As a young boy, "I had the intonation toward the ministry," said George Thomas.
Describing himself as "a quiet little boy," he feels that his calling to become a pastor was nurtured during his childhood years attending Warren AME Church, sitting in Sunday School classes and listening to sermons by the Rev. G. Horace Jenkins.
Tomorrow, the Rev. Thomas, now 74, returns to Warren to preach at the 11 a.m. service. His visit, part of the Collingwood Boulevard church's 145th anniversary celebration, will feature a sermon titled "I Remember Warren."
"My intonations to the ministry started at a very young age - very young," Mr. Thomas said. "At what age, I don't remember. But I was always in touch with something spiritual deep inside me."
In an interview from Atlanta, where he now lives, Mr. Thomas said that growing up in a single-parent home, the church was like a family to him.
"From the beginning, the persons who supported me most during my childhood were members of Warren AME," he said. "This was invaluable to me, because I was reared without a father. Only my mother was there for her three children."
Mr. Thomas lived in the Albertus Brown Homes, attended Gunckel Elementary School, and graduated from Libbey High School in 1949. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Toledo and while at UT worked at The Blade as a copy messenger and librarian.
The gregarious minister has had a lifelong love of learning.
He studied at Oberlin School of Theology; Andover Newton Theological School, and, in 2001, at age 69, was awarded a Merrill Fellowship to study at Harvard Divinity School.
"I was 70 years old when I studied at Harvard, everybody else was 25 years old or younger," he said with a chuckle.
Mr. Thomas' first pastoral position was at St. Mark Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Boston in 1961, where he led the church from mission to independent status.
He then worked in the headquarters of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, serving as minister of church and community and then assistant to the minister/president for program development and planning.
In 1976, he said, he was told that his position on the conference executive staff was going to be eliminated.
"I was the only black on this executive staff, and it unnerved me," Mr. Thomas said.
He and his wife, Delores, and their four children had just moved into a large house in Newton Center, Mass.
"I didn't know what in the world I was going to do," he said. "Then a strange thing happened to me. Very strange."
A letter arrived from Riverside Church, the prestigious New York City interdenominational church built by John D. Rockefeller.
A search committee at Riverside Church was looking to hire another minister as part of a three-minister collegium, Mr. Thomas said. But when he responded to the letter, he was told that the committee had narrowed the field of 100 applicants to three finalists.
He was interviewed nevertheless, and then called back for another interview, then a third one. The committee decided to expand the pool of finalists to four, and ultimately hired Mr. Thomas for the position of minister of outreach and institutional relations.
"When I got in that pulpit for the first time, I remember I was nervous about it," Mr. Thomas said. "The whole world would be there. All those chairs were filled with people - a lot of blacks, Africans, Asians, every once in a while there would be Buddhists in their garb sitting in the congregation!"
He served at Riverside until 1986, when he moved to Atlanta to become senior minister of First Congregational Church.
Mr. Thomas moved to Chicago in 1994 to serve as interim minister of the 1,000-member Congregational Church of Park Manor in Chicago, filling in for two years until a permanent pastor was named.
He continues to preach around the country and has served on a number of boards of directors.
- DAVID YONKE