During 26 years as pastor of Tacoma’s oldest black Baptist church, the Rev. Freeman Rhoades taught others to follow Jesus. He reached out to the community and its needs.
As pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, he advocated for racial and economic equality, established a preschool, built a $2 million family life center and provided a home for the Boys & Girls Club on the East Side.
Rhoades, 66, preached his last sermon Sunday as Bethlehem’s pastor. He said he’s retiring because of poor health.
His plan was “to go to heaven from Bethlehem.”
“I am definitely disappointed,” he said. But after 47 years as a pastor, “I cannot allow myself to be ungrateful.”
Longtime member Bernice Morehead said Rhoades has been a faithful leader, from visiting the sick to expanding church programs. He carried out his plan to build a family life center and open a day care.
“He had a vision and he followed that vision,” said Morehead, 77.
Rhoades showed up to talk and pray with people from the church when they were sick, even when they hadn’t told him they were ill, she said. During church services, he singled out children and adults for their accomplishments in life.
He couldn’t sing or tell a joke, but he didn’t mind being teased, she said.
“Every Sunday, I’d tease him about something,” said Morehead, who’s been part of the congregation since 1972. “He was my friend.”
Rhoades surprised members three months ago when he announced his retirement.
During an interview last week, he said he’s stepping down because of poor health caused by acid reflux, which makes it difficult to eat and function.
“You feel like you have sometimes a weight on your chest,” Rhoades said. “I can live with it.”
Rhoades will continue to reside in Tacoma with his wife, Anna.
HOW TO FOLLOW JESUS
As the church’s pastor, Rhoades developed a curriculum of 40 lessons for children and adults on what it means to follow Jesus.
“Jesus becomes the norm of your life,” Rhoades said. “You would get your answers or your direction on the issues of life from Jesus.”
He carried out those teachings with action at Bethlehem, a 123-year-old congregation affiliated with the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc.
“That’s part of being a disciple,” Rhoades said. “You’re commissioned to go beyond the walls (of the church).”
Bethlehem Baptist gives out food and financial help to those in need. Rhoades worked to promote black economic enterprise through the Tacoma branch of the Black Dollar Days Task Force. In 2008, Pierce County’s Safe Streets campaign honored him for standing against drugs, gangs and violence.
His church established the Knowledge Kollege Daycare & Preschool. And Bethlehem has been generous about sharing its space on Portland Avenue.
Four other congregations hold services in the family life center, which opened in 2002 and includes a full-size gymnasium.
In 2010, when the Eastside Branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound was without a home, Bethlehem offered leased space.
“Pastor Rhoades is definitely a gem of the community,” said Carrie Prudente Holden, director of operations for the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound.
He has sought to understand the needs of the community and help meet them through his church, she said. “He does that with such an amazing air of graciousness and humbleness,” Prudente Holden said.
Rhoades also has faced challenges.
During his tenure, Sunday morning attendance at Bethlehem has declined from about 600 to 300, he said. Many people who came to the area in the military moved back to their homes in other parts of the country, Rhoades said.
One question gives him particular pause: Have things improved for blacks in Tacoma since he started as Bethlehem’s pastor in August 1987?
“I find the question very challenging to answer,” Rhoades said.
He cited the disproportionately high percentage of blacks in prison, the achievement gap in education, and unemployment.
“I would have to say we still have the same challenges,” Rhoades said. “I would love to be able to say things have greatly changed. It is disappointing.”
And he acknowledged struggles as a pastor.
“Sometimes, I have been too serious,” Rhoades said. “I needed to relax more and let God work.”
“Sometimes, we try to guarantee the results that we want, which seldom happens.”
Avance Byrd, trustees’ chairman and a Bethlehem member for 25 years, said the congregation is saddened that Rhoades is retiring. A committee is searching for a new pastor.
“He is a great mentor to work under,” said Byrd, 52. “I’ve gone to him for advice for many things.”
So has the Rev. Arthur Banks, pastor of nearby Eastside Baptist Church, who looks up to Rhoades as his own pastor.
“I knew him to be a man of wisdom and integrity,” said Banks, 61, president of the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance. “He’s going to be truthful with you whether you want to hear it or not.”
Rhoades wound up coming to Tacoma from a church in Portsmouth, Va., when a friend told him about the vacancy at Bethlehem.
He’d never been to Tacoma.
“I wasn’t aware of how far it was,” he recalled.
He came and stayed.
“I felt like it was the thing that God wanted me to do.”
The Rev. Freeman Sidney Rhoades
Born: June 13, 1947, in Lunenburg County, Va.
Career: Retiring after 26 years as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, 4818 E. Portland Ave., Tacoma. He has been a pastor for 47 years, including 21 years in Virginia. He has written several books, including “Blacks in Every Book in the Bible.”
Family: Rhoades and his wife, Anna, have been married 46 years and live in Tacoma. They have three children and six grandchildren.
Education: Master of divinity degree from the School of Theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond; doctor of ministry degree from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond.
Hobbies: Travel; attending Seattle Mariners and Seahawks games.steve.maynard@ thenewstribune.com @TNTstevemaynard