Pastor C. Dennis Edwards has not always willingly done what he was called to do.
"But I have always loved church," says Edwards, 75.
Edwards will be honored this Sunday for serving 45 years as pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, at 2501 Main St. in Little Rock.
Church has always been a part of life for Edwards, who grew up the middle child with two sisters. His father drove trucks and worked in construction, and his mother was a domestic.
"There was much fun in our house when I was growing up," he says.
Sunday mornings, though, were for getting up, getting ready for worship.
"You did not read the comic strips or anything like that -- you were getting ready to go to church," Edwards says. "The only reason that you did not go to church was if you were sick, and then I was so glad that I could stay home and watch 'Heckle and Jeckle' on television."
He joined the church when he was 10.
"There were 21 of us who joined church during a revival and we were all baptized in Rock Creek," he says. "I was the first of the 21 baptized that day."
It took place in late spring around the area of 36th Street, from what he can recall, with all those to be baptized dressed in white.
"The congregation would be singing as the deacons were bringing the candidates out," he says. "Oh, it was beautiful to hear the songs on that water, and the pastor would have words sometimes, almost preaching."
He became an usher and started singing in the choir.
"It was during that time that I was becoming more spiritually mature through the Bible studies, and I just felt this irresistible urge to preach," he says.
He tried to resist but even dreamed of preaching -- he would picture congregants staring stone-faced as he gave sermons, no matter how he tried to change things up to gain their interest.
"They were getting up and walking out," he says. "I thought that meant the Lord was saying this was not for me."
He was 15 when he gave his first sermon, on a Wednesday night in November 1963.
"I was scared to death," he says. "You were given no training, no instructions, you were to deliver a message that you felt the Lord had given you. You did not preach from the pulpit but from the main floor, until you had received a license from the church."
The pastor was impressed with his first sermon and invited him to sit near the pulpit and the church voted that night to grant Edwards a license. He was invited back the next Sunday and subsequent second Sundays after that.
"That was a privilege and I appreciate him," says Edwards, who has a picture of that man, Ed Doyle, on the wall of his office at the church. "He had that much faith in me and he made sure I got opportunities to preach and he opened doors for me."
He was the pastor of a small church in Cato when he was invited to be pastor at St. John, where he had been a guest speaker several times. He declined.
"I said, 'Before I leave here the Lord will have to make me leave.' That was in July," he says. "By September I was begging the Lord to tell me whatever and I would do it because my world had seemingly turned upside down."
He was challenged as a pastor after a fire at St. John in November 1976. Services were held in a nearby recreation center until it was replaced two years later.
"Then in 1984 or '85, we had a case of arson and we lost everything we had," he says. "Bill Clinton was governor then and he was a friend and he was one of the first faces I saw that morning. He came by and wanted to know if there was anything that he would be able to do for us."
In May 1997, he was asked to move to the Southern Baptist Church in Cincinnati. He had a relationship with that pastor and the church before the pastor died. He again tried to resist. He vowed to go only if the pulpit committee interrupted its process and voted unanimously to recommend him as pastor. That congregation then vote unanimously to accept that recommendation.
Ten years later he felt the same strong pull to return to St. John, where church members had dedicated a new building to him during his hiatus.
"I wouldn't have let them do that if I had been here," he insists.
He has received numerous awards and recognitions -- honorary degrees from Arkansas Baptist College and Philander Smith College, a day of honor in Cincinnati and more.
"But to me what's meaningful is seeing positive changes in the lives of people who have grown spiritually because of my ministering to them ... and they are different people today because of that," he says. "That means more than any plaque that can be given or any amount of financial remunerations."
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