Long­time Peters­burg pas­tor Grady Pow­ell bids farewell

The Progress-Index - - FRONT PAGE - John Adam Staff Writer

PETERS­BURG — Rev. Grady W. Pow­ell, now 85 years old, has spent 57 years in Peters­burg: Gill­field Bap­tist Church’s for­mer pas­tor has been here since he was 28. Upon re­flec­tion, he laughs at this now.

“I had al­ready planned that I was go­ing to be here for ten years,” he said, smil­ing. “I was go­ing to be here, then go out to find another con­gre­ga­tion to serve.”

Pow­ell never got around to leav­ing: the clos­est he came was in the 1970s, when he was of­fered a job in Detroit. But he stuck around.

“There was al­ways one more thing for me to do in Peters­burg,” he said.

Af­ter all these years, Pow­ell is fi­nally mov­ing on. He and his wife, Ber­tie, are mov­ing to North­ern Vir­ginia in Novem­ber.

“There are so many good peo­ple that have chipped in some­thing pos­i­tive for me, es­pe­cially a lot of peo­ple in Peters­burg” he said. “It didn’t mat­ter what race they were, or their re­li­gion.”

Sit­ting in the con­fer­ence room at Gill­field, the sto­ries from his 37 years of preach­ing flow out of him.

Pow­ell was born and raised in Bruns­wick County and at­tended col­lege at St. Paul’s Col­lege in Lawrenceville.

Pow­ell took the job as pas­tor at Gill­field in June of 1961, tak­ing over from for­mer Pas­tor Wy­att Tee Walker, who left Gill­field to go work with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the South­ern Chris­tian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence.

When Pow­ell took over, Jim Crow laws were still in ef­fect in Vir­ginia and across the coun­try. Peters­burg was no ex­cep­tion, as racism was still very much present in many facets of ev­ery­day liv­ing.

“The racial cli­mate here was not easy,” said Pow­ell. “No­body hated [African-Amer­i­cans], it was just the way things were done.”

Just four months af­ter Pow­ell took over from Walker, in Oc­to­ber 1961, Ku Klux Klan mem­bers, in re­sponse to Walker’s civil rights ac­tivism, burned a cross out­side Gill­field dur­ing a ser­vice.

“Some per­sons who didn’t know thought I was Wy­att Walker,” said Pow­ell. “So they burned a cross in front of the church.”

The KKK mem­bers were based out of Me­chan­icsville and had been meet­ing in Et­trick be­fore burn­ing the cross at Gill­field.

“It was shock­ing,” said Pow­ell of see­ing the burn­ing cross. “Never had seen it in my life. We were in re­vival, when you have an ex­tended preach­ing ser­vice. One of the ush­ers came down the aisle run­ning while we were singing and gave me a lit­tle piece of pa­per that said a cross was be­ing burned in front of the church.”

Thank­fully, no dam­age was done to the church, as po­lice and fire per­son­nel put out the fire. Pow­ell led the con­gre­ga­tion out of the church so they could see the the cross as it burned.

“I re­ally wish we had got­ten that cross back to have it here,” said Pow­ell. “So peo­ple could see it.”

The whole saga served as an early marker of Pow­ell’s time in Peters­burg: a ten­ure that was de­fined by bring­ing peo­ple to­gether and slowly march­ing the city away from the cross that burned in front of Gill­field in 1961.

Through­out his ten­ure, Pow­ell strove to en­gage in what he called “ecumin­ism,” or reach­ing out to all de­nom­i­na­tions and races in Peters­burg.

“When I came here, the pre­de­ces­sors of Gill­field and Zion had started a joint Thanks­giv­ing ser­vice,” said Pow­ell. “I said to the pas­tor at Zion, ‘I think we ought to ex­pand that.’”

Through­out the years, Pow­ell con­tin­ued to work with all peo­ple and re­li­gions to fos­ter un­der­stand­ing, as well as ac­cep­tance. In ad­di­tion to the joint Thanks­giv­ing ser­vice, Pow­ell re­called at­tend­ing a meet­ing of the Peters­burg Min­is­te­rial Union, which was made up of re­li­gious lead­ers from around the city. At that time, in 1965, there were no black mem­bers of the union.

“Three per­sons came out to wel­come me: one was Bos­ton Lackey, who was the pas­tor at Christ and Grace Epis­co­pal Church: another was Robert Vaughan, who was the pas­tor at Sec­ond Pres­by­te­rian Church: the other was a rabbi named Solomon Ja­cob­son [of Tem­ple Brith Achim]. They all wel­comed me, and that was won­der­ful at that time,” said Pow­ell.

Along these same lines, Pow­ell was asked to preach at St. Joseph Catholic Church. He was the first bap­tist preacher, and the first black preacher, to preach there. Pow­ell noted that some mem­bers of both churches, in­clud­ing Gill­field, were not okay with this. Even so, “that night, St. Joseph’s was over­run with peo­ple,” said Pow­ell.

Another sem­i­nal mo­ment in Gill­field’s his­tory hap­pened un­der Pow­ell’s watch. The church be­came the first black bap­tist church to or­dain women as dea­cons. In the early sev­en­ties, Lula E. All­good and Bar­bara Myles were the first women to be­come dea­cons.

Pow­ell de­cided to make this move af­ter re­ceiv­ing a tele­gram from the women who served on the board of ed­u­ca­tion of Amer­i­can Bap­tist Churches. The women said that they were dis­ap­pointed that they were not asked for in­put on the new di­rec­tor, and noted that no women were con­sid­ered for the po­si­tion.

“That hit me like a thun­der­bolt,” said Pow­ell. “Sud­denly I wasn’t so happy about my­self. The peo­ple I served had been ig­nored.”

It was out of this ex­pe­ri­ence that Pow­ell fig­ured it was time to change and give the women mem­bers of his con­gre­ga­tion more of a voice.

“It was so un­usual that lo­cal news sta­tions got in con­tact with ABC, and it got on the na­tional news,” said Pow­ell.

Much like his pre­de­ces­sor Wy­att Tee Walker, Pow­ell was no stranger to the Civil Rights move­ment, which reached its zenith while he was at Gill­field. Pow­ell trav­eled to Mont­gomery, Alabama, in 1965 to take part in the vot­ing rights marches or­ga­nized by civil rights lead­ers. Pow­ell stayed overnight with a fel­low pas­tor, John Cross, while he was in Mont­gomery.

“John and his wife put me in the guest bed­room, which was in the front of their house,” said Pow­ell. “They told me that if I heard any com­mo­tion dur­ing the night not to go near the win­dows, be­cause it could’ve been the seg­re­ga­tion­ists, or the Klan.”

The next day, Pow­ell joined other marchers as they fin­ished the march from Selma to Mont­gomery.

Pow­ell would re­tire as the preacher of Gill­field in 1997, though he re­mained a sta­ple in the church con­gre­ga­tion and the com­mu­nity. He gave his last sermon to the con­gre­ga­tion on Oc­to­ber 8, as he un­of­fi­cially said good­bye.

“I’m go­ing to miss the won­der­ful con­gre­ga­tion of Gill­field, and the other good pas­tors I have known,” he said.

Pow­ell noted that he was very proud of his five chil­dren, San­dra, Dorthula, Grady Jr., Her­bert and Eric. All of them are grown-up now.


Rev. Grady Pow­ell out­side of Gill­field Bap­tist Church on Oc­to­ber 12, 2017. Pow­ell was the pas­tor at Gill­field for 37 years. He and his wife are mov­ing up to North­ern Virg­nia af­ter nearly a life­time spent in Peters­burg.


Rev. Grady Pow­ell holds an ar­ti­cle from 1997 an­nounc­ing his re­tire­ment out­side of Gill­field Bap­tist Church on Oc­to­ber 12, 2017.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.