For 30 years, the Rev. John L. Wright has been preaching the Word at Columbia's First Baptist Church of Guilford. But this month, Wright is just listening.
This Sunday marks Wright's 30th anniversary at First Baptist, and the church will honor him with guest speakers and celebrations.
"He has been an outstanding pastor ... a father to some of the people, a brother to some of them and a son to some of the people," said Leola Dorsey, a 14-year member of the board of trustees of Howard Community College and a member of First Baptist for 62 years.
The preaching series began Feb. 3 with the Rev. Nathaniel Higgs of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore speaking at 8 a.m. The Rev. Larry B. West of New Life Missionary Church in Washington, who trained under Wright at First Baptist, gave the sermon at 11 a.m.
"Your pastor has always been a leader," Higgs told the congregation. "He's such a leader that sometimes other preachers stand back and ask questions."
Wright's resume, which includes earned and honorary doctorates, demonstrates his leadership in church and community. He has held positions at the state and local level, and in groups such as the YMCA, Howard County General Hospital, Walters Art Museum, Morgan State University and Baptist conferences. He has received awards from civic and governmental organizations, and is past president of the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Maryland State Conference of Branches of the NAACP.
"You name it, he's been in it," Dorsey said.
But members of Wright's congregation see him as more than an organizational man. They describe him as "a person you want to follow," "a man whose steps are ordered by God," "a man of vision," "a mentor" and someone who is "kind and loving."
Jenkins J. Odoms Jr., president of the Maryland State Conference of Branches of the NAACP and a longtime member of First Baptist, works with Wright daily in the church's outreach programs. Odoms said Wright is directly engaged with people who need jobs, housing, counseling or rescue from violent home situations.
First Baptist "puts out several thousand dollars" each month, Odoms said, to help people "get back on their feet." These include people of all races and most are not members of First Baptist.
Wright "loves helping people," Odoms said. "He truly is a servant of the people. He's my mentor and I try to walk in his shadow."
When Wright arrived at First Baptist in 1972, there were about 60 active members. Today, church membership stands at about 2,000, with 1,000 active participants. He credits the growth with his efforts to get men involved. "My ministry has been very conscientious of men in the community," he said.
Men attend church, he added, when they "feel accepted" and are given "the important role of men serving God."
The 66-year-old Wright is a native of Baltimore, where he lives with his wife, Ida M. Wright. The couple, who were married in 1966, have one daughter, Sheila Wright of Anne Arundel County. Wright is the fourth pastor in First Baptist's 99-year history. He was introduced to the church by his predecessor, the Rev. Arbie Webb, who at the time lived in the same Baltimore neighborhood as Wright. Before his tenure at First Baptist, Wright did field work for the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.
As he reviewed his years of service, Wright recalled the kindness he had received and he called his leadership abilities a "gift from God." He mourned the many friends he has buried in 30 years, and he said that he is challenged to pass to the next generation the values that older parishioners have left behind.
Wright's biggest disappointments? "You try to work with people and it doesn't always go the way you want it to go," he said. In contrast, the highlights of his ministry are the "people that start going somewhere."
Wright's anniversary celebration continues Sunday and Feb. 17 with guest speakers at services. Revival services are scheduled at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Feb. 15. A closing celebration and reception will be held at 3 p.m. Feb. 17 at the church with refreshments, presentations from church and community members, and remarks by the Rev. W. Franklin Richardson of New York, a leader in the National Baptist Convention.
"The church wanted to give him a big banquet, but he refused to let us do that," said Barbara Harding, a First Baptist deaconess who helped plan the events.
The revival and Sunday services were planned, she said, because "we felt that we were at a point where we needed some spiritual uplifting. ... [Wright's] anniversary is going to be spiritually motivated."