The votes have been tallied, the results are in and the Rev. Lee Turner, beloved nephew of longtime pastor James E. Coffee, is the newly elected senior pastor of the Santa Rosa congregation of Community Baptist Church.
A kaleidoscope of the community, Community Baptist houses the largest multicultural congregation north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Its pastor, the Rev. James Coffee, was a gigantic presence in the community. In spite of the ongoing grieving process for the reverend, who passed away this past April, folks in the community are breathing a deep sigh of relief at the news of an elected successor. Says trustee Sarah Lawrence, "We're going to hold hands, stick together and continue to move through this."
While the Sunday service has been uplifting, it's clear the church has still been in mourning. The sign out front still bears Coffee's name; his wife of 56 years, Vivian, is often seated alone just a few rows from the pulpit; and the answering machine still bears her warm greeting. "You have reached the Community Baptist Church," it says. "Rev. James E. Coffee is the pastor."
Even while it was no secret that his health seemed to be in rapid decline, Coffee's robust spirit and cheerful demeanor never waned. The election of his replacement was observed by some to be progressing at a snail's pace—that is, once it finally got underway. Yet throughout the process, there was a respect for the collective grief members, the Coffee family and the community have been undergoing, myself included.
Losing a parent is never easy. My mom and dad passed somewhat unexpectedly. Not a day goes by when I don't think of one or both. The Rev. Coffee and Ms. Vivian became my surrogate parents when I came to Santa Rosa. As leader of the flock on Sonoma Avenue, Coffee developed wings large enough for anyone who needed love and support. As an East Coast city girl from a large family, it didn't take long for me to fit right in at CBC. Then and now, it feels like home, and I, too, am glad the election is over.
Being "groomed" for 15 years, the Rev. Turner says the process has "taught me to continue to practice patience," adding that "it's extremely humbling that so many would place their trust in you as the leader of this institution. I want to do the best job that I can.
"It's a very delicate process," he continues. "We've got to continue moving ahead with the powerful foundation created in the church by pastor and Mrs. Coffee. Because of his toiling in the fields, we are strong. People don't generally like change, but it's part of the human condition. As I watched him over the years, I know the congregation was also watching me. My goal was to support the work of Pastor Coffee. He was training me to lead one day, somewhere."
After the vote, new first lady Tracy Turner was all smiles as she was enveloped by the congregation with hugs, kisses and congratulatory well wishes. At the same time, she kept a watchful on their sons, both traveling through the hall in their wheelchairs. (Unlike Mrs. Coffee, also at church Sunday, Mrs. Turner didn't don a hat, which traditionally women wear on Sunday at predominantly black churches).
Importantly, pastor-elect Turner has the same open-door policy as Pastor Coffee. Over the past months, the cluttered office still looks the same as when Coffee presided, yet that will no doubt change, too.
"One of the things I love is I don't have to be apart from the people," says Turner. "It's not about me, Lee Turner, and it's not just me. We've got a great body in this congregation."
As for the cluttered church office décor? "Stay posted," says Turner.
That's called the future. I'm happy the office door is still open.
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