Wayne Dawson Wayne Dawson
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The congregation starts trickling into Lyndhurst’s Grace Tabernacle Baptist Church at 10:30 a.m. Everyone is decked out in their Sunday best: men in sport coats and slacks and women in a kaleidoscope of colorful dresses, prints and pastels. 

Before sitting down, each new arrival makes a tour of the sparsely decorated church, greeting those seated in the massive wooden pews with smiles and warm hugs. 

At 10:45, the pianist, saxophonist and drummer play some initial notes of “Be Still and Know That I Am God,” signaling to the multicultural congregation that the pastor is about to enter. Formally installed two weeks earlier, he is only the second person to lead the church, following the 30-year tenure of their beloved founding pastor. 

Most congregations might be wary of a new voice. But as the Rev. Wayne Dawson strides into the sanctuary in his vibrant three-piece suit, smiles break out across the congregants’ faces. 

Dawson, a near-40-year veteran at Cleveland’s Fox 8, smiles back at the 100-plus worshippers assembled before him. With his nod, the service begins with hymn No. 248, “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand.”

An elderly couple in a pew six rows back is spending their first church service at Grace Tabernacle. The husband scrambles to find the selection in the New National Baptist Hymnal, when his wife pokes his arm. 

“Look up,” she says, directing his attention to the lyrics displayed on the two new flat-screen televisions Dawson had installed two weeks earlier. 

“Oh,” the husband remarks. “That’s neat.”

After the song concludes, Dawson asks any visitors at the service to stand. He walks out into the audience and approaches a woman who immediately shies away from the handheld microphone. 

After she timidly gives her name, Dawson gently asks her to share her reasons for being there. She hesitates, and he softly coaxes her to take her time. 

“Everyone here is your family,” says Dawson. “Everyone here is with you.” 

With his encouragement, she shares her story about being new to the area and her search for a spiritual home. Dawson quietly thanks her and pivots immediately to the congregation: “Amen to the spirit that has brought these dear visitors here today,” he says with full-throated fervor. The sudden transition of volume and message is seamless.

“Amen,” the audience enthusiastically responds. 

Dawson’s career began right in the heart of Cleveland. He spent his first dozen years in the Glenville neighborhood, moved to East Cleveland in the seventh grade and graduated from Shaw High School. 

“I was pretty much voted least likely to succeed,” he says laughing. “I got involved with the wrong crowd, was a teenage parent and definitely experimented with alcohol and other drugs.”

Foreseeing an unwanted future of washing dishes in front of him, he decided to attend college, but his grades were not good enough for a four-year school. He enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College and focused on print media. With solid marks in his first year at Tri-C, he transferred to Kent State University to concentrate on journalism and eventually broadcasting. 

“I wanted to be a sports reporter,” recalls Dawson. “I couldn’t play sports, but I figured I could cover them pretty well on the air.”

He graduated from Kent State in December 1979 and accepted a spot in a minority training program at WJKW-TV, the station that would later become Fox 8 WJW Cleveland. He shadowed reporters in the field producing weekday stories and filed his own reports on the weekends. 

“I learned everything I possibly could from those reporters,” says Dawson. “I couldn’t believe I had just graduated from Kent and was already on the air.”

What followed has become the stuff of local legend: 38 years at the station (including 19 co-anchoring Fox 8 News in the Morning) 11 Emmy Awards and a spot in the Broadcasters Hall of Fame. 

On a Friday morning in late September, Dawson perches behind the Fox 8 news desk. He’s clad in a brown suit accented with a bright orange tie that he has coordinated with the outfit of Kristi Capel, his morning co-host since 2012. 

“We get messages all the time from fans who are excited to see what our outfits will be each morning,” says Capel.

The news today is especially heartbreaking: A house fire erupted overnight in East Cleveland, claiming the life of an elderly woman. With dozens of studio lights trained on his face, Dawson soberly delivers the story, turning first to the camera in front of him and then to a camera to his right, never missing a beat on the teleprompter. 

“A really sad story,” he remarks to Capel on-air, his voice full of sadness. 

After a quick commercial break, Dawson follows Capel to a second set, where they sit more casually on a red couch. Following a quick intro, the two wander over to a table covered with candy apples, gummy bears, popcorn balls and cakes that will be available at the Woollybear Festival, the annual celebration created by Fox 8’s legendary weather forecaster Dick Goddard. 

A jar filled with woolly bear caterpillars sits on the table before the duo, while a man in a 7-foot woolly bear costume stands behind them. Two festival representatives put woolly bears on the anchors’ hands. Capel holds her fuzzy creature up to her face, and the caterpillar arches toward her, appearing to give her a peck on the cheek. 

“Don’t get any ideas,” Dawson quickly quips to the person in the woolly bear costume as the studio breaks out in laughter. 

“Wayne has taught me not take things so seriously and to just have fun,” Capel says later. 

An ardent champion of the city, Dawson is just as likely to be celebrating Cleveland sports teams as expressing unbridled excitement at local events such as the Woollybear Festival or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. 

“People see that he’s a snazzy dresser or they experience his humor, but they don’t always get to see how he brings out the humanity of every story he covers,” says Margaret Daykin, the morning show’s planning producer. “He is a blessing.” 

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Dawson will be the first to tell you that he never intended to become a pastor. After that, he’ll tell you at least five more times. 

His was an unexpected and protracted journey to the pulpit with many stops along the way. 

Church was a central part of his childhood, with Sundays spent faithfully at Bethany Baptist Church on East 105th Street. His father split when Dawson was in the 10th grade. At the time, his mother, Annie, was pregnant with his brother William, who would later grow up to be an East Cleveland Municipal Court judge. 

“My mother was all about education,” recalls Dawson. “You did your work, you went to church, and she would let you know if you fell out of line.”

He admits that his churchgoing “fell away” in college. But his visibility on Fox 8 also brought with it a multitude of requests to appear at a variety of functions, including many at houses of worship. 

“It appealed to me greatly,” says Dawson. “I knew there was something greater than me going on, but I didn’t always know what I was talking about. One day I just decided, Hey, I should probably learn more about all of this church stuff.”

So Dawson turned back to the church of his youth. He’d known Bethany Baptist Church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Stephen Rowan, for decades. 

In 2004, Dawson began to explore his faith more actively by participating in worship services and having conversations with those in the congregation. 

“Being called doesn’t just mean a call to the ministry,” says Rowan. “It also is a call to preparation for the ministry. That means reading the Word of God and spending time around God’s people, both inside and outside of church.”

A year later, Dawson became a licensed minister, which enabled him to perform marriage ceremonies, preside over funerals and assist with Sunday services. He worked extensively with the sick and elderly on behalf of the church. 

“He has such a positive outlook and a high level of energy,” says Rowan. “He clearly has a heart for the people, and you could see that with each minute he spent lifting up people who were facing hardship.” 

Dawson enrolled in online classes through Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Indiana. He began to see himself more fully in the church and it in him. 

“My eyes were suddenly wide open,” remembers Dawson. “I read a story in the Bible about how God made use of a donkey, and I immediately realized that if he could make use of a donkey, he could definitely make use of me.”

After nine years of classes, sermons and serving his community, Dawson was ordained as a reverend Sept. 14, 2014. While the ordination process naturally occurs when the individual is “ready to make that next step of their journey,” says Rowan, it’s also a rigorous process that includes a formal examination in front of seven to nine pastors.

“He did real well,” says Rowan. “He prepared himself accordingly.”

Dawson saw the ordination as the capstone of his ministerial journey: He’d serve on the staff at Bethany, assist Rowan and the congregation and continue his life as a newscaster.

“But God had other plans for me,” says Dawson. 

At Grace Tabernacle Baptist Church, less than 7 miles east, the Rev. Jeremiah Pryce had taken ill. After serving in various churches in his homeland of Jamaica, Pryce came to the United States in 1976 and eventually landed in Cleveland three years later. 

But with his health deteriorating in 2016, Pryce realized he needed to step away from his duties. He reached out to Rowan to see if Dawson had ever considered pastoring. While he thought it unlikely that Dawson had ever contemplated it, Rowan encouraged Pryce to ask. 

“I had always been very happy and encouraged when Wayne wanted to learn more about the Word of God,” says Dawson’s wife, LaVerne. “Since accepting his call, he has certainly been busier, but also more focused and showing greater concern about the needs of people, especially the least among us. It was only a question of whether he would have time to take on more.” 

When Pryce passed away in January 2017, Dawson helped the church mourn.

“I have fallen in love with these people,” says Dawson, who assumed the role of interim pastor in July 2017. “This is a Baptist church steeped in tradition. I always want to honor that spirit and the people who worship here. They, in turn, honored me.” 

Dawson immersed himself in the community at Grace Tabernacle. He increased his hours in the church and presided over nighttime Bible study, men’s ministry gatherings and fiscal management meetings. He even made time to visit congregants in their homes. 

Roughly a year later, Dawson became the church’s full-time pastor. “They knew I wasn’t Rev. Pryce,” says Dawson. “They didn’t want me to be. They just wanted me to be my authentic self.”

On Sept. 16, he was installed as pastor in a ceremony filled with joy and reverence, celebration and solemnity. 

“It was like a wedding with lots of invited friends and family,” says LaVerne. “At the center, for everyone to see, was a vow renewal reminding Wayne of why he accepted this call to ministry.”

The packed house included ministers from throughout Cleveland, three church choirs, a full congregation and many members of Dawson’s Fox 8 family. Rowan provided the sermon. His theme: Do it until God is satisfied.

“If you are going to do this work, you need to love the people, lead the people, lift the people,” says Rowan. “You have to learn the people. I wanted to be instructive, encouraging and supportive of Wayne’s calling.”

Dawson’s sermon for the day is inspired by Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Although the verse in the New International Version is only 10 words, Dawson has much to say. 

He begins by referencing his troubled youth and reminds those assembled that no matter what they have endured, their Lord remains the same in his steadfast presence in their lives. 

“Everywhere you turn, He is there,” he says, his voice beginning to rise. “And He plays so many parts!”

What follows looks like a scene from an old-school revival service. As Dawson proceeds to detail 66 ways Jesus revealed himself in the Bible — one for each of its books — his voice gets progressively more emphatic with each description. Eight books in, the passion has completely overtaken him. 

“In Ruth, He was our Kinsman and Redeemer,” he shouts. 

The audience starts working up into a frenzy, shouting “Yes!” and “Amen!” after each description. 

Seventeen books in, there is still no stopping his energy. “In Esther, He is protector of the people,” Dawson commands. 

No one in the congregation is left sitting. One of the associate ministers in the sanctuary to Dawson’s left is laughing, not at Dawson’s expense, but in admiration of the energy the pastor is giving to the congregation. Dawson pauses at one point and the audience calms down and starts to sit. 

“But that’s just the Old Testament,” Dawson says calmly. “We haven’t even gotten to the New Testament yet.”

He resumes the litany, rallying the congregation back to their feet praising each successive declaration. Just when it seems like Dawson cannot possibly extol the presence of their savior with any greater passion, he reaches the last book of the Bible. 

“And in Revelation,” Dawson exclaims, annunciating each and every word individually. “He is the King of Kings. He is the Lord of Lords. He is the same yesterday. Today. And forever.”

Dawson pauses to let the congregation catch its breath. He too sighs and breathes deeply as everyone begins to take their seats. There is a loud chatter among the pews, neighbors remarking to neighbors about the incredible display they just witnessed. 

For his part, Dawson acknowledges his burst of passion as he begins to close out the service. “I know, I know,” he jokingly apologizes. “I should save that energy for 4 p.m. when the Browns play.”

To successfully pull off these two lives, Dawson’s days come down to time management. 

On weekdays, he is up by 2 a.m. to be at the studio and ready to be on camera from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. After the morning show finishes, he balances covering stories, station events and church responsibilities. 

One day he can be seen helping pull up old carpet in a church meeting room and the next he might be spotted hosting a brunch in the community room to raise awareness about ovarian cancer. He writes his sermons three weeks in advance so he is never under pressure should any last minute responsibilities arise with either Fox 8 or the church. 

He has great plans for Grace Tabernacle, but is careful to take things slowly as a newly installed pastor in this traditional congregation.

“You have to take baby steps,” says Dawson. He talks about rebuilding the youth ministry, augmenting the choir and growing the church financially. “But first and foremost, I want everyone to feel a sense of togetherness as we move forward.”

A key to the church’s future is its role as a vibrant resource to the community. Grace Tabernacle runs programs to feed the homeless, ministers within the prison system and works with Charles F. Brush High School in Lyndhurst to make sure that no student goes hungry.

“I’m not here to build a megachurch,” says Dawson. “I’m here to love. That’s what I want people to feel. I’m willing to beat you down by loving you.”

The congregation has already added a dozen new followers since Dawson assumed duties at the church. In addition to the flat-screen televisions, he is exploring how to implement more elements of media ministry into his services: creating fellowship through video production, podcasts and other content to enhance his services. 

He acknowledges that many people assume his secular life at Fox 8 must be separate from spiritual life at Grace Tabernacle, but he insists that the two worlds overlap daily. 

“My TV life and church life are outgrowths of who I am,” explains Dawson. “Long before I became a pastor, we would pray together in the cafeteria at Fox 8, or I would marry people on-air on Valentine’s Day, or I would just ask someone who has experienced tragedy if I could pray with them as soon as the cameras were turned off. I believe in living out my sermons no matter the setting.”

To illustrate how his lives intersect, he offers forth the perfect parable: 

On Sept. 21, gospel music rang out for all assembled to hear. The choir of voices blended together in an uplifting, powerful version of “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” 

Dawson swayed with eyes closed and lifted his arms to the air in praise, clearly moved by the heavenly music as it reached its beautiful crescendo. At the end of the song, he breathed an audible “Amen” before reopening his eyes. 

Lest those around be confused, the setting was most certainly not Grace Tabernacle Church, and it wasn’t a Sunday. Heck, the choir wasn’t even singing live. 

In the event of this most joyous occasion, the music was prerecorded and played in the Fox 8 studio: The Cleveland Browns had won their first game in 635 days, and the spirit of celebration was most certainly in the air for the reverend and Cleveland alike. 

“Sometimes my two lives come together in beautiful ways,” says Dawson with a smile. 

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