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Influential Birmingham Pastor T.L. Lewis Retires After 52 Years in the Ministry

Bethel Baptist Church Pastor T.L. Lewis speaks during his sold-out retirement celebration banquet on Friday night at New Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bessemer. (Bethel Baptist Church, Pratt City/Facebook)

By Barnett Wright | The Birmingham Times

Beginning with a banquet in Bessemer on Friday and ending with a church farewell in Birmingham on Sunday, several thousand attended retirement celebrations for the Reverend Dr. Tommie L. Lewis, Senior Pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, Pratt City after his 42 years of service at the church, and 52 total in the ministry.

Lewis, one of the area’s most influential pastors, has been pastor of the 2,000-member Bethel Baptist Church of Pratt City since 1982 and oversaw not only rebuilding after its campus was leveled in a 2011 tornado, but also the lives of those in the surrounding community who lost nearly everything they had.

“I carry with me the memories of our time together. I deeply appreciate the love, support and encouragement you have shown me throughout my time as pastor …” he wrote to his congregation, “I am filled with gratitude for the relationships forged, the lives touched, and the blessings shared.”

Lewis, 75, announced his retirement on Easter Sunday.

During his time as pastor, he established a number of outreach programs that touched tens of thousands including ministries for new members, married couples, singles, homeless, prison and even puppets & mimes. He launched after school enrichment programs and summer learning that included Birmingham and Jefferson County schools and transformed the Bethel Community Learning Center into the Birmingham Regional and Empowerment Development Center.

“We wanted the world to know we are for the community not just for Bethel,” said Minister Geraldine Moore, church member for 44 years and who served as chairman of the Retirement Celebration Committee. “It shows his impact not only in our church but the community as well … he not only belongs to us but the world and to the community.”

The retirement celebration banquet on Friday night at New Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bessemer for Bethel Baptist Church Pastor T.L. Lewis sold out. (Bethel Baptist Church, Pratt City/Facebook)

Lewis spoke sparingly during a sold-out retirement celebration banquet on Friday night at New Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bessemer, the city where he accepted his initial pastoral assignment at the First Baptist Church-Carver in 1973.

During the banquet meal, a number of clergy, past and present elected officials – including former mayor William Bell; U.S. Rep Terri Sewell and Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr – all told of Lewis’s impact.

“I have been blessed to call Pastor Lewis a dear friend and a trusted spiritual leader and a mentor,” said Sewell, who spoke last week on the House Floor to honor the retired pastor. “It is because of him that so much has changed in Pratt City and Birmingham, and we are eternally grateful.”

Commendations and resolutions poured in from Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey; the Alabama House of Representatives; the City of Birmingham; the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention and many others.

While more than a thousand gathered at New Bethlehem on Friday and an even larger gathering packed Bethel Baptist on Sunday with some churches cancelling their morning worship services to attend.

After answering the call to ministry in 1973, Lewis led several congregations before settling at Bethel Baptist in 1982.

He took over a congregation that had less than 100 members and expanded Bethel’s congregation by establishing a new worship center in 1990 which included a sanctuary with a seating capacity of 1,800, and he commissioned a family life center which became the Bethel Community Life Center to support community development and educational initiatives.

After a tornado destroyed those buildings in 2011, Lewis rallied the community and rebuilt a new sanctuary which was completed on Aug. 24, 2014.

Ray Carter, co-chair of the trustee ministry board since 2010 and a member of the church since 1987, remembered, “When I [first] came here [from Houston] there was a little red church and you had to get here very early to get in. Pastor Lewis created the vision from that little red church to what we called the blue church that was destroyed in 2011. His leadership built this whole community.”

Following the tornado Lewis’s “focus was not on building a church but about taking care of the people who had lost their homes,” said Moore. “Initially the Pratt City disaster relief center was maintained by him before we turned it over to someone else.”

All the while, Lewis served the wider Birmingham community as chairman of Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA); chairman of the board of directors for the Jefferson County Commission of Economic Opportunity (JCCEO); and leadership in more than two dozen other religious and civic organizations not to mention his trips to Europe, Asia and Africa to spread the gospel.

The pastor has also been known for his political activism, including helping organize the Alabama campaign for the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he ran for president in 1988 and sponsoring several Birmingham mayoral forums throughout the years.

Lewis didn’t say much during Sunday’s retirement celebration in his home church — he let guest speakers and members of his flock deliver tributes — but at the conclusion of his final reception as senior pastor and, as he and his wife, First Lady Minister Joyce E. Lewis, left for the final time, he told a reporter:

“It comes to a time when we make a decision that our assignment here has been closed. My life, my living and my legacy will find its way through [Bethel Baptist Church].”