ST. PETERSBURG — Bishop Preston D.H. Leonard, the living pastor with the longest tenure as minister of a single congregation in the city still remembers when his grandfather, who was a slave for 33 years, told him never to stop learning and working.
The leader of Christ Gospel Church of St. Petersburg, located at 22 Second Ave. S, takes these words seriously. For him, there is no such thing as retirement. Leonard has seen the community change in the 58 years he has lived in south St. Pete.
“A black pastor is really different than most white pastors. We, in the black community, get called for many things that others pastors won’t have to,” said Leonard. “I get calls from people all the way for what to do about illness and I don’t know all the answers, so now I’m not just a pastor, but I’m a person who is searching for someone who can take care of that person’s problem,” Leonard added.
Training white bosses
Leonard —originally from Lloyd, Florida — witnessed significant changes in St. Petersburg including two riots and integration.
He also was one of the first black advisers to the Pinellas County School Board.
“When I look back and see how things were and where they have come from, community-wise and church-wise, I can stand up and say thank you, Lord,” said Leonard.
The preacher remembers when certain occupations belonged only to black people. He said he trained three of his bosses only because they did not know the job, but they were white.
“I made much less money than they did, but it was a job,” Leonard said. “In the city of St. Petersburg, [African Americans] were garbage collectors and street workers. When you went to an office, there were no people of color, now things changed,” he stated.
During his ministry, Leonard — also the Presiding Bishop of Christ Kingdom International Fellowship and the International Bishop of the Christ Gospel Churches of Jamaica, and Haiti— has helped people with health issues, those who are incarcerated and others with financial problems.
“I’m gonna try to do my duty here. Now, I don’t do much of the preaching I have an assistant pastor [Tony B. Young Jr.] who is very capable and is also a person very educational-minded,” said Leonard.
He recommends to young pastors not to look at the pulpit as a quick way of getting rich; rather he advises them to take on the mind of a servant.
“You may not make as much as some other mega pastor, you may not drive the best automobile, but if you could really gain the trust and heart of people, [you could] really find what real ministry is. It’s not just preaching a sermon on Sunday morning,” Leonard said.
Leonard considers that south St. Pete’s young black males need help to attain livable jobs.
“There is a great gap,” he said explaining that some people jump to conclusions. “They say you’re lazy, you’re not doing well, there are a lot of things they use as a reason there is a gap,” Leonard continued. “The problem is they’re going to their own mental interpretation and gathering information from their background,” he explained.
The past president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) also considers that education is vital and affirms that he not only tries to encourage it but tries to help.
“We help finance education here, for people in other countries, [and] college students. We will pay for a book or at least give them part of the book stipend. I feel we’re helping the entire society when we do that. I still go to seminars, travel, study, read books, and I try to learn continually,” Leonard said.
This minister has helped the community for more than five decades, but how does he help himself?
According to Leonard, for personal issues, he finds love and support from his family. For community problems, he looks for help from people in the neighborhood.
“My wife [Virginia] and I were parents of seven children, six of them still alive. So far as help for encouragement, that’s all I need to do. My kids really spoil me; they take care of me with food, clothes and even try to boss me,” Leonard said cheerfully. “With the community, when something is bigger than me, I call others to help.”
When he dies, Leonard wishes that, more than sending flowers to his funeral, his friends would contribute to the missions of his church.
“I have no regrets of 57 years here in St. Pete. I have been through a lot; I have had a lot of problems,” Leonard said. “I have nothing to complain about. I am just glad to be a part of the community. I can look back and say if I would die today, I have really been blessed by people.”
Indhira Suero is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.