It’s 8 a.m. Sunday service at Bethel AME Church. The choir is singing “Certainly Lord” while everyone dressed in their Sunday best moves to the funky beat in their pews. Pastor Charles Morris steps up and begins his sermon about the favor of God. As he explains the importance of having God at your side, he becomes excited and even breaks a sweat. He wipes his face with a blue towel and continues. It’s hard to believe he has this much energy in the morning and even harder to believe he’ll have to do it again for the 11 a.m. service.
But that is why Pastor Morris and other pastors in Pensacola are so special to the community. They actually practice what they preach.
“We try to put the creed into the deed,” Pastor Morris said.
At Bethel, Greater Little Rock Baptist Church and Friendship Missionary Baptist, building a better community is just as important as teaching the word of God. Whether it’s the youth, the homeless or just someone looking for a way out, Pastors Morris, Lonnie Wesley and LuTimothy May are making Pensacola a better place to live one prayer at a time.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Pastor Morris has only been in the community since November 2008, but he has already made a big impact. He has donated backpacks stuffed with school supplies to Montclair Elementary School and has handed out thousands of books to children at the Martin Luther King Day Parade.
“The goal is 10k for MLK,” Pastor Morris said. “It’s more significant to hand out books than throw candy. You can get candy at any parade.”
In conjunction with radio station Magic 106.1, Pastor Morris has also helped to provide a Thanksgiving meal and Christmas toys for unfortunate families.
“He’s all about making a difference spiritually and in the community,” said Linda “Sonshine” Moorer, one of the DJs at 106.1.
This year, the radio station and Pastor Morris delivered food to 120 families. At Christmas, 241 families got their prayers answered and children got the toys on their wish lists.
“Pastor Morris bought 50 bicycles himself,” Moorer said. “He just said ‘Let me know how many we need.’ The response was outstanding. It made a lot of people happy.”
It’s not just about remembering those who are less fortunate during the holidays, but creating a better community. The best place to start that mission is with the youth. There are two programs that Bethel provides to prepare the children of the community for bigger and better things–Bethel Safe Schools and Students and Restorative Justice.
The Bethel Safe Schools and Students program is funded by the Department of Justice. The after-school program is used as an alternative to suspension for students aged 9-17, who are referred to the program by school teachers, law enforcement, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and other community agencies. Once students sign a commitment contract and complete the initial conference, they receive tutoring and behavior modification support group sessions. There is community service, but it doesn’t have the same stigma as picking up trash in an orange jumpsuit.
Restorative Justice is funded by the Florida Bar Foundation. The program works the same way as the Bethel Safe Schools and Students program providing an alternative to suspension or expulsion.
“It puts the students back in the community,” Pastor Morris said. “Everybody needs somebody sometimes.”
One thing Pastor Morris is adamant about is education.
“Education is the key so that the next generation can stand on your shoulders,” Pastor Morris said. “College may not be for everybody, and I’m fine with that. There’s also the military. But students need a trade or a skill that they can use.”
Pastor Morris takes students to visit colleges and universities like his alma maters Florida A&M and Florida State University, where Pastor Morris was an undergrad and received his master’s in public administration, respectively.
“Our church has always been interested in preparing leadership for tomorrow,” Pastor Morris said.
Pastor Morris jokes that he wouldn’t be a pastor if he had the choice. When he received the calling to join the ministry he was 35 and in a job interview.
“I was living large and in charge,” Pastor Morris said. “I was like Jonah. I was running until I ran into a brick wall, and I realized my destiny and purpose in life was being inside the church.”
Jokes aside, Pastor Morris is truly fulfilled with his calling. “There is no amount of money that can equal the ultimate satisfaction that you get from knowing that you are living inside the will of God. Being inside the will of God is the best place you can be.”
It’s a blessing that Pastor Morris was called to come to Pensacola, because he believes in helping everybody, not just his own congregation. “Everybody in the community does not belong to Bethel, but Bethel belongs to everybody.”
Those who do belong to Bethel or are visiting realize that this man is really, truly speaking from within.
“He is so filled with the spirit,” Moorer said. “He’s a great teacher and such an example. You can’t help but feel the spirit in him. We have prayed together, and I truly believe he is a true disciple of God.”
And as for what Pastor Morris will do in the future–thinking of what he’s already accomplished in a short period of time–well, it’s unimaginable.
“He will do even greater things for Pensacola,” Moorer said. “He’s really reaching out to make a difference. He’s already done so much, I mean come on. He’s one-of-a-kind.”
Greater Little Rock Baptist Church
“I had enough of church after being judged for my drug problem,” said Pamela Williams. “I got dogged so bad at other churches I thought I might never be part of a church again.”
Nonetheless, when her daughter took her to Greater Little Rock, Williams had a life-changing experience. After a few services, Williams spoke to Pastor Lonnie Wesley III and told him what she was going through.
“I was thinking that suicide was the only way out,” Williams said. “Now, I’m a God-fearing woman, but at your worst point in your life that’s when the enemy starts whispering in your ear: ‘You better off dead’.”
After Williams explained to Pastor Wesley what she was going through, that she was addicted to crack cocaine and thinking of killing herself, Pastor Wesley stepped in without hesitating.
“He gave me a hug and he told me, ‘Don’t do that’ and immediately gave me his number,” Williams said. “He said, ‘Call me anytime’.”
Williams made the call and entered treatment at the Lakeview Center of Baptist Health Care. Pastor Wesley visited her during her three-month stay. One problem still remained. What would she do when she left the Lakeview Center? Where would she go?
Greater Little Rock opened their doors to Williams, literally. The church owns a furnished apartment across the street that became available for Williams. It did come with a price. Williams had to attend church, Bible study, Sunday school, substance abuse classes and pay $50 a month; the church paid the rest of the bills. There would be no drugs, drinking or smoking.
“She met and exceeded all the qualifications,” Pastor Wesley said. “It was a struggle at first, but then it became a part of her.”
“I couldn’t thank Pastor Wesley and Greater Little Rock enough,” Williams said, who overcame a 10-year addiction to crack cocaine. “One thing he told me was ‘Pam, I’m just a vessel that God used.’ That’s how humble he is.”
Williams lived in the apartment, or what is now known as the Transitional House, for two and a half years, diligently studying the Bible and paying her rent. Eventually, a duplex apartment was up for rent adjacent to the church, but Williams didn’t know how she was going to pay the deposit and first month’s rent, which was $1,000.
“Well, little did I know they had been putting that money I had been paying every month in an escrow account,” Williams said. “When it was time for me to move in–bam–I had my money.”
Williams has now been clean for six years. She has two jobs. During the day she works at a daycare center and in the evenings she’s a nurse’s assistant to elderly patients. She’s currently enrolled at Troy University and is 12 credits away from her associate’s degree.
The story of Pamela Williams is a favorite of Pastor Wesley’s.
“That’s my moment,” Pastor Wesley said. “We started the Transitional House based on her. I can’t help but think about God when I think about Pam.”
Pastor Wesley has had a long relationship with the church in general. His father has been the pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church for the last 52 years. It’s no surprise that Pastor Wesley was called to the ministry at age 16.
He was born and raised in West Pensacola and understands the community inside and out.
“I learned a lot of life lessons on Montclair and Massachusetts, Market Street and Michael Drive,” Pastor Wesley said. “That’s my neighborhood. I love that place. The people taught me a lot.”
What they taught Pastor Wesley is the virtue of compassion.
“My mom went to heaven because of breast cancer in 1983,” Pastor Wesley said. “I’m the youngest of six, and I was 13 at the time. So it was just me and Dad. The people would cook dinner, send over lunch…every day. Just regular, good, God-fearing people. I love that neighborhood.”
Once Pastor Wesley was called into the ministry, he spent about seven years at Terry Grove Baptist Church in Terry, Miss. He came back to lead Greater Little Rock with his wife, daughter and son in tow in 2004.
The challenges for any Pensacola minister are numerous. Bethel AME Church is about five minutes away from a cluster of strip clubs. Greater Little Rock sits close to Cervantes Street, a busy and tempting road.
“That’s why I was on that letter-writing campaign to the city officials asking, ‘What can we do to help you get rid of this liquor store? Or get rid of this corner where it is a known drug-trafficking corner?’” Pastor Wesley said. “‘What can we do to help make sure that this convenience store does not continue to be a hub of prostitution and crack selling?’”
Pastor Wesley doesn’t just preach in church. He believes in reaching out to the community.
“My Daddy used to say, ‘It’s good to pray, but once you pray you have to get up and put some legs on those prayers.’ I never shall forget that.”
Greater Little Rock has been working to improve the community for 77 years. That improvement sometimes begins with children. Since 2002, Greater Little Rock has provided a kindergarten program, after-school care, and summer camp for children of all ages at The Rock Child Developmental Center.
The fee is reasonable, and discounts are offered to Greater Little Rock members. The center provides a safe learning environment. There’s even a large basketball court that serves as the gym. The wood floors are shiny and waxed. It looks like the perfect spot for an after-school dance.
“I’d rather the kids have a school dance here than anywhere else,” Pastor Wesley said.
Greater Little Rock also shapes young minds with the Boys to Men program, which pairs up boys and men to share experiences together in a series of planned activities.
“You have to prepare today for where you want to be tomorrow,” Pastor Wesley said. “One day you’re going to wake up and you’re not going to be 17, you’re going to be 27. What kind of preparation have you made? I want to challenge our youth to always be in the frame of mind of preparing themselves for the future.”
Pastor Wesley had that same encouragement growing up.
“Nobody encouraged me toward furthering my education more than Daddy,” Pastor Wesley said. “Growing up it wasn’t ‘If you go to college…’ it was ‘When you go to college…’ It was either college or the military.”
Pastor Wesley chose college. He went to Alabama State and got his bachelor’s degree in communications. He also holds a master’s degree in Christian Education from Selma University and is preparing to go back to school to become better trained in the area of counseling.
Pastor Wesley teaches with a holistic view, meaning he wants to feed the mind, body and soul. During Sunday service, Pastor Wesley sings, praises and even lets out a James Brown sounding “Yeow!”
He tells the church that whatever they are going through in life, God is working to end it. It’s just the kind of message you need to hear to gather the strength to start the week. You can tell Pastor Wesley enjoys what he does and that he will continue to serve Greater Little Rock and the Pensacola community as well as he can for as long as he can.
“I can truly say that I am fulfilled,” Pastor Wesley said. “When I see that young man, knowing what he’s going through, and see God working in his life to take him where he is today. That’s the best feeling in the world.”
Friendship Missionary Baptist Church
It’s Sunday, July 24, Pastor LuTimothy May’s birthday. The church sings “Happy Birthday” during the service and Pastor May discreetly wipes his eyes. When it’s time for him to speak, he jokes that the Family Fun Day they have planned after the service is really just his birthday party.
Pastor May is comfortable with the church. He is, after all, a third generation pastor. However, he didn’t always know that it was his calling in life.
“God knew he wanted me to be a minister long before I knew it,” said Pastor May.
In 1998, at 20 years old, he became consciously aware of his calling. “I played basketball in college, and I was chasing the basketball forever.”
It was when he was having trouble with his feet and had to endure many surgeries that he questioned God. The surgeries were the reason he couldn’t continue his basketball career. The end of May’s hoop dreams was the beginning of his ministry studies.
He studied music at Concordia College in Selma, Ala., where he won many vocal awards. He then went to University of Florida for his bachelor’s in interdisciplinary social science and got his Master of Divinity at Morehouse School of Religion in Atlanta.
For the past five years, Pastor May has been looking to inspire his family, the Friendship church, and challenge them as he was once challenged.
“I hope someone will have been challenged, but also charged as well as committed to press on in whatever journey they’re on with hope,” Pastor May said. “It is my desire that when people leave, they will so believe in the presence of God and that whatever they are currently faced with or will be faced with that they know there is another presence out there that will help manage whatever they’re faced with.”
It’s not always easy to have faith and make the church have faith. “It’s very challenging for preachers to give a message of hope in a world that has so much hopelessness and despair.”
Just as his father, the late Rev. Theophalis May, heard historical buildings cry during his time as a restorative contractor, Pastor May hears the cries of the community. It is those cries that have led Pastor May to come up with the programs that Friendship offers.
“I believe God has commissioned me to hear the cries of people,” Pastor May said. “When I see a young lady or a young man who’s having difficulty taking a standardized test, they may not cry out with their mouth, and we may not hear the cries because they come in subtle ways.”
Sometimes the cry doesn’t come from a person. And sometimes the cries are not heard at all. As much as Pastor May enjoys fulfilling his calling and listening and catering to the needs of his community, the job of a pastor also comes with many grueling tasks.
“It’s not easy to bury one-year-olds and two-year-olds or to go to the scene of a car accident where a loved one has passed away,” Pastor May said. “When people no longer want to even try to be together, and they have a child saying, ‘I want my mom and dad to be together.’ Those things are not gratifying at all. To preach and bury my own father, that was very difficult. It’s not gratifying seeing people who are so in despair that you have nothing to offer them other than the hope that things will change.”
What is gratifying to any pastor is when he or she has touched somebody and made a significant change in her life. For Pastor May, that person is Stephanie Powell.
Powell began going to Friendship when Rev. Theophalis May was pastor almost 11 years ago. She enjoyed the church and her fellow members, but she was unhappy with her place in the church. She tried the mass choir, praise team, usher board and helping with the youth choir.
“I didn’t want to be a bench member,” Powell said. “I thought, ‘There has to be something I can do.’”
After Hurricane Ivan when the remodeling of Friendship was done, Powell noticed the projectors above the altar and thought it would be fun to try the multimedia side of church.
“It became my niche,” Powell said. “I love it. I think I’ve grown into one of the people that I admired when I was younger. It’s a big deal. I remember when I got keys to the church, I thought, ‘I’m somebody. I’ve arrived.’”
Once Powell began working actively with the church, she realized that this may actually be something she would want to do for a living. She went to Florida A&M to major in graphic design, where she was number one in her class. After graduation, she was offered a job with the IRS in Washington, D.C.
When Powell was unsure about moving away to go to college as a first-generation student, Pastor May gave her guidance to push her along.
“Pastor May told me, ‘The Lord will never take you anywhere that His will won’t cover you’,” Powell said.
She only lasted in Washington, D.C. for two and a half months, and was welcomed back to Pensacola and Friendship with open arms. Now she is the media manager at Friendship, where she is in charge of branding the church. She even created a logo for the church. Powell typically spends about 15-20 hours a week either at the church or working for the church. For free. And she does this on top of her job at Pensacola Apothecary as marketing coordinator.
Friendship is the type of church where every member is family. At the 11:30 a.m. service, people are talking and laughing before the service starts. Even though the service lasted almost two hours, people are not ready to leave. They hand their colorful gifts to Pastor May, who accepts them graciously, and socialize with other members.
“We’re a big, happy family,” Powell said. “It’s great to feel like you belong somewhere, and it’s even greater to feel like you’re at home. I take that with me all week, and by the time I need more, it’s Sunday.”
The church fully embraces the younger generation. In a place where children are usually supposed to be seen and not heard, kids are everywhere at Friendship. The youth choir sings beautiful contemporary Christian music and honor-roll students are recognized and given small gifts during the service to award their hard work.
“Once you embrace their culture, then they’re more inclined to say ‘Ok, I know what you’re saying’,” Pastor May said. “The language of our young people is dancing; it is music, it’s text messaging. We’ve done as a church a better job, and we still need to do a better job, at understanding their language.”
Friendship certainly embraces technology thanks to the help of Powell, Facebook, Twitter and even the iPad, which allows the younger crowd to connect more with the church.
“That’s all people want to know is that you’re sincerely and authentically trying to reach out to their needs,” Pastor May said. “We want to maintain our relevance in this present age knowing that what worked yesterday will have to be tweaked. In order for us to be relevant, we can’t be an eight-track ministry in an iPod world.”
Pastor May also stays relevant by teaching Intro to Religion at UWF. He also advises first generation, physically and mentally disabled and low-income students.
“I’m not just talking about God, I’m talking about life,” Pastor May said. “For the first time in many of the students’ lives, they’re away from home. They’re there to start exploring, ‘Who am I really?’”
Pastor May keeps teenagers and young adults in mind with many of the programs that Friendships offers. Through FCAT tutoring, the Youth Ministry, Dance Ministry and Daddy’s Girl ministry, the younger generation is being heard. Young women’s needs are met through the Daddy’s Girl Ministry and Maybe Baby Fridays.
Daddy’s Girl is a special ministry providing teenage girls advice and information on physical fitness, personal hygiene, careers and growing into womanhood—basically girly stuff. The Maybe Baby Fridays is a community service, in partnership with Baptist Hospital, which provides pregnancy screenings in a safe environment. It also offers women access to prenatal care information and other resources in the community.
“There’s more ministry than there are resources,” Pastor May said. “If we just maximize the best we can, I believe that God smiles upon us. Because it’s not about changing the whole world, it’s changing the world that God put you in.”
Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-3O.
Both Pastor Morris and Pastor May quoted the song “A Charge to Keep I Have” when they spoke of their responsibilities of the church. Reading the lyrics and thinking of the work they do, it’s apparent that all three pastors live by those words.
“To serve my present age/My calling to fulfill/O may it all my powers engage/To do my Master’s will!”
Whatever problems you may be facing, whatever questions are unanswered in your life, you can attend services at Bethel, Greater Little Rock or Friendship as well as many other churches and find peace of mind.
“When you walk out of the door and you hear gunshots, or see drugs or helplessness and an economy that’s declining, that’s the sign of the cross,” Pastor May said. “It reminds you of Jesus being nailed and crying. If you can deal with the cross you can deal with anything in life.”
Or you can find comfort in the fact that Jesus is with you when you least expect it.
“God is everywhere,” Pastor Morris said. “If you go to the club, God is up in the club. He may not be backing that thing up, but he’s up in the club.”
As communities within Pensacola grow, it’s a safe bet that the church, whichever one that may be, will play an important role in that growth.
“I believe God will allow us to continue with the ministry and impact the community in a way that empowers and encourages,” Pastor May said.
If you need help with addiction, marriage counseling, a safe and loving daycare, an alternative to expulsion or just a place to vent and be heard, look no further than the church down the street.
“Charity begins at home,” Pastor Wesley said. “Before we do it over there, wherever there is, we have to do it here first. We have to be the light that runs away darkness.”