The call to pastoral ministry and community service are one for the Rev. Lee Wesley.
"The two are inseparable," said Wesley, pastor of Community Bible Baptist Church. "If you're called as a pastor, you're the gatekeeper of the city, and you can't be the gatekeeper if you're not involved in the lives of people beyond Sunday school, Bible study and worship service. I think it's essential that pastors are involved in the community."
Wesley's involvement in both has not gone unnoticed. The 74-year-old Baton Rouge native was recently honored at a banquet and a special church service for his 30 years in ministry and his 50 years of community service.
"There's no way in the world I would have made it these 30 years without the grace of God, without the mercy of God," Wesley said. "All the glory and honor go to him."
One of the founders of Together Baton Rouge, Wesley has always enthusiastically jumped into the call of community service, dating to the early 1960s when he was a student at Capitol High School. He eschewed his call to ministry with the same kind of vigor.
"I have known since I was in elementary that God had a call on my life, but it wasn't something that I wanted to do, so I literally ran from the ministry," said Wesley, who grew up attending Narazene Baptist Church.
Wesley went on to Southern University; worked for state and city government; started his own public relations agency; and worked in the church — all while turning a deaf ear to the call.
That changed when he turned 44.
"It was as if God drew a line in the sand, and said, 'I dare you to cross that line,' " Wesley said. "I may be crazy, but not too crazy, that I would defy something so direct, so clear coming from God. So, it's at that point that I said yes to ministry. … I ran as long as I could. You can't run from God. And, it was obvious to me that I would have no inner peace until I answered the call. I did, and I've been happy ever since."
Wesley preached his first sermon in 1986 at Alpine Baptist Church, where he would later serve as assistant minister. In April 1988, he started Community Baptist Church with 30 people and it has grown to more than 600 members. He has also been the pastor of Plymouth Rock Baptist Church in Plaquemine for 17 years and has started seven mission churches.
Wesley said, at first, he had a misguided view of a pastor's role in community service and affairs.
"I saw pastoring as limiting. What I wanted to do, what I wanted to accomplish would be limited if I became a pastor," he said. "I discovered along the way I could do both. … I've continued my community work as an extension of my pastorship."
Wesley, who is black, founded Community Bible Baptist Church under the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention. He said he first became familiar with the Southern Baptists when he attended a Vacation Bible School training session as a teen.
"I fell in love with their approach to evangelism," he said. "I said at that point at age 16, if I ever became a pastor, I want to be Southern Baptist."
The decision drew criticism.
"When I joined Southern Baptist, many folks chided me for doing that," Wesley said.
Some questioned why Wesley would join with such a "racist organization," he said.
"Southern Baptist have apologized for the positions they took years ago. Southern Baptists are completely opened to African-American churches and pastors," said Wesley, who is one of the longest-tenured black pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention in Louisiana.
He has also served in the predominantly white Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge and the predominantly black Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association, the Congress of Christian Education, the Louisiana African American Fellowship and the Iberville Parish Ministers Conference.
"I've been able to build a bridge between white and black all my life," Wesley said.
That's part of being leader, he said.
"In this culture, you've got to be able to deal with people of all stripes, all cultures, all religions," Wesley said. "If you're going to be a leader, if you're going to speak on behalf of God, you can't do that if you're holding something against somebody else. The two just don't go together. You've got to walk both sides of the street."
Wesley was honored in programs on Oct. 5 and Oct. 7. The first was a banquet at the Mount Pilgrim Family Life Center and included a video presentation, special music and expressions from the East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President's Office and the Rev. Tommy Middleton, of the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge.
"It was great to hear people who have known me for years talk about their experiences with me over the years," Wesley said.
'The Hate U Give'
I saw an advanced screening of the new movie “The Hate U Give” last week. It isn't a Christian movie by any stretch of the imagination. But the film about the fatal shooting of an “unarmed” black teen by a white police officer provoked a few shouts of "Jesus" from a sometimes shocked audience and offered a few spiritual and life lessons.
It was good that promoters screened the film to a diverse crowd in Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was killed two years ago, and asked for feedback. The movie was powerful. Amandla Stenberg, the young star of the movie, was excellent.
I recommend the movie to people of all ages and races, with some caution. What I keep going back to in “The Hate U Give” is that word HATE. Hate is a mighty strong word, and our disdain and dislike for people — especially those who don’t look like us or agree with us — is becoming more prevalent and more emboldened in our nation. People are really showing their heart and true colors with no shame.
I hate to use that word "hate" in reference to people. But Romans 12:9 reminds us what we should love and hate: "Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” That’s how it reads in the New International Version of the Bible. The old reliable King James version puts it this way: “Let love be without dissimulation (pretense). Abhor (hate) that which is evil; cleave to that which is good." Love must be real and without pretense. HATE evil. Cleave, sling, hold tight to what is GOOD.
For some of us, it's easy to cling to what is good. But we can’t stay there; that doesn’t make our Christian living complete in this world. We also must have the courage and heart to hate the evil we witness, hear and read every day.
People have wronged us, talked about, hurt us, even taken away the lives of the people we love. Yet, we must not cling to evil but hate it. If we cannot forgive, it will kill us. We see racism, sexism, police shootings, black-on-black crime, disunity. But we can’t let hate in our hearts and evil overcome us. We have a dual duty: hate evil (fight for justice and right) and cling to what is good (people, causes, opportunities).