By Yadira Betances
---- — 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.
“He preaches a fire and brimstone sermon which is well-received by our community,” Korinow said. “I learned from him, not to stand by when you see something wrong. It’s important to express your feelings and do something to right that wrong.”
In addition, Korinow said Thomas is a good listener and teacher.
“He has brought the church to have tremendous respect in the community and he himself is well respected in the city as a pastor and leader,” Korinow said. “I have no doubt that even after he retires, his voice will be heard in the church and in Haverhill.”
Ronald Tucker met Thomas about 15 years ago while both men were getting prescriptions filled at the pharmacy.
They began a conversation and Thomas invited Tucker to Calvary Baptist. Tucker became a deacon and preached his first sermon as a minister in October.
“That meeting was a life-changing experience for me because it made me see church as real, not just as a tradition,” Tucker said. “I’m going to miss him as my pastor, my friend and someone I can go to when I feel like talking about anything.”
Tucker said Thomas has been a big supporter during his daughter’s battle with sickle cell anemia and when his father died in New Jersey, Thomas drove to the funeral.
“Those are things that you never forget and they are a sign of being a real friend,” he said. “He’s an example for all of us because even when his body is ailing, he doesn’t waver from his faith. He believes that God is real and that all things are possible through him.”
Thomas also helped Ryan Tankersley find a calling to the ministry. Although he had considered joining the ministry before coming to Calvary Baptist two years ago, he said Thomas encouraged him further.
He not only helped Tankersley enter Gordon Conwell Theological School, but taught him preaching techniques, how to conduct funerals and gave him the opportunity to lead Bible studies.
“I consider him as my father in the ministry,” he said. “Growing up, ministers were my hero and he reminds me of those heroes because he has a strong faith in God which he demonstrates in how he lives,” he said.
Despite his failing health, Thomas continues to lead services, speak at conferences throughout the state and tend to people’s spiritual needs.
“He continues to lead by faith and that’s really what makes him a hero,” Tankersley said.
Erika Moreno has been attending Calvary Baptist Church for the past 10 years. “He is my spiritual father, my mentor and friend,” said Moreno of Methuen.
“This is time for him to rest and share even more with others, but in a selfish way, I’m going to miss him as my pastor,” she said.
One of Thomas’ qualities Moreno enjoys is his eagerness to impart his knowledge with others.
“He is someone who invests in other people and wants to see others succeed. He always has an encouraging and has kind words to say to others. He has the type of smile that gives you such peace, comfort and joy regardless of what is going on in your life,” Moreno said.
Moreno and other church members said Thomas has been able to accomplish so much in the church and in his personal life, thanks to his wife Janie.
“It was her faith that is why he is with us today. The way she cares for him is describable,” she said.
Born in Cleveland, Thomas’ parents were both deacons in the church. He was active in scouting, Sunday School, youth choir and Vacation Bible School.
Thomas has a degree in history from Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, where he was a standout football player. He tried out for the Cleveland Browns but was cut, which he said made him focus on his academics and the ministry.
Thomas sees a similarity between playing on the gridiron and the ministry.
“There’s a lot of parallel in terms of team work, understanding that is what wins games. The coaches will tell you be as good as you can be and at church we ask people not just do mediocre work, but do the best they can,” Thomas said.
He has a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in ministry from Boston University School of Theology. Thomas is purising a doctorate degree in practical theology at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Germany.
In his years in the ministry, he has taught at Geothe University, Harvard Divinity, Gordon Conwell Theological School and Leslie College.
He considers the highlight of his years at Calvary to be seeing children grow up in the church and become productive members of society.
Thomas credits his wife for leading the youth ministry. “We need to be there, be advocates for them in the neighborhoods and in the church. This has had a profound affect on the entire church.”