February 20, 2003
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Central Chapel A.M.E. this month is honoring Pastor John Freeman’s 10 years of service with the church. The celebration includes several services this weekend.

Central Chapel honors Pastor John

While attending a church camp when he was 16, John Freeman felt that God called him to be a minister. But he didn’t listen at the time. Instead, he spent the next several years playing his keyboards in rhythm and blues bands, wrestling professionally and running a nightclub.

But he finally heeded the call.

“I ran from the calling for at least nine years,” Freeman, 56, said in an interview last week. “But I realized you can’t run fast enough to outrun God.”

Since he stopped running, Freeman has pursued a long and satisfying career spreading the word of God. A minister since 1974, Freeman this month celebrates his 10th anniversary as pastor of the Central Chapel A.M.E. church. The celebration includes a service tonight (Thursday), at 7 p.m., with Elder Ronald Logan of Springfield as guest preacher, and a family fun and game night tomorrow (Friday), at 6:30, at the church’s Education and Family Life Center.

This Sunday, Feb. 23, the celebration concludes with two services. The morning service features the Rev. Dr. Ronald L. Glenn, presiding elder of the third Episcopal District, with singing by the Central Chapel Mass Choir.

In the afternoon the Rev. Dr. Frederick A. Wright, pastor of Wayman A.M.E. Church in Dayton, will preach and the Wayman Choir will sing.

Central Chapel parishioners feel they have a lot to celebrate.

“He’s brought a warm, sweet spirit to the church,” Jonas Bender said of Freeman. “He’s a great preacher, a wonderful man and I’m so proud to have him as our preacher.”

A member of the church for almost 50 years, Ernestine Benning works closely with Freeman as a volunteer secretary.

“I believe Pastor John has brought to us his love, support and assistance,” she said. “He does it with his everpresent smile, his hugs, his handshakes, his gift for teaching, his ministry and, most of all, his prayers.”

Freeman agrees that he and Central Chapel A.M.E. have been a good fit.

“It’s been a good marriage here,” he said of his relationship with his parishioners. “These people have a mind to work.”

Pastor John Freeman clearly thrives when working hard. His parishioners note his long hours visiting his parishioners, his involvement in all aspects of the church, his ability to complete three college degrees while pastoring a church and working as chaplain at Wilberforce University.

“I’ve never seen someone put out the energy that he does,” said Bender, whose own father was a minister. “Not even my father.”

Freeman sees nothing remarkable about tending to the needs of his parishioners — it’s his job, part of the commitment he made to each person in his church when he signed on as pastor. And pastoring a church means being connected to each and every member in a way that goes beyond friendship, he believes. “If you’re family, you’re family,” he said.

Freeman’s high energy level and capacity for hard work surfaced early in his career, when he pastored three churches simultaneously after being ordained in 1974 from Cincinnati Bible College.

“You just do what you have to do,” he said of that experience, adding with a note of pride, “I preached a different message at each church.”

Freeman later cut back to two churches in West Virginia, then transferred to the Southern Ohio Conference, where he served as director of campus ministry at Miami University in Oxford. In November 1992, he came to Central Chapel, which, according to Orlando Brown, had had 18 pastors in the past 50 years.

This time the pastor stayed.

Freeman appreciates how his church stuck by him when his mother died in a car accident in 1993. A “spirit-led” woman, according to her son, his mother ran a grocery store in tiny Switchback, W.Va., was active in church and never received a formal education — he was high-school age before he realized she couldn’t read, Freeman said. Her death prompted in him a desire to finish his own education.

“After her death I got on a pilgramage,” he said. “The church has been understanding.”

He studied for and received his bachelor’s degree from Wilberforce, a master’s from Payne Theological Seminary and, a few years ago, finished a doctorate of ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton.

Freeman’s pursuit of a higher education provided a role model for young parishioners, Jonas Bender said.

“He’s motivated people,” Bender said. “He wanted young people to know that if you got something that should be done, you just tighten up and do it. It’s been marvelous to watch.”

Now that he’s finished his higher education, Freeman stays busy teaching Wednesday Bible study classes, attending board meetings, visiting parishioners, tutoring ministerial students and writing sermons.

A gifted speaker by many accounts, Freeman says sermon-writing is a mysterious process. “It seems you start writing your sermons on the day you are born,” he said. “Some I write, some are spontaneous, some are in concert with the liturgical season and sometimes I wait for God to speak.”

Freeman also brings to worship his talent for singing and playing keyboard, which, several parishioners said, adds vibrancy to the Sunday services. He enjoys incorporating into his services a variety of music, from traditional hymns and gospel music to more contemporary songs.

His lively worship services help keep the church healthy, his parishioners believe. Freeman is proud that Central Chapel has grown “numerically, financially and spiritually” in the past 10 years, with a current membership of about 143 members. While retired people form “the backbone” of the church, Central Chapel also has a growing number of young people, he said, and overall the church membership crosses all age groups.

“You’re going to hear some crying, some cracking of bones, some laughter and some pain,” Freeman said of Central Chapel’s diverse ages and moods.

Under his pastorship, the church has pursued big projects, such as the addition of the Education and Family Life Center, which was completed in 1998 after a multi-year fund drive. Freeman continues to dream big dreams, including his wish to televise Central Chapel worship services and to use the Education and Family Life Center to provide more community outreach services, such as workshops on financial or health issues.

“A church that stays open only on Sunday isn’t much of a church,” he said. “Church service is when you go out and feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the old. God blessed us so that we can be a blessing to others.”

The father of three grown children and husband to his childhood sweetheart, Brenda, who was recently ordained as the church’s associate pastor, Freeman could at age 56 choose to slow down. But, characteristically, he shows no signs of doing so.

“I haven’t finished this race,” he said. “I have not reached perfection. I try to live a holy life, to live as sinlessly as possible. But if I fall by the wayside, I know that failure does not mean I’m finished. I believe God forgives us.”

Pastor John wouldn’t mind staying put for the rest of his pastoral career, and hopes to pastor at Central Chapel as long as he’s able.

“My hope is that I retire from here,” he said, adding in a voice that seemed to already know the answer to his question, “If there’s such a thing as retirement.”

—Diane Chiddister