Through tears, church recalls pastor

Congregation soothed by thought of slain minister in heaven

July 19, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Black mourning cloth hung over the doorway of Bibleway Free Will Baptist Church and draped the empty chair of its pastor, Bishop Junior Lee Gamble.

But the mood that hung over yesterday's 2 1/2-hour service was not so much sorrow or outrage for Gamble's killing Thursday, but joy and thanksgiving that a beloved leader was with God.

"We know where our shepherd is. He's in heaven with God. Praise God," said Lorraine Perrin, who led the morning prayer.

Gamble, 73, was shot twice in the head and killed outside his home in Park Heights. Police believe the killing was the result of a botched robbery. Police said yesterday that they have no suspects.

They plan to distribute leaflets to motorists today on Reisterstown Road, advertising a Metro Crime Stoppers reward of up to $2,000 for anyone with information that leads to an arrest and indictment.

While police continued their investigation, more than 250 members crammed into Bibleway Free Baptist Church on Maine Avenue in Northwest Baltimore to celebrate the life of the man who had been their leader for 39 years.

"By and by, when the morning come, when the saints are gathered home, we'll tell of the story of how we overcome, and we'll understand it better, by and by," they sang.

Evangelist Deborah O'Neil told congregation members that they should be grateful for the many years they had Gamble. "Truly, we are a blessed church," she said.

But Bonita Savage said she was trying to make sense of the loss. She was married by Gamble on July 10 and was on her honeymoon in Nassau, Bahamas, when she heard he had been killed.

"I knew Bishop when I was a little girl," she said. "When I saw that black draped over his chair, I couldn't hold it back."

Not only had Savage grown up in one of the churches he led, but she had worked six years for him as a church secretary. "He was very kind. He did whatever he had to do to make you happy," she said.

Although a stern preacher, Gamble had a wide smile, she recalled. "The children would just gather around him after the service," Savage said.

Elder Wayne Parker, who preached yesterday's sermon, told church members that Gamble's death was part of God's plan. "Even now in this hard time, God is good," he reminded them.

Parker said the words for the sermon occurred to him a few hours before he was scheduled to preach. He used the pulpit to try to answer the questions some might have about Gamble's death.

"Why Bishop and why now? Because Bishop had fulfilled his mission and had an appointment to go home," Parker said.

While some might wonder why Gamble was fatally shot, Parker told members of the congregation that the way one dies doesn't matter. Although he died violently, Gamble received his wish of dying quickly, Parker said.

While Gamble's body was destroyed, his spirit was taken to heaven -- before the shots were fired, Parker said. "The real Bishop is saved," he said.

The congregation stood, clapped and cheered.

Then he turned the question away from Gamble and to the congregation, asking members if they were prepared for their deaths. "Are you ready to depart?" he asked.

After yesterday's service, church members said they believe Gamble is in heaven, and they bear no ill will toward the killer. "We don't believe in vengeance," said Taria Reeder.

Deacon Norman Wiggins, a member of the men's choir, said Gamble would have been pleased with the service and the unshaken faith of his flock. "You can't question God," he said.

Pub Date: 7/19/99

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