Pint-sized Newark pastor has mighty presence

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on March 17, 2015

Pastor Felicia Osborne recites scripture to her congregation on a Sunday morning. Felicia Osborne is giant within and she's only 4 ft. 1 inches. Born with Ostegoneses Impercta, a rare bone disorder, Osborne let's nothing get in the way of her disability, which requires her to walk with a cane. After retiring from the corporate world, she has taken over Bethel Family & Youth Resource Center, a church and drug treatment program in Newark that her father operated for years

 

Felicia Osborne always looks at something beautiful before she leaves her home in East Orange.

She stands before a mirror and pauses to view her 4-foot-1 frame with brown eyes that are as big and bright as her radiant smile.

"I see beauty," Osborne says.

The braces she wears support legs that are not straight. In her right hand, she holds a forearm crutch for balance when walking.

"I see diva," she says.

Every strand of her auburn hair is in place and her lipstick is just right. And she never forgets a splash of perfume.

The world may see a disability as she ambles along, but Osborne, 46, doesn't have time to fret over osteogenesis imperfecta. It's a genetic disorder that makes her bones so brittle, she could break a ribif she sneezes too hard, something she did last year.

The countless breaks she's experienced have bent her body in several places, but Osborne is far from broken and she's never allowed stares from others to bother her or get in the way of her purpose.

Osborne wants you to see her just as she is - living unabashedly - after you bend down to hug her. And once you've gotten past that, she wants you to reach out and help somebody with the same fervor she has for humanity.

"It feeds me, like water does to a plant," Osborne says."To do something for somebody, oh God, I'm excited like a kid at Christmas."

On this day, it must feel like Christmas Eve, because Osborne is at Costco, whizzing up and down the aisle in a motorized cart. She's shopping for food to feed addicts in recovery at Bethel Family & Youth Resource Center in Newark.

Osborne is the executive director and chief operating officer of the center, which doubles as a drug treatment program and a church where she serves as co-pastor.

It's not an easy task to juggle, but Osborne blends a corporate skill set with a compassion for people, and they admire her spunk and fierce independence.

"She's the reason I'm in school now," says Elizabeth Ferdinand, a church member who is studying to be a certified drug and alcohol counselor.

"She's amazing, because there are a lot of people who don't have a handicap and they're not even doing a third of the stuff that she's doing."

Osborne worked for 15 years as a senior metrics and reporting analyst with AT&T, a job she retired from three years ago. She never thought about being a pastor until her parents retired and moved to Florida last year..

Her dad, Reginald Osborne, was a pastor who spent the better part of 50 years helping the homeless and getting treatment for addicts. He and his wife, Marian, started Bethel 13 years ago and turned it into a successful treatment program that saved many souls who miss them today.

In the evenings, after Felicia left work, she'd come to Bethel and teach Bible study as a minster. She also answered the phones, set up the computer system and counseled clients.

And somewhere along the way, her father's compassion rubbed off, so she couldn't let the church close when he decided to step down."Bethel meant too much to this community," she says.

He ordained her as a pastor and the church remained open. She's there all week, preaching on Sunday, using an adjustable music stand to hold her Bible because the podium is too tall. Sometimes, she sings, as she did this past Sunday, inspiring congregants with lyrics from the R. Kelly song, "I believe I can fly."

Osborne has a loyal staff and she leans on alumni, who stand by Bethel's program and her leadership.

One of them, Antwan Dawes of Newark, speaks at recovery meetings and tells those gathered that the program works if they want it to.

"Tell it, Antwan,"Osborne shouts. "That's right. Tell it."

When the session ends, Dawes says Osborne gives them all hope, especially him, since he's been in a wheelchair for 25 years.

"If she can come in here, so can I," he says.

That tenacity comes from her mother, who never let Osborne use her disability as a crutch.

"She put that fight in her,"Reginald says. "Her mother did that."

The big heart she has comes from him, a man she has seen go into his pockets many times for a few dollars that she calls "buck-a-lucks" to help somebody buy a hot meal.

But as a couple, Felicia's parents raised a daughter with a giant personality - one big enough to tilt a self-esteem meter and make us all see beyond her crutches and braces.

Her confidence is so high that she even forgets she has a disability. It's nothing for Osborne to climb on her bathroom sink and hang a shower curtain, or steady herself on a bar stool to put a picture on the wall. Despite her soft bones, Osborne is not afraid to take risks.

"I don't like depending on people," she says. "If you depend on people, you're waiting on their time."

That's why she's been driving since she turned 18. Hand controls on the left side of her car operate the gas and brake pedals, and at Costco, she's grabbing stuff off a shelf taller than she is.

Life would probably be boring if not for her disability. In fact, Osborne sees it as a blessing. She welcomes it - and the opportunity it provides to help others.

If your days are dark, Osborne will tell you to unload your burdens on her until they pass. And when they do, she will fill with you cheer, then top it off with her get-up-and-go attitude.

Before you know it, you'll be looking in the mirror as she does - and you'll be seeing something beautiful.

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