, near the Green Haven prison and the hamlet’s former airport.
“People left. COVID happened. They were without a pastor,” says Rembert, who was ordained in 2016 and is pursuing a master’s degree in biblical studies at the New York Theological Seminary in New York City.
It will be a challenge for the church to grow. Nearly all of its 60 members are middle-aged or seniors. But Rembert has faced bigger challenges.
In 2003, he was sent to Iraq. “We took off from New Jersey and, before we landed in Baghdad, they were already shooting at our plane,” he recalls. “The plane was maneuvering, soldiers were throwing up. When we finally landed, there was fighting on the ground.”
Stepping off the plane, he found himself in fierce combat with enemy fighters. “The medics bandaged some people up; some of them died,” he says. “That was my first day.”
After his tour in the Middle East, Rembert was posted in Korea, Germany and throughout the U.S. When his mother became ill with dementia, he petitioned for a station closer to Beacon and was assigned to Stewart Air National Guard Base in New Windsor.
By the time he retired in 2010, Beacon had changed. Gentrification was setting in. The transition to civilian life was not easy.
“The military only has to give you four hours of sleep,” he says. “The rest of the time you’re awake, moving. So sometimes my patience with civilians was not the best.”
Back home, he had time to think — about Iraq and, then, about God. “In the military, I began to feel his presence,” Rembert says. “Later I began to ask myself, ‘Why did God allow me to live, but not others?’ ”
He reconnected with Star of Bethlehem, and with Shari Bugg, a childhood friend. The couple married in 2013.
The year before, when a new pastor, the Rev. Frederick Mills, came to Star of Bethlehem from Buffalo, his presence and sermons inspired Rembert to become a deacon. By 2014, he felt his own call to preach.
“I fought that for a while,” Rembert says. “I did not need to be a preacher. But I heard his voice.”
The morning Rembert gave his first sermon, still as a deacon, the church was packed and Rembert’s stomach was in knots. He relied on Numbers 22:21-39 — the story of Balaam and the talking donkey.
“This donkey tells Balaam to stop because he has seen the Angel of the Lord,” Rembert recounts. “Balaam ignores the donkey, so the donkey stops walking. Balaam starts beating the donkey. Balaam says, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ Now Balaam is talking to the donkey!”
Rembert laughs as he remembers the sermon. “The donkey says, ‘Haven’t I always been a good ass to you? Haven’t I treated you right?’ And sure enough, Balaam finally sees the Angel of the Lord. And the Lord chastises Balaam for not seeing, for not listening to his donkey, who had revealed the Lord to him.”
Encouraged by the response, Rembert began working to fill the pews. His pitch went something like: “I don’t care who you are. It doesn’t matter if you are young, old, rich, poor, Black, white — you can have a great heart and be a bad dresser. God ain’t looking at what you wear.”
About a year after he was ordained, Rembert attended a workshop at Beahive Beacon, the shared workspace. There, some older residents complained that they had been neglected in the city’s revitalization efforts.
“I felt that they needed proper attention,” Rembert recalls. “It so happened there was an opening on the City Council, so I stuck my name in the hat for Ward 2.” He was elected to serve with 81 percent of the vote.