Accountant who became pastor now figures in spiritual lives

April 27, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

For 14 years, Victor E. Sawyer worked as an accountant, having left his West African home in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1969 to study accounting at Howard University in Washington.

"The feeling was you do something that will make you a lot of money, and I kind of bought into that," he said. "I enjoyed dealing with figures at the time."

Then, in the 1970s, Mr. Sawyer's ambitions began to change. "I felt a strong urge to go into the ordained ministry," he said. In 1980, he entered Howard's Divinity School, and he graduated in 1985.

Now, each Sunday finds him at the pulpit of Locust United Methodist Church in Simpsonville, near Columbia. He is pastor of the oldest black United Methodist church in Howard County.

"I like to be around people," said Mr. Sawyer, who took over as leader of the 240-member congregation in June 1990. "Accounting didn't give me that opportunity."

Originally named Locust Chapel, the historically black church was created on Aug. 10, 1869, when three trustees obtained a $25 deed.

"The church was founded because slavery had just been abolished and people who settled here were former slaves desiring a place to worship," Mr. Sawyer said.

The church sits on Martin and Freetown roads, near Atholton High School, in an area named Freetown in the late 1860s because freed blacks had settled there, said Lillie B. Dorsey, the church's historian.

When the United Brethren and Methodist churches merged in 1968, the church's name was changed to Locust United Methodist Church.

Many of the church's current members have attended the small church for almost 50 years, said Mrs. Dorsey, a 24-year member. "They comprise the backbone of the congregation," she said.

Mr. Sawyer said he thinks Locust will continue to grow because of its emphasis on spirituality and comprehensive Bible study classes. Nearly half of the congregants are recent arrivals in Columbia.

To accommodate the growth, the minister said, he would like to build a new 400-seat sanctuary on the church's five acres.

The small white church with wooden pews and 150-seat sanctuary still relies on a well for its water. Simpsonville, which predates Columbia, did not get water and sewer service when Columbia was built.

"We have tried to get running water 10 to 15 years ago, but there's a cost involved," said Mr. Sawyer, who lives in a parsonage next door to the church with his wife, Sylvia, and one of his two daughters.

The church is expected to hook up to county water and sewer lines this year, now that Beth Shalom Conservative congregation is building a synagogue on nearby Guilford Road. The Jewish congregation was granted running water and sewer for its synagogue, which should be completed by January 1995.

Because the synagogue sought the church's views on the zoning questions, the two diverse congregations have established a rapport. Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen and Mr. Sawyer have exchanged pulpits, and last year the rabbi taught vacation Bible school at the church.

"We felt right at home," said Rabbi Cohen. "We have found the Locust United Methodist Church, its membership and pastor to be open, warm, supportive and loving."

Mr. Sawyer said he is glad the synagogue is coming because it will improve the appearance of the once-neglected neighborhood and provide more good neighbors.

"We have a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood," Mr. Sawyer said.

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