Mt. Zion celebrates pastor’s retirement

Godly Servant

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Referred to as a Renaissance man, the Rev. Dr. Edward Rhodes is known for his love of God, groundbreaking law enforcement tenure and bridging the racial divide. Upon meeting him, one also quickly discovers the 75-year-old Cartersville resident has a passion for fly fishing in Alaska, raising beef cattle and proudly sharing pictures of his family.

Shepherding Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church since Feb. 19, 1995, Rhodes will soon bid adieu to another chapter of his career as he officially retires from pastoring April 15.

"I always tell folks that, when I came to Mt. Zion and Cartersville, I learned some new words and I picked up on some new philosophy about life," Rhodes said. "I met here some of the friendliest, loving people that I've ever met in my life, and people who were yearning for teaching and training. One of my deacons said to me last week, 'When you first came here … I didn't particularly like your method of preaching.' He said, 'I was accustomed to a lot of emotions' and he said 'but the more I sat and listened and the more I came to your Bible studies, I developed a greater appreciation for your type of preaching and teaching.'

"[My style] is [I] stand flat-footed and preach the Gospel. I'm not one for moving about in the pulpit,” he said, noting he started his ministry at Cole Street Missionary Baptist in Marietta in 1992. “… When I become emotional is after I have preached the Gospel and I see lives changing. I see people come and give their lives to Christ."

Still driven to spread the Gospel, Rhodes is looking forward to participating in preaching engagements and conducting workshops once he retires. Along with continuing to write a book, other plans include moving to the Roswell area with his wife, Mattie Jean, to be closer to their daughter. Along with two grown children — Keith and Treva — the couple has six grandchildren.

Law enforcement trailblazer

Affectionately referring to his parents as “devout Christians,” Rhodes was born in Taylor, Louisiana, and raised in a Baptist household. While other children were playing outside, he took an interest to his place of worship’s business meetings and was named the church clerk at age 12.

Prior to answering the call to minister, Rhodes graduated from Grambling College in Louisiana in 1965, relocated to Alaska to serve in the Air Force for four years, then embarked on a trailblazing career in law enforcement.

In 1966, he became the first black Alaska State Trooper. After working for the agency through 1982, Rhodes served as the Anchorage police chief for six years. He also was a founding member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives in 1976.

“It was a bittersweet experience, more sweet than bitter,” he said, referring to his work with the Alaska State Troopers. “… I learned so much from Alaska natives. … In the villages [as] state troopers, you’re the doctor. You’re the lawyer. You’re the pilot. You’re everything. They come to you for every need, and we assist them. I always got a great joy in doing for them whatever I could.”

Rhodes also shared he experienced various challenges, discrimination and setbacks due to being the first black trooper, some of which included working on Christmas, being passed over for promotions and not receiving the same residential housing as previous colleagues when assigned to the university campus.

“I never let them know that they got the best of me,” Rhodes said, adding his “faith in God” helped him persevere. “I knew that if I [were] to quit, it would be twice as hard for the next guy.”

As the nation observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wednesday, Rhodes reflected on how his life was impacted by the American civil rights leader’s message.

“My father had instilled in me so much about life and so much about treating people the way you would want to be treated and that no one owed you anything,” Rhodes said. “You work. You achieve. I will never forget that his theory was that 80 percent of education was observation. He always made sure that I traveled, that I excelled academically. … When Dr. King was assassinated, it was a difficult day, because I recognized that it didn’t have to be. I didn’t feel it was necessary to kill the man. But it happened. We lived through it.

“… But the principles that I think he lived for is something that all of us ought to adhere to,” he said, referring to the importance of treating everyone fairly. “… [Dr. King said] ‘We will either survive as brothers or die as fools.’ I think race relationships today [are] what we make out of them. If we want them to be good, we’ll do the right thing. If we want them to be bad, then we’ll treat folks in a derogatory way.”

'A man of God'

In conjunction with the church's 155th anniversary celebrations, Mt. Zion recently presented a pair of festive events highlighting Rhodes' retirement. In March, the gatherings included a Retirement Revival at the Cartersville place of worship, which featured guest speaker Dr. Joel C. Gregory, and a banquet at Tellus Science Museum.

The offerings will culminate April 15. Starting with its 8 a.m. worship service with guests the Rev. Randy Livsey and Ahmad Hall & Friends. Mt. Zion also will present an 11 a.m. gathering featuring the Rev. Samuel Tolbert, president of the National Baptist Convention of America International, and a reception in honor of Rhodes.

"For the past 20-plus years, he's been our pastor, our leader, our teacher," said Bibby Morgan, a deacon at Mt. Zion, who has attended the church for the past 60 years. "He's just been an example of what godly men do and/or say. We're certainly going to miss him, and we know that he'll be available to us should we need him.

"He's been a man of God. … [I will remember] his stories that he used to talk about and how he used them in his sermons the lessons, the individual time spent in conversation, conferences, his leadership abilities [and] his organizational skills."

Situated at 147 Jones St., Mt. Zion currently features about 900 members. Formed by the Rev. Jeffrey Milner, the church initially worshipped under a "bush arbor" in the 1860s.

According to www.mzmbchurch.com, "During the first year the Rev. Milner became pastor, one Sunday in July he preached to his congregation from this text, John 8:36. 'If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.' Some of the slaves went home and told their master that Rev. Milner said they were going to be free.

"The white people who owned these slaves, on the following Monday morning had a gallows built, where the present depot now stands. They placed the hangman's noose around Rev. Milner's neck to hang him but before they tied the knot he preached so strong that many people wept. The mayor of Cassville, Georgia, ordered the crew to cut him down and let him go and preach the word of God."

Along with Milner and Rhodes, Mt. Zion’s pastors have included the Revs. J.P. Gay, Timothy Smith, Humphrey Daniels, J.F. Bright, J.T. Latimore, T.B. Maddox, F.A. Harris, N.T. Thompson, J.C. Adams, George Washington Woodson, S.M. Bryant, M. Rufus Dinkins, Eugene H. Mitchell and Michel S.E. Caldwell.

Spirit of unity

Continuing to connect with fellow believers across Bartow, Rhodes has made a point to mentor other pastors and invite fellow members of the county’s faith-based community to speak at Mt. Zion.

"I'm noted [for having] crossed racial lines, denominational lines, cultural and economic lines. … That's the way I've been all of my life," Rhodes said. "I think that that's one of the problems that we have now is that everybody wants to stay in our own little group and we don't understand other folks. We don't even try to understand them. I know I've preached in as many 'white churches' as I have black churches since I’ve been here.

"… From the day I came here, there have been white, Caucasian preachers and pastors here to preach. … [I hope my legacy will be] that I was known for preaching the fundamentals of the Gospel, that I did more [teaching] and training than anything else, and I was a living example. I have always demonstrated a love for other preachers, especially young preachers, to better equip them and better prepare them."

Carrying on the work that Milner started more than 150 years ago, Rhodes also is delighted to welcome new believers. Over the past two decades, Rhodes has accumulated a host of memorable moments, one of which revolves around a series of baptisms in the early 2000s.

“We have a scheduled Sunday for baptism,” he said. “So I came that Sunday morning. I had like five people to baptize. I baptized them and then had the sermon, and I gave the invitation and two more people got up and came and said, ‘We want to be baptized right now.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ So [I] changed [and] baptized those two.

“[Then I] went in my office and changed, and they were concluding the service. And three more people got up and said, ‘Wait a minute, we want to accept Christ. We want to be baptized today. We heard the message.’ So I went in the pool three times on the same Sunday to baptize. [It was] unbelievable.”

State recognition

In addition to his church’s celebrations, Rhodes also was recognized at the state level in January.

Honoring his "selfless and tireless work as the pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church," Senate Resolution 612 highlighted many of his accomplishments, including his law enforcement career and speaking to the National Baptist Convention of America International three years ago.

“The contributions that he has made to Cartersville and the faith community warranted us to show the respect back to him,” state Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, said. “It’s not often that you have someone of his stature that’s willing to be as vocal about his faith and challenging men to be leaders like he has.”

Welcomed by Thompson, Rhodes also was joined by more than 50 representatives of Bartow's faith community at the state capitol. For the Rev. David Franklin, the opportunity to support Rhodes’ achievement and help transport pastors to the ceremony was a heartwarming experience. 

“[He is] one of those behind-the-scenes guys, but he’s incredibly well-respected and everybody appreciates him and what he stands for,” said Franklin, who serves as the associational missionary for Bartow Baptist Association. “When you think of Edward Rhodes, you think of rock solid, and he treats everybody with respect. 

“… [He is] a person who has lived a lifetime of integrity and service, and [does] things the right way. It’s important to acknowledge that and to honor that. … I don’t know how many pastors were on that bus, but that shows you the kind of respect and regard that the ministers in Bartow County have for him across racial and denominational lines. He’s going to be missed, that’s for sure. He’s one of these guys that you just don’t replace with one person. So it’s going to take a whole group of people to step into his shoes.”

Describing the gathering as “emotional,” Rhodes was honored to be surrounded by his peers.

“It was a demonstration of what I had worked for and prayed about and planned for all of my pastorate, [which] was to bring folks together,” he said. “One of the white pastors there, he wrote me a letter the first time he preached at Mt. Zion. He told me that he felt the freedom to preach the Gospel while he was here that he had never felt before in his life. And he had been pastoring for 30 years.

"… It is unique,” he said, referring to the religious leaders’ spirit of unity. “I’ve been amazed at the cooperation between those in the faith-based community."