Englewood, N.J,'s Community Baptist Church Honors Rev. Lester Taylor for 25 Years of 'Gifted' ServiceBlog
Twenty five years ago, Community Baptist Church had a few hundred congregants.
Then came the Rev. Lester Taylor.
Today, the Englewood church has more than 4,000 regular worshipers and a new, larger building.
Once the congregation outgrew its original church, it built a $13 million glass-and-brick house of worship that opened in 2011.
Taylor, 57, who was once the young reverend among senior clergy in the area, has become a leader in that religious community and within the city the church has served for more than eight decades.
On Monday, he will be honored by his congregation with a black-tie celebration at the Venetian in Garfield for his quarter-century of ministry, a rare feat in a transient age when many pastors stay with a congregation for just a handful of years.
“Baptist churches have a tradition of long-term pastorage, but over the years, the terms have gotten shorter and shorter,” Taylor said.
These days, a pastor typically stays with a congregation five to seven years, he said.
“When you’re at a place for this long, you’re really able to establish a vision for your church and see that vision become a reality,” he said. “That’s been a blessing.”
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'A caring person'
Taylor came to Englewood in May 1993 from Bridgeton in Cumberland County, where he was serving in a church’s music department.
Nine months earlier, Clarence Kenner, the pastor of Community Baptist who was planning his retirement, invited Taylor to the church as a guest speaker. He later left Taylor's name with the leadership as his chosen successor.
"He's a gifted pastor," said Shirley Beckham, who has been a member of the church for more than 75 years. "He's a caring person. He's good with the senior citizens and the children."
The character of the neighborhood has changed over the years.
The church, on First Street in Englewood’s historically black 4th Ward, has long held an integral role in the community.
The space is used to hold town hall meetings and candidate debates, and as a polling place on Election Day and a cooling center during heat waves.
“Englewood has always been diverse, but it’s even more so now,” Taylor said. “The neighborhood is not just African-American; there is every ethnicity together within these blocks. All you have to do is sit outside and watch people walk up and down the street. It’s amazing.”
Community outreach has been central to the message of hope and redemption Taylor delivers each Sunday.
Members donate food every month for a mobile food pantry. At Christmas, parishioners buy gifts to deliver to the children of prison inmates and for a program called Toys on the Altar, which provides toys for children of local families in need.
If a church family is struggling to pay a heating bill or is on the verge of getting evicted, a benevolence ministry group steps in to help.
“Even though this is Bergen County, there are people who are hungry, there are people struggling to meet their needs,” Taylor said. "We do what we can."
Taylor ordained the church's first woman deacon in the early 2000s, an example of his philosophy of inclusion, said Harold Oliver, a deacon who has been attending the church since 1985.
"He's not stuck in tradition," Oliver said. "He saw that the leadership was all male and didn't reflect the congregation, and he went about changing that."
On Sundays, despite the large crowds leaving the pews after worship service, Taylor can be found greeting as many parishioners as he can.
"He takes time to relate to people," Oliver said. "We have hundreds of people at each service, but afterwards he's trying to shake everyone's hand and talk to them."
The growth of the church during Taylor’s tenure has been remarkable. But the growth he has seen within the individual parishioners has been more personally meaningful, he said.
“I’ve seen people move from infancy to young adulthood,” he said. “They’ve grown up, gone to college, come back and become part of the leadership here. I’ve seen some of them get married, start their families, establish businesses. That’s growth.”
When Taylor first began his ministry at Community Baptist, members would often line up outside to secure a seat for Sunday services. The overflow crowd would watch the service on a TV in the basement.
The old stone church
It took 15 years from the early planning stages to the opening of the new building in 2011. During the 2½ years the church was under construction, the congregation held services at Bergen Performing Arts Center.
The demolition of the old stone church was an emotional moment for Taylor and his congregation. The church's parishioners and its pastor at the time, the Rev. Joseph Wilson, who was also a mason, had built the structure themselves brick by brick.
"When the demolition team tore down that building, I realized there were people watching this who had worked hard to build it," Taylor said. "This was their work, their blood and sweat. The fact that they allowed this to happen meant they were willing to trust my leadership. That was powerful."