Heed the Call is an occasional series profiling local pastors and ministers. To nominate a pastor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every Tuesday morning, beneath the “Almighty God” sign at the front of the brick church's sanctuary, they gather to pray for the community and the country — just as they have for the past two centuries.
“We come together to pray and ask God to intercede for this house of worship and this nation. We pray that God leads the way and blesses our leaders with knowledge of what is right and just,” said John Gray, bishop of El Shaddai Church Ministries.
One of the oldest churches in Morgan County, El Shaddai, formerly known as Spring Hill Missionary Baptist Church, will celebrate 207 years of ministry on Sunday. During the celebration, the church will license five men into the ministry.
“I’m excited about where this church has been, what God is doing in our lives now and how God is using this ministry for the betterment of the community. These men will carry on the mission of the church and carry on the works of Christ,” Gray said.
That mission dates back to 1812 when worshippers of the church that would eventually be known as El Shaddai first gathered to pray.
They prayed for freedom, for peace, for a good harvest and for jobs. They prayed when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, when the stock market crashed in 1929, when troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, when marchers protested for Civil Rights and when planes struck the World Trade Center.
“We have seen a lot of joy and a lot of heartbreak. We are still here after 207 years because this church was established on the word of God and established on faith. His word is still prevailing all these 207 years later. Regardless of what goes and comes, God’s word still stands,” Gray said.
Sandwiched between the Beltline, Alabama 24 and Norfolk Southern Railroad, the church survived the building of the railroad, which runs directly behind the building, in the 1850s and the subsequent transformation of the area from a residential to a more industrial community.
Gray, one of 11 children of Geneva Gray and the late Rev. Elijah Gray Jr., who pastored in Danville, Flint, Massey, Town Creek, Florence, Tuscumbia and Russellville, grew up less than a mile from the church.
“Right now, the church’s agenda is to rehab this community. So many have left the community and they left it in ruins. I pray the Lord helps us provide a spiritual foundation to make this community into a beautiful place again, like it used to be,” Gray said.
Like many of his siblings — the Gray Sisters, a Christian singing group, Elijah Gray III, pastor of Harvest Time in Decatur, and Elizabeth Raybon, pastor of Pleasant Hill in Tennessee — John Gray felt pulled to follow his father into the ministry.
The calling, the 63-year-old Gray said, came while working in the chip house at Delphi.
“God had been working on me for a while, and I felt his anointing on my life. But that call, the one that washed over me, came in the chip house. I felt the spirit of God moving on me so strong. All of a sudden, the word of God began to flow from my spirit out of my mouth. That was in 1989 and God has kept on blessing me since,” Gray said.
In 1991, Gray became leader of Spring Hill Baptist Church, which formed in 1812 with an all-white congregation. By 1857, the congregation consisted of seven whites and nine blacks and, two years later, the white congregants left the church in the hands of the black members.
Geneva Gray, who started attending the church in 1948, previously described the church as a foundation church.
“This is one of the oldest churches in these parts. From this church sprang other churches,” she said.
The name of the church changed to El Shaddai, which means God Almighty, in 2003. That decision was one of the biggest challenges that faced the church.
“I didn’t like the idea of changing the name at first because of the church’s history," John Gray said. "This is where my grandmother worshipped. But the Lord kept on giving us the name ‘El Shaddai.’ He put it on our spirit."
Throughout the years, as the church experienced the addition of new members and the loss of older ones, Gray remained focused on God's mission and heeded his father's advice.
"My Daddy always said, 'John, you drive the bus. Don't worry about who's getting on or what stop they're getting off. Just do your job,'" Gray said.
After 30 years in the ministry, including more than 20 where he served as a bi-vocational pastor, working at Delphi and the church, Gray has begun looking to the future. In 2013, he named Noble Sanders as his successor.
“I’ll step aside one day. And when I do, that will give me more time to mentor,” Gray said. “But for now, I still have a strong zeal to do what God called me to do.”
Services on Sunday at 271 Old Trinity Road S.W., will take place at 8 a.m. with Minister Wesley Henderson, who grew up at El Shaddai, and at 2 p.m. with Tracey Seltzer, pastor of Moulton Heights Missionary Baptist Church.