My parents were pastored by two centenarians. I was pastored by them too, but indirectly, because I did not stay in my parents’ churches as long as they did. I went to college and then seminary but would attend my parents’ church when I was home with them. Then in 1977, I transferred my membership to the First Baptist Church of Hightstown, my first pastorate.
Our family met our first centenarian pastor at First Romanian Baptist Church of Detroit on New Year’s Eve 1967. We had just arrived from an Italian refugee camp and at that time, ethnic churches in America sponsored refugees. The church had to guarantee a place to stay, to look for work for the new family, and that they would provide financial assistance for the first two years if they could not find jobs.
The pastor of the First Romanian Baptist Church was Rev. A.S. Lucaciu. He arrived in the United States as a young man during WWI and was educated at the East Orange Seminary in New Jersey. From there he went to work as an associate pastor at the Second Romanian Baptist Church in Detroit and married the pastor’s daughter. When his father-in-law retired, he became the pastor of the church and stayed there until his retirement. He came out of retirement to pastor the First Romanian Baptist Church, where my family met him.
A pastor in an ethnic church is more than a Sunday preacher or Bible study leader. He is the head of the employment agency who finds jobs for the people that come from overseas. He is the contact for obtaining driver’s licenses and he translates for new arrivals when they need to go to government offices. He takes the sick to the doctor and makes sure they have the correct insurance. He is the social director, matchmaker, and career counselor for the young people of his congregation. In fact, Pastor Lucaciu was the one who challenged me to become a pastor and I was licensed by his church in 1974 and ordained there in 1977.
There are three areas in which he greatly influenced me:
- I was always struck by the holiness with which he officiated the Lord’s Table. He was able to create a feeling of God’s presence through the reading of the Scripture, the songs that he chose, the meticulous care that he exercised, and even his posture. He was completely enthralled by the presence of the one who gave himself for our redemption.
- When he was in his mid-80s, we were going somewhere together and decided to walk. I am considered a fast walker and I was in my 20s at the time, but I had to jog to keep up with him! I learned that this was the tempo of his life, in everything that he did.
- He had an optimistic love for life. In the 1960s and 1970s, when we had the Detroit riots and many ethnic churches were fearful, he counseled that we should focus on optimism and a bright future.
I kept correspondence with him intermittently after I left the area. When he reached his 100th birthday, I sent him a note of thanksgiving for the role he had played in my life. He kept it in the front of his Bible and his grandson read it at his funeral when God called him home at the patriarchal age of 106.
After nine years of living in Detroit, my parents left for Los Angeles. The pastor of the First Romanian Baptist Church there was Rev. Pitt Popovici. In contrast with Rev. Lucaciu who came to Detroit as a teenager, Pitt was born in Harrisburg. However, after his parents made some money, they decided to take their children and relatives back home to Romania. Pitt served during World War II and became a Baptist pastor after the war ended. When the Communist regime came to power in 1947, he was regarded with great suspicion by the Communists because he was born in America and he was a Baptist pastor. He was one of the most resistant pastors in Romania, refusing to let the Communist party know how many people were candidates for baptism or the number of musical groups in the church. He wrote and translated more apologetical and evangelistic books than any of his contemporaries and was considered the underground librarian by many fellow pastors. He continued to preach, even when his preaching certificate was revoked. In 1968, the Romanian Communist regime found him to be too much of a threat and handed him and his family their passports and ordered them to leave the country immediately.
Because my parents were living in Los Angeles, I would spend my summers there with them. Brother Pitt would ask them when I was coming and schedule me to preach on Sunday mornings or evenings. When I preached, he would go to preach at different churches or start new churches on the West Coast. He was the founder of five or six distinct churches. When he retired in his 80s, he moved to live with his daughter in Atlanta, Georgia, where he founded three more churches.
- When I preached at his church in LA in his stead, my friends would remark that my preaching sounded like his. I learned many things from him, but here are three of the most important:
While he was a pastor, he felt that his gift was evangelism and calling people to Christ. Because of this, he delegated administrative responsibilities to others and focused on evangelism. Some people were offended because he would ask outright if they were saved, but the thousands of people who are now a part of the kingdom of God are happy that he asked.
- He loved simplicity. He loved to work in his garden and draw illustrations of his plants. While he read extensively and academically, he felt that too many pastors make their messages complicated to show off their great wisdom. Instead, he wanted to make his messages understandable for everyone in order to bring people to Christ.
- In Pitt’s presence, one felt loved. My parents and my sisters recalled this feeling when they were with him. They appreciated his sermons and his commitment to the kingdom of God, but each person felt individually loved and cherished by him.
I am so happy that I was able to go to Atlanta and celebrate Pitt Popovici’s centennial with thanks and appreciation to a man who was blessed by God with one hundred years. With these years, he has blessed thousands of people.