The Rev. Walter Phillips Sr. says retirement is not his decision to make.
Now 84, he has been pastor at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Columbus since summer 1985 and is still going strong.
Even a bout with colon cancer did not stop him.
“The Lord called me to preach and pastor,” Phillips said while sitting in a pew in the church sanctuary. “Scripture says we endure to the end. It is not a job you give up. God has got to retire you. I am here because the Lord called me to be here. When he says it is enough, I will come down.”
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His son, the Rev. Walter Phillips Jr., has assisted him the last couple of years.
“Yes, that has been a blessing,” he said.
A grandson, the Rev. Walter Taylor, is pastor at The Life Church of Columbus.
Though his grandfather and three uncles were pastors, Phillips did not begin preaching until 1979.
“The Lord spoke to my spirit then and told me to preach His gospel,” he said.
He recalled that when he was a child growing up in Nashville, Tenn., a neighbor predicted he would be a preacher and he had told her “not me.”
When it came time to do so, it was not difficult for him.
“I was raised in a Christian family. My father did not play a role in my childhood and my grandfather, Rev. Jake Southall, helped raise me,” he said. “We had Bible studies in the house. He taught me how to respect God. I did not plan on being a pastor but I was well equipped on scripture.”
Before coming to Pleasant Grove, he preached at Baptist churches in Junction City, Ga., and Hurtsboro, Ala.
From 1985 until 1999 he preached at two churches.
“It was kind of rough,” he said.
Phillips spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force, serving in the Korean War.
“I have never been more scared,” he said, smiling. “I thought a lot about God then.”
He came to Columbus in 1961 after finishing his military service. He was dating a Columbus woman and married Thelma in 1963.
Phillips began working for the Chevron Oil Company, first at a station on Victory Drive then in a warehouse. For 17 years, he drove a truck across the country and was still doing that when he got involved in the ministry.
He said he had gotten closer to God as he got older.
Phillips said he learned many lessons while truck driving that have helped him to this day.
“I learned that you need to work with people that are not like you,” he said. “You have to love people. People are different and you accept that. You never know on who you may have to depend.”
Pleasant Grove averages about 60 people on Sunday.
“We are growing right now, not just with people, but with the spirit of God,” he said.
Phillips said not much has changed in the church during his time as a pastor. Certainly his message and the way he delivers it has not. Services have gotten a little more contemporary, and a drum set sits near the pulpit at Pleasant Grove.
“Young people look at church differently. We are more modern. The music can help get people motivated but they have to remember that are not in church for entertainment,” he said.
He is saddened by the amount of violence and crime he sees in the city, especially in the neighborhood that is home to Pleasant Grove located on Seventh Street off Lawyers Lane.
“There is a need for the church here more than ever,” he said.
He said that not enough people have a respect for God — a fear of God.
“I am a firm believer in the church working to curtail some of the violence,” he said. “The church as a whole must do its part to draw people closer to God.”
According to Phillips, not enough people are examples of what is being preached, even though they share the right message.
“If you teach it, you have got to live it,” he said.
And, though, he loves fishing, he hopes God does not retire him anytime soon.
“I love people. I love what I do,” he said. “It is a great challenge drawing people to Christ.”