Miami Gardens

Mary Tumpkin, senior minister of Miami Gardens church, dies at 64

 

ldixon@MiamiHerald.com

The Universal Truth Center started in the Rev. Mary Tumpkin’s living room, moved to funeral homes and hotels, but eventually settled at its 22,000-square-foot home in Miami Gardens. Tumpkin was a pioneer in the ministry, as she moved into a leadership role in the 1980s when female ministers were still a rarity.

Tumpkin, the church’s senior minister, died Friday from complications from diabetes. She was 64.

Friends and mentees said that she had a vision from early on in her spiritual career, thanks in part to mentorship from the Rev. Johnnie Colemon, the founder of the Universal Foundation for Better Living. Tumpkin founded UTC as an affiliate church of the UFBL in 1982 and eventually became president of the organization in 1996.

As president, she led over 25,000 members in dozens of churches across the nation, including the Rev. Bernette Jones’s One God One Thought Center in Baltimore. Jones said that anytime she called on Tumpkin, she would be there to support the church.

“She really supported me personally to make sure I was okay,” Jones said. “When our senior minister decided to move on and do something else, ten years ago, she was helpful in the transition.”

Tumpkin’s preaching career began when she was a teenager in Detroit and continued, after a brief break, when she made her way to South Florida. She attended Wayne State University in Detroit before moving to Miami and earning her bachelor’s degree in business at Florida International University.

She eventually earned a doctorate in ministry from the Florida Center for Theological Studies (now a division of St. Thomas University).

“She was an avid reader, instead of going to sleep she’d be down in my office going through my files,” said Helen Carry, the former director of the Johnnie Colemon Institute in Chicago. “It was difficult to get her to take care of herself because she was always so busy.”

Tumpkin moved UTC into its current location in 1993, and the church continues to serve about 1,200 members. The Rev. Charles Taylor, associate minister and a founding member, said that number grew from a handful of people when Tumpkin first started.

“The main thing I got from her is how to be a person of courage,” Taylor said. “Even in the recent years when her health began to decline, she still showed up every day, she never complained or felt sorry for herself.”

Under her leadership the church, at 21310 NW 37th Ave., eventually grew beyond the sanctuary and added a bookstore, multiple classrooms and the Universal Academy, a non-profit childcare center.

Tumpkin was known for a colorful delivery when she gave sermons, occasionally injecting jokes into messages while still getting across salient points. Jones said that she found a way to balance seriousness and humor.

“We all agreed that she had a personality that sometimes took getting used to,” Jones said. “She didn’t tolerate a lot of disingenuousness, she did it her way, and we accepted it.”

She served on the board of multiple religious organizations including the Society for the Study of Metaphysical Religion, International New Thought Alliance, Florida Center for Theological Studies and Westar Institute.

“Her messages were empowering and uplifting. She meant so much to so many people, not only at the Center, but also throughout South Florida and around the world,” said Karen McKenzie, president of UTC’s board of directors, in a statement.

The center was well known for its “burning bowl” ceremony, where members would gather on New Year’s Eve, write their bad habits on pieces of paper and throw them into a bowl to be burned and left in the past year.

Along with that unique tradition, Taylor said that Tumpkin was a “Trekkie,” an avid fan of the Star Trek series. She watched the show on a regular basis, had pictures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in her office, and would occasionally reference episodes in sermons.

Tumpkin leaves behind a son, Joseph Tumpkin Jr., and a body of work that her supporters believe will live long and prosper for years to come.

Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at the church, and will be followed by a repast. The service will be streaming online at http://www.utconline.org/memorial/.

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