MODESTO -- Fifty years ago, the Rev. Eddie Bolden carved a church out of a dream and a mission. What he didn't know then was that at 88, God still would have work for him there.
St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church celebrated his years Sunday with a firebrand young preacher from Stockton and gospel songs belted straight from the heart.
There were no hymnals, no choir gowns. No matter. The 40 or so members in the pews all knew the songs. A dozen singers and choir director Vincent Hunter Sr. carried the tune.
The sermon by the visiting Rev. Steven Clark of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist focused on the larger meaning of church, the larger mission of members. It takes work and sacrifice to make something worth building, he called out, his voice reverberating across the spare space at Sixth and J streets.
Like an oyster, take the frustrations and irritations of life and make pearls, he urged. In a world where pastorships cycle through like presidents, appreciate one who has made half a century's worth of pearls, and keep building, Clark said.
Bolden told his congregation that four times he has planned to retire, but each time felt God's will that he keep working. Church leaders believe he is the oldest active pastor in Modesto.
"I'm blessed to be here and I'm grateful," Bolden said.
Before the service, he said he has slowed down a bit. "God knows I work. Every day I do something," he said, although not putting in as many hours as he used to. Wife MaryAnn's health has given them "trials and tribulations" and he's learning to do the chores she quietly did for decades.
Such dedication is typical of the man, said Star Crawford, who grew up in the church and sings in the choir. She considers Bolden a second father, and said her favorite sermon is "Stay in the boat, no matter how rocky."
The church gives out groceries every week, she said. "He is love, counsel, support. He gives," Crawford said.
Jessica Roach said what she sees is Bolden's down-to-earth humor. "I enjoy pastor Bolden. They make you feel welcome," Roach said.
The church started as a small mission with 10 members and acquired the corner building shortly thereafter. But walls don't make a church, Bolden said, harkening back to the first sermon he gave, from John 3:16. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life
," he recited, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. Some inner delight activated deep creases in a face that age has contoured for smiling.
Bolden sees his church as part of a larger world of ministry and helped organize the Westside Ministerial Alliance of Modesto. He works to help pastors at other churches, said associate pastor Purn Howard Jr. "He believes we must work together," Howard said.
Church regular Pearlee Mays, 90, said St. Paul and Bolden are inseparable. "The church is a people, you know. We come together, loving the Lord," she said. Mays sang each hymn with gusto, keeping the beat with a half-circle tambourine.
Lakisha Norman's 1-year-old slept through it all, stretched out on a pew in the back. Norman, 30, said she last came to church when she was 17. Today, she said, something called her back. "It was the Spirit. Something just told me, and here it is the 50th anniversary," she said.
Modesto's mayor had a bit more notice. Garrad Marsh came to present resolutions from the state Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives, commending Bolden's service. The resolutions add to a growing list of honors and recommendations, but church secretary Jackie Moss said the man takes it all in stride.
"He's a humble man and he's easy to work with," Moss said.
Perhaps that's because Bolden sees his work as God's doing. "Every person in this world has a mission. God has given them a mission," he said.
Bolden always has known his. "I was sure that God called me. He didn't make no mistake."
Bee staff writer Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339.