There aren’t many ministers preaching into their 90s.
Even fewer have stuck with a central-city church they helped create 71 years ago, and fewer still who have been married for 67 years, and have served as lead pastor of their congregation for 52 years.
But the Rev. John Roberts, pastor of Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, is a rarity: a rock of stability in one of Toledo’s rough-and-tumble neighborhoods.
“He sets an example for commitment,” said the Rev. Cedric Brock, pastor of Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Interdenominational Ministers’ Alliance, which represents more than 60 churches.
“He’s an excellent example of one who has been steady, one who has been firm, and one who has been committed. He has wisdom that goes with his commitment. He’s been an awesome mentor. Associate pastors all over the community look up to him,” Pastor Brock said.
Pastor Roberts is an “Old School” minister who literally built his church from the ground up, Pastor Brock said.
Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church was founded in February 1946 by its first pastor, the late Rev. W.J. Stephenson.
Pastor Roberts, a teenaged usher and choir member at the time, also was one of the founding members. He moved to Toledo from Bryant, Miss., in 1944, less than two years before Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church was founded.
Before he became pastor, he also assumed roles at Indiana Avenue as church janitor, trustee, deacon, and Sunday school teacher. He was educated at Toledo Bible College, and was valedictorian of his undergraduate class when he earned his bachelor of arts in religious education degree in 1975. He subsequently earned his master of theology degree in 1984 and his doc-tor-ate in biblical theology in 1985, both from International Bible Seminary.
Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, 640 Indiana Ave., is an outgrowth of Central Baptist Missionary Church at 821 Junction Ave. Its congregation met temporarily on Ewing Street, and moved to a basement on its present site in April 1949. At the time, it had 50 to 75 members, many of whom marched and sang in a processional from Ewing Street to Indiana Avenue on the day the move occurred.
The Rev. Roberts took over as Indiana Avenue’s fourth pastor on Jan. 17, 1965. He was the driving force behind a series of construction projects that made it the church it is today for a congregation of nearly 2,000 people. More than 7,000 people have been members over the years. All three of his sons have been involved with the church min-is-try.
Pastor Roberts’ role in stabilizing lives through spiritual guidance cannot be over-stated, Pastor Brock said, adding that he — like other pas-tors in the African-American community — meets one-on-one with people from all walks of life, including gang members, drug addicts, and others with risky behavior.
“It means you’ve got a gatekeeper who’s been a peacekeeper,” Pastor Brock said. “He speaks to people who are on the firing line. He gives them a direction of peace and quiet. They look to us to be more than pastors. They want us to be involved with the streets.”
For his part, Pastor Roberts is modest about his achievements.
Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church is across the street from Family House, one of the city’s only shelters for homeless families. The church is one of the shelter’s supporters.
He’s proud of how Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church has grown physically into an anchor building under his leadership. But he doesn’t dwell on it.
A street is named after him, as is the church’s fellowship hall that bears his name and that of the Rev. Stephenson.
Nice gestures, Pastor Roberts agrees, but nothing he wants to brag about.
“It’s mostly just for being around a long time,” he says tongue-in-cheek, shrugging off the significance.
Nor is he interested in questions about whether he has given any thought to retirement.
“We’re not talking about that,” Pastor Roberts said politely but firmly.
He said he’s proud of the classes and other activities, such as basketball and other sports, that have grown at the church over the years. Workshops have included ones on drug abuse, sexual issues, and how people should respond if stopped by police. The church also has provided college scholarships.
“We’ve always had a group of people who loved each other,” Pastor Roberts said. “We try to help the person physically and spiritually. We try to prepare them for living a Christian life.”
That, he confesses, is “harder to do now than it was years ago” because of the innumerable ways people are getting distracted — not just by substance abuse, but also through digital technology filled with fake news and disinformation on social media.
Pastor Roberts jokingly made a point during the interview of how people should look on their cell phones to see what the Holy Spirit is texting them. He said they need to be wary of lies from others and know “what spirit is texting you.”
He defers to a passage in 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, which talks about the pitfalls of people who don’t embrace truth and suffer consequences when they are sent delusions by God.
“God gets tired of lying and intervenes,” he said.
Throughout most of his journey at Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, his wife of 67 years, First Lady Mother Bernice Roberts, 82, has been at his side while also active in Sunday school and other church activities.
He credits her for their long and successful marriage.
“She’s a good person,” Pastor Roberts said. “I’ve tried hard to do what’s right.”
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