Canton church turns 25 with mortgage fire

CANTON – The Reverend Gary Martin’s beginnings in Canton were difficult in 1994.

Just two years after becoming senior pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church, Martin quit.

“There were discipline issues,” he said. “There is no way in the world to lead a church without discipline. If I couldn’t do the ministry as expected, I knew I needed a leave of absence. I didn’t want to divide the church. It was never my intention or my dream.”

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Martin considered leaving the state, but instead started his own nondenominational church in 1997 with 19 founding members. The new congregation met in a member’s home before renting space in a Seventh-day Adventist church and then building its own facility in 2003.

Next weekend, the founding pastor of True Light Christian Ministries at 3719 Lesh St. NE will lead a 25th anniversary celebration with a gala on June 9 at the Doubletree Hotel. The event will conclude with a mortgage ceremony and two special worship services on June 12 at the church.

Rev. Clevon Dukes of Farrell Pa. will speak at 10 a.m., followed by Bishop Carl E. Jones of Greensburg, Pa., at 3 p.m.

“It’s rare for a congregation to innovate, build their own facility, and pay for it,” Martin said. “So for this to happen in Canton, and especially in a minority congregation, it’s special.”

Martin has been in the ministry for 40 years, 30 of them in Canton. Although he was raised Baptist, he decided to take True Light in a different direction.

“True Light is a very special place of worship,” he said. “We’re non-denominational. And one of the reasons was that we wanted to be able to reach people of different faiths. There’s not one singular group because I believe the kingdom is bigger than that.”

Teach, not just preach

The Flint, Michigan native is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He earned a Master of Divinity from American Baptist Seminary and a Doctor of Divinity from Vanderbilt University.

Martin said teaching is central to his ministry at True Light. In addition to being a pastor, he has served as an adjunct professor at Malone University and Walsh University, and recently authored his first book, “Let Me See Your Face: The Journey to Prayer Answered.”

He was a longtime contributor to the National Baptist Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention.

“I believe you grow a church not from the outside in, but from the inside out,” he said. “Bible lessons are essential. You cannot get married here unless you follow premarital counseling. We believe God has honored all of that.”

Martin also credits member loyalty, noting that they don’t rely on fundraisers. The church, he said, is primarily funded by tithes and offerings. For a time they rented space to a Messianic Jewish congregation.

“One of the reasons we did this is we wanted to be really open to any group of people,” he said.

True Light also focuses on outreach, which includes ministry to the boys at Indian River Juvenile Jail in Massillon, giveaways, and family community events.

“It was almost like Thanksgiving, the way they (the members) fed them,” Martin said. “You know, one of the things we didn’t want to do was leave downtown because everyone seems to be building in the suburbs when they want to build a new facility. We think everyone should be served. It was a great opportunity for us to serve people.We are in the business of people.

Doing things the right way

At a time when churches are struggling to keep their doors open, True Light has thrived. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin said, they hosted “drive-in” services in the parking lot and also offered online services, which was a big hit.

The church has about 100 members.

“I think it’s because we did it the right way,” Martin said. “Everything we do has to fall under one umbrella. I call it mentoring people according to the teachings of Christ. When I came here, I saw the impact of mentoring people according to the teachings of Christ, so everything we did had to come under that umbrella, and if you couldn’t justify it through Christ, you shouldn’t do it.

Martin also cites strong support from members who hold strategic positions in the community. Part of next week’s festivities will include a recognition of founding members. The kitchen will be named in honor of two of them, Maybelle Davenport and Helen Dunnivant.

Although women tend to be in the majority in many churches, half of True Light’s membership is male.

“And strong men,” Martin said. “We encourage them to be the priests in their homes. I have to try to lead by example. The sermons aren’t heard, they’re seen. If you show people what it looks like, people start modeling it.”

Martin and his wife, Debra, CEO and Executive Director of the Pregnancy & Parenting Center, have four adult children.


Martin said he had no plans to retire but had made a promise to the church. The church has four associate pastors.

“I told the church that I would never exceed my capacity to be effective,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who hangs on, just to hang on. I’d rather leave sooner than later.”

The anniversary event begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m. followed by dinner and a concert from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. by The Michael Austin Project. Semi-formal dress is required.

Gala tickets are $55. To purchase or for more information, visit the church’s website at or contact Tomier Davenport at 330-338-2992 or Kelley Foster-Lever at 330-605-6155.

Contact Charita at 330-580-8313 or [email protected]

On Twitter: @cgoshayREP

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