Bethel AME pastor retires from church but not Three Village area

Bethel AME pastor retires from church but not Three Village area

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Rev. Gregory Leonard with his daughter Maisha and wife, Marlyn. Photo by Heidi Sutton

After a 40-year career — 26 of those years spent in Setauket — one local pastor recently decided it was time to retire.

Rev. Gregory Leonard. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Known for his quiet presence and dedication to his religion and the community, the Rev. Gregory Leonard has stepped down as pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Christian Avenue. Shortly after his announcement, the congregation welcomed the Rev. Lisa Williams to step up to the pulpit.

Leonard said the congregation members have hit the ground running with their new pastor.

“I’m here, and I’m available if she needs any assistance or anything like that, but I’m pretty much in the background,” the pastor said.

He added that Bethel AME includes a group of people “who are very committed to the church and committed to striving to grow spiritually.” 

Originally from Boston, Leonard started his career in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a pastor at St. Paul AME Church, and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to attend the seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center. From there he spent seven years with a church in Providence, Rhode Island, and before coming to Setauket with his late wife Sandra and three children, was a pastor in Bermuda for two years.

Leonard said he has many good memories from Bethel AME. What stands out to him most is when the church saved Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach. Alfred Hobbs willed the farm to Bethel AME Church in 1996, and Ann Pellegrino asked to maintain the property nearly 15 years ago. Since 2007, the farm has been growing vegetables and other crops to donate to food pantries and people in need.

Leonard said church members, as well as local elected officials, helped make a difference.

“The community, and the greater community, is benefiting from them giving away the vegetables and the produce to those in need,” Leonard said. “So, that was a pretty big thing. The whole church got behind it and made it happen.”

Bethel AME congregants describe the reverend as a quiet and insightful man who doesn’t seek attention. Leonard said he believes in “get the job done, communicate and love one another — those are the important things.”

“He is a very humble man, very focused and very even keeled. Nothing really ruffled his feathers that much.”

~ Carole Manning

Carole and Ron Manning, of Coram, were already worshipping at Bethel AME when Leonard started pastoring there.

“He is a very humble man, very focused and very even keeled,” Carole Manning said. “Nothing really ruffled his feathers that much.”

Ron Manning agreed, saying the pastor has a calming presence. The couple said Leonard was the type of pastor who if he didn’t see you for a while, would pay a visit to see how you were.

“We got very lucky, and his tenure was never really questioned,” Ron Manning said. “He just kept going on until his retirement.”

Antoinette Miller, originally from Setauket who now lives in Florida, also first attended Bethel AME before Leonard began pastoring there. She remembers when he first arrived and the impression he made on the congregation.

“He is a great preacher, family man and community warrior,” Miller said. “He loves his church.”

Cynthia Shephard, who lives in Port Jefferson Station, added that the reverend is devoted to his religion and congregation. She said she will miss Leonard’s quiet dedication and humble presence where he would be involved in various meetings and stop by choir practice.

“He’s a very humble man, who has always been concerned about our spiritual welfare,” Shephard said.

Lisa Roller, who has been worshipping at the church for more than 20 years, first traveled from Middle Island to attend services. Now she makes the trip from Islip. Roller said she appreciated that Leonard is community-minded and at the same time an introvert like herself, something she appreciated when she first met him. She said to herself, “This is somebody that I need to stick with.”

She added her family always loved seeing him at the church.

“My mother has commented that he’s such a kind and gentle person,” she said.

Teresa White described Leonard as a “caring and genuine servant of God.” She said while he will be missed as the church’s pastor, he would remain a friend in the Setauket community.

“His strong faith in God has always been his anchor,” White said. “We will truly miss his humility, teaching and being inclusive of all people. He always emphasized the importance of our relationship with God and with one another.”

Leonard said he will continue to live in Setauket with his wife, Marlyn, and daughter, Maisha. He also plans to continue his volunteer work in the area which includes serving as a chaplain for the Setauket Fire Department and Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook, and working with the Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association and Building Bridges of Brookhaven, an interfaith group that works to forge connections and encourage peace.

He also plans to continue being involved with the restoration of the historic 1917 Eato House on Christian Avenue in Setauket, which belonged to the church’s first pastor.

“I’m still involved, only I’m not on the frontline,” he said.

The Mannings said they aren’t surprised that he will still pursue his volunteer efforts in the community.

“He may not be the pastor but he will be involved in AME and the community, and help the community to move forward,” Ron Manning said. “I think that’s part of what he truly wants to do.”

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