The living room is crowded with family at this East Moline home.
Sitting in his recliner is the Rev. Charles Westbrook, retired pastor of Community Outreach Church of God in Christ, which he founded 51 years ago.
To his left is his wife Barbara. Filling the remainder of the room are seven of his children and one great-grandchild.
At almost 90 years old, the East Moline man has grown quiet. His eyes search for memories long since faded. The voice of his daughter, Brenda Lee, breaks the quiet. “Not very talkative today, Daddy?”
Saturday, family and friends will celebrate his 90th birthday, which officially takes place April 26 in a private gathering at the Stoney Creek Inn in Moline. They will pay tribute to a life lived in the fullest sense of the word.
Born in Round Pound, Ark., and the youngest of seven children, Charles Westbrook’s father was the son of a slave owner.
“As I look back at his life I understand more about him and what fueled his ambitions never to become a victim of his environment,” said his son, Larry, who now serves as pastor of the church his father founded in 1956.
He founded and served as president over the local Bi-State Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a nonviolent movement originally started by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement). The local chapter brought attention to the need for jobs and minority participation in government and the private sector. During his tenure, he and others were instrumental in registering record numbers of people to vote and show up at the polls.
On Aug. 29, 1940, he married Barbara Williams. His partner for 67 years in marriage, ministry, and in parenting of their 11 children, the two are inseparable. His vision may be failing, but he can recognize his wife, whom he affectionately calls “Sally,” from far off.
Two years after being married, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. As a sergeant, he came ashore to a cacophony of bullets and bombs on the beaches of Normandy. His memories of that day, recounted years later to his son Larry, reflect a man at a crossroads of faith.
“His (Charles’) mother got on him about straightening his life up. And he ended up in the war. When he got over there and hit the beaches and all of the bullets were coming at him, he could remember just about everything that she had said.” Larry said.
In 1945, he was wounded and discharged. After he returned home to Arkansas, his growing family necessitated a move north for better job opportunities. They moved to an area of East Moline known as Watertown.
“Watertown was a very vibrant community during our years growing up,” said another daughter, Delores Tingle. “Much of the African-American community settled there when they came from the South to work at John Deere. Deere had built several houses in the area where the church is located and brought workers in and settled them there. Everyone knew everyone else. It was a village where we were watched after by the community. Every street was lined with trees and we always had a safe place to play. There were community programs and events that brought the neighborhood together. We had a great time growing up there and received many valuable lessons that shaped our appreciation for life.”
John Deere Harvester Works and the Westbrooks are intertwined. Charles and 10 of his children have all worked many years for Deere. Charles retired after almost 34 years.
All the while there, he pastored several churches, serving in many denominational posts, founding and leading many social and community activist organizations.
He founded local Church of God in Christ congregations in Clinton, Iowa. and then Rock Island. The Rock Island congregation was predominantly composed of Westbrook children in the early days. They led the worship in the church and became renowned as the Westbrook Singers, touring and performing to this day. He then founded and pastored two other congregations simultaneously, one in Des Moines and then the Community Outreach Church of God in Christ in East Moline, where he retired after 50 years in 2006.
“His love for humanity allowed him to make statements like, ‘When you help others you also help yourself.’ This teaching allowed me to understand my responsibility to my community and the world — to make this world a better place to live,” wrote the Rev. Larry Westbrook, one of two sons who are now ministers.
The city desk can be contacted at (563) 383-2450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.