HAVERHILL — Members of Calvary Baptist Church lauded the Rev. Gregory Thomas for leading the congregation for a quarter of a century at an appreciation service and reception. But the celebration was bittersweet as Thomas announced he is retiring at the end of the year due to mounting health problems caused by complications from hypertension.
“I’m not backing off,” Thomas said. “I’m preaching, teaching, and doing whatever I can. What I want is for other people to understand that their health is important and they have to deal with their health issues.”
Politicians, fellow clergy members and parishioners, said replacing Thomas will be big shoes to fill.
“I have tremendous respect for him,” Mayor James Fiorentini said. “He’s a wonderful man, very caring for his church and for the community.”
Under the leadership of Thomas and his wife Janie, membership at the 140-year-old church has grown by leaps and bounds. The church has burnt the mortgage, acquired new property, revamped a scholarship program for high school graduates going on to college, started a food ministry and a nonprofit development corporation to minister outside the church, as well as established the Rev. Dr. Gregory E. Thomas African American Church Lecture Series.
Fiorentini said he considers Thomas’ best qualities his knowledge and compassion.
“There’s a lot of smart people with no compassion and he is a great asset to his community because he is not afraid to speak out for justice,” Fiorentini said.
Rabbi Ira Korinow, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, agrees.
Several years ago the Menorah at the temple was vandalized and derogatory graffiti was spray-painted on the predominantly church.
“We got together to make a statement of both acts of hatred in the community,” Korinow said.
Twenty-five years ago, Korinow suggested Thomas the temple and the church host a service in memory of Civil Rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which the rabbi said Thomas accepted with open arms. Thomas preaches almost every year at the event.