April 1, 1919 – Jan. 24, 2018
Rev. Otis C. Tillman, pastor of Cold Spring Bible Chapel for more than 50 years, originally wanted to be a prizefighter.
“He was a welterweight,” said his daughter, Charlene A. Cherry, who is a minister at the chapel, “but when he injured his shoulder, that was that. The ministry had called him before, so he decided to become a minister.”
Rev. Tillman died Jan. 24 in Terrace View Long Term Care Facility at Erie County Medical Center, where he had been a resident for two years. He was 98.
Born in Shadyvale, Ga., he spent his childhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., and came to Lackawanna when he was 15 in search of work at the height of the Depression. Unsuccessful at finding a job, he decided to pursue his hopes as an evangelist.
While handing out Christian tracts in the Midwest, he met the mother of Hope Geraldine “Dene” Bradshaw, from Indiana. She exchanged letters with him before they met. They were married in 1941.
After he attended the former Evangel Bible Institute in Clearwater, Fla., he and his wife came to Buffalo. This time he found work in the General Motors Engine Plant in the Town of Tonawanda, but soon decided to devote all his time to his ministry.
Rev. Tillman began with children’s Bible classes and craft sessions in the living room of his home on Masten Avenue. As the group grew, he moved to a storefront at 171 E. Ferry St., then to larger quarters next door. Cold Spring Bible Chapel found a permanent home at 100 Northland Ave. in 1963.
“My dad was a gentle, nice man who knew how to preach,” his daughter said. “He was very simplistic in his teaching. It was straightforward. All he did was preach from the Bible. He loved kids, too.”
Working with his wife, he founded the Gospel Expansion Foundation in the late 1960s, which supported two radio programs, “The Chapel Hour,” which became the longest-running program on WBLK, and “The Black Community Speaks” on WDCX.
He opened a food pantry to serve his East Side neighborhood and collected and distributed clothing to the needy.
He and his wife took dozens of children to Camp Li-Lo-Li in Allegany State Park during Easter vacation for more than 10 years.
He also organized youth basketball teams in his church and took them to church league tournaments, including championship play in Toronto.
“When the score got too high and we were winning, he wouldn’t let us keep running up the score on the other team,” his daughter said. “If we got 20, 25 points ahead, he wouldn’t want to do that.”
In 1987, he established SonFest Pavilion next door to his home on Masten Avenue, an area for children to play games, learn the Bible and enjoy lunches made by his wife, a caterer who ran the Black Gourmet for 40 years.
“Dad wanted a safe haven for kids,” his daughter said.
He retired as pastor in 2010, but continued to preach occasionally. His church now is led by Pastor Eric Johns.
Rev. Tillman was the first African American to become a member of the board of directors of Buffalo City Mission and went on to serve as its president.
He was honored with a Black Achievers in Industry Award in 2005.
In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include two sons, Joel O. and Daniel M.; five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 3 in True Bethel Baptist Church, 907 E. Ferry St.