The Rev. Wayne Bridegroom chuckled at the thought of winning this year’s Martin Luther King Legacy Award.
“Imagine giving it to a white boy who grew up milking cows,” he said.
In fact, Bridegroom earned the award for his 40 years of pastoring at a church on the west side of Modesto, fighting for the people and neighborhoods there on issues such as immigration reform, social justice, improved infrastructure and racial reconciliation. He also has been involved in improving relationships between churches and government, between the sheriff’s and police departments, and between pastors on the west and east sides of town.
Winning the award “leaves me incredibly humbled,” he said. “The reality is, it’s an amazing testimony of what God has done in my life to help change my beliefs on some of these things. I grew up in a very, very white society that simply didn’t value people who were not Anglo.”
That view changed after he took a mission trip to Guatemala while at seminary, he said.
The 66-year-old senior pastor of Central Baptist Church has been a leader in groups such as Harvest of Hope, Weed and Feed, Congregations Building Community and a new committee charged with revitalizing downtown Modesto. He also has served as a bridge between evangelicals and Catholics, minorities and white residents, U.S. citizens and immigrants.
He said he carries on King’s legacy in two ways: first, in the area of justice. “Obviously, I have not been the recipient of incredible injustice, simply because I’m white,” he said. “But I see it all the time.” Second, Bridegroom said, King “saw God in everyone, and it did not matter the color of the person’s skin. Likewise, God has gifted me like that, and I treat everyone with dignity, regardless of what their heritage may be.”
He will receive the award at the 20th annual MLK event Saturday. It will begin with a reception from 5 to 6 p.m. at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center in west Modesto, followed by a free community event at 7 p.m. in the Modesto Junior College East Campus auditorium that will feature keynote speaker Diane Nash, a 1960s civil rights movement leader, plus live musical and theatrical performances and the award ceremony.
Dan Onorato, active in the Modesto Peace/Life Center, was on the committee that chose Bridegroom to receive this year’s award.
“One of the big things that Martin Luther King was working toward was what he called the ‘Beloved Community,’ ” Onorato said. “It was helping people toward the lower end of the economic and social end of the community to have a fair shot at what Americans simply take for granted. We saw Wayne doing that from the beginning of his ministry. He’s somebody who has dedicated himself to helping people.”
In 2005, for example, Bridegroom helped form a street lighting district to add streetlights to an unincorporated area of southwest Modesto. In 1999, he began Harvest of Hope, which gave food and furniture to needy residents. In 1989, he spearheaded a group called Love Inc., which paired people in need with agencies and volunteers in churches. He also helped found Weed and Seed, which led to First Tee, a golf mentoring program on the city’s municipal course, and got Boy and Girl Scouting programs started on the west side.
More recently, he’s been involved in calls for immigration reform. His church has had congregations of Latino, Hmong, Cambodian and Laotian people sharing their space.
“I have my finger in so many pies, it’s no wonder I’m feeling old,” he said with a chuckle. He’ll officially retire as the senior pastor of his congregation in June, but plans to continue as an unpaid volunteer in that role. The Hmong congregation will take over the church’s facility, just across from Modesto High School, which will leave his aging congregation more time to “just care for one another, but also to love others around us. That’s part of our church’s DNA at this point.”
It’s obviously part of his, as well.