Associate Professor Charles Leonard reflects on Charleston and recalls his early life ‘pact with God’
The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) alumnus and Associate Professor Charles Leonard vividly recalls the morning decades ago when he gave a trial sermon at then Messiah Lutheran Church at 40th and Broad Streets in North Philadelphia. He was a candidate to join the Rev. Michael Merkel on the congregation’s clergy staff. It would become his first call to a congregation.
“A woman in the congregation stood up and said she could not handle having a black man as a pastor in the church,” recalled Leonard, who is associate professor for Integrated Theology and director for Contextual Education at the seminary. He’s been on the faculty for 18 years.
“Her husband embraced her, and then together they walked out of the church,” Leonard remembered. After the service, Merkel said to Leonard: “You may want to take some time to think about this call. There may be more like that in the congregation.”
“No, I’m ready to make the decision today,” Leonard said he told his future colleague. “I’ll take the call.” Leonard said he recognized Messiah Church was in a changing neighborhood. “I wanted blacks coming through the door to see a pastor who looked like them,” he explained.
The woman who stood up asked Merkel to promise her he would bury her when she died. Leonard recalled a remarkable development, however. When the woman later on was in her final illness, Leonard was away on duty with the Naval Reserves. The woman asked Merkel to give Leonard a kiss for her and asked Merkel to convey to Leonard “her gratitude for all I had done,” Leonard remembered.
“I said to myself: ‘Wow, this woman had a 180-degree turnaround.’”
Today, Messiah Church has become Redemption Church of God in Christ. It continues to have a seminary connection because the congregation is served by Bishop Andrew J. Willis, co-founder of the seminary’s Urban Theological Institute, and Willis’s spouse, the Rev. Dr. Gladys Willis.
Fast forward to 2015 and the horrific headlines involving racial turmoil that have come out of Charleston, Baltimore, Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere. What advice does Leonard have for pastoral and lay leaders serving in the city, the suburbs, and, for that matter, rural areas on how to respond to such episodes?
“I believe a major key to moving forward is for congregations in the city and suburbs to develop strategies to contact each other and get their children and adults together to form relationships,” he said. “We need to get people together to know and understand others who do not look like them.” He used as an example a Bible study partnership formed between the largely African American congregation he serves and Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, a mostly white congregation. The study series lasted several years and the study group met at both churches in alternate months. Leonard has served St. Mark’s, located at Broad and Chelten in Philadelphia, since 1992.
Leonard added that, at the recent Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Youth Gathering in Detroit, black, white, and Latino youth interacted while working on service projects in the city. He urges congregations to undertake service learning projects to help their neighbors, working with culturally diverse volunteers as happened in Detroit.
“I think it is important to start with church preschool programs,” Leonard went on. “We need to get our children together and connect our children with others who do not look like them to develop greater understanding. We need for them to see what the world looks like that they are going to be living in. We need to teach children at a young age how to love and forgive the way the families of the Charleston mass murder victims forgave the young man who killed their loved ones.” He added it is important for people in churches to be able to stand up and be open, and “share their feelings about how they feel about what has been going on.”
Leonard has had a fascinating and diverse journey in professional ministry. He grew up one of 12 siblings in Philadelphia, and says he knew at the age of 5 he wanted to become a pastor. He credits his mother and two pastors, one a relative, for influencing his growth. Raised a Baptist, Leonard said he was influenced greatly by the Rev. John Cochran, who oversaw Center City Lutheran Parish and served as a mentor. He was an admirer of Pope John XXIII “and all that he did,” Leonard recalled. He decided the Roman Catholic Church, though, was too authoritarian for him, but came to feel that the Lutheran approach to worship and the church’s theology made sense. “I decided that’s where I belong,” he recalled.
He served Messiah and Holy Cross Lutheran Church after graduating from LTSP, and remained connected with the U.S. Naval Reserves while serving as a pastor. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, he decided to join the military and was told he would serve in the infantry. “I told them I could not do that in good conscience. I could not serve that way when I planned to become a minister and believed in ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’” That’s when he decided to come to seminary and serve as a Navy chaplain in the Reserves while he pursued his career as a pastor.
He later served five years as a Lutheran missionary in Surinam. “I learned a lot there,” he recalled. “The people were incredibly warm and diverse. There were native people, also Chinese, Japanese, Indonesians. My role was to find and raise up future church leaders. I also called on nursing homes and talked and prayed with the people. I led confirmation classes. I worked with Boy Scouts. When it came time to leave, they did not want me to go. They were telling me I was the first African American missionary to come to their country.”
But he decided to come home, believing if he did not leave his overseas appointment when he did he might not find it easy to return. He wanted to pursue a track to become a college or university president. Enroute to pursuing that goal, he ended up as the Dean of Students at Upsala College in Jersey City, New Jersey, then one of 29 Lutheran colleges and universities, and easily the most diverse. The college had thirty percent Caucasian enrollees, twenty-five percent African Americans, and twenty to twenty-five percent Latinos, with a strong mix of international students.
“People at church assemblies used to ask how we managed to become so diverse, what was our secret,” he recalled. The chapter as Dean of Students turned out to be a heartbreaking one, as Upsala ran into financial trouble and closed down after the 1995 graduation exercises.
“I had a student come to me crying, saying she would not have an alma mater,” he remembered. “I told her to get on with her life and she will be OK. I went back to my office and cleaned out my desk, and then I broke down and cried.”
As Upsala was closing, he took a part-time appointment as Dean of Students at Union Seminary in New York City. Several years before, in 1992, he had begun serving his current church, St. Mark’s, working with the Rev. Violet Little. “I don’t know how I did all that,” he remembered. “I had a briefcase and keys for Upsala, a briefcase and keys for Union, and a briefcase and keys for St. Mark’s.”
Then LTSP Dean James Echols persuaded Leonard to serve as director of Contextual Education at LTSP, and Leonard decided it would be easier to juggle his roles in education and parish ministry closer to home.
“I believe both the seminary and the congregation have benefitted from my dual role in Philadelphia,” Leonard said. “I know in my teaching my work in the trenches for a congregation has been most helpful.” He said the passion he feels in shepherding people in a congregation “gives me energy, feeds my life, and makes me stronger.” This fall he will teach the seminary’s Pastor as Theologian course.
Thinking of the 2015 Youth Gathering, he said he was gratified to see former students looking for him. “Some of them thanked me for getting them through their fieldwork assignments and helping them to become the leaders they are. That meant a lot.” Over the years, he has visited at least 100 fieldwork education sites including in Argentina, Germany, and Bratislava, working diligently to advise congregations and students on their respective roles.
“I think God has used those of us who are African American pastors to not only serve black people but also to help make the church what God has intended it to become,” Leonard said.
“I haven’t told many people this, “ Leonard said. “But I remember praying in college that I intended to give my whole life to God. I made a pact with God. I said, ‘You take and lead me. I know my strength will come from you,’ and God has moved me here and there to all of the places that I needed to be.”