The Rev. Louis A. Butcher Jr.’s Long and Joyful Walk as a Pastor

DAN MARSCHKA | Staff Photographer
The Rev. Louis A. Butcher Jr. sits in the sanctuary of Bright Side Baptist Church in Lancaster.

There is a Scripture in the Old Testament wherein the prophet Jeremiah, feeling betrayed by God, says that he will “not make mention” of God “nor speak anymore” God’s name.

But just as soon as Jeremiah levies this threat, he has second thoughts, saying God’s word is imprinted in his heart so much so that it feels like “a burning fire shut up in my bones.” Jeremiah finds it impossible to refrain from speaking of God or, as the New Living Translation puts Jeremiah’s words, “I am worn out trying to hold it in! I can’t do it!”

I get excited whenever I hear this Scripture preached in a black Baptist church because the first time I ever heard it was in a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Louis A. Butcher Jr., pastor of Bright Side Baptist Church in Lancaster city.

As a child of 10 or 11 years, I remember sitting in the pews of the old Bright Side on Queen Street and watching Pastor Butcher in the pulpit, honing in on the phrase, “fire shut up in my bones.” He got to jumping. He got to moving his arms. He got to making it so that having fire shut up in the bones sounded like a good thing and everyone within earshot should want to be so lit from within.

At nearly 40 years old, I always thank my mom for giving me the gift of spirituality and religion and introducing me to a faith that I cling to daily. One of the best things my mother did soon after we moved to Lancaster when I was 7 was to make sure that she found a church home. She chose well by making that home Bright Side.

There comes a time in every Pastor Butcher sermon when the man fully animates. Listening to him shout, “Like fire! Shut up in my bones! I can’t hold it in!” was to hear a firecracker hit pavement or the trigger pull of a lawnmower string that incites the engine’s burst into motion.

For me, it was an aural representation of what it feels like to have the Spirit of God alive and moving within, coursing through the innermost parts of the soul.

The thing about fire, God’s fire, is that you can’t put it out. Last year, Pastor Butcher announced that he would be retiring in 2017. Retirement, however, has not extinguished his passion for preaching and teaching. He will preach his last Bright Side sermon on June 25. Later, he will move to Atlanta with his wife and family.

Pastor Butcher says he will not take on the responsibility of shepherding another congregation, but he does plan to start a podcast (where gospel music meets jazz). He also wants to write a book on the “juxtaposition of religion and science and quantum mechanics.”

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Pastor Butcher. I wanted to tell him how his ministry guided me over the years — from my days as a college student in Atlanta where I kept in my dorm a torn-out page from my childhood Sunday school book that said, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” to my days in New York City, where I kept a Bright Side hymnal on my bookshelf.

Following are excerpts from our conversation. Some of the questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length.

How did you develop your sermon style?

I think that the preacher ought to tell the story and try to connect with listeners. … I started formal public speaking at age 14, and the late professor Hazel Jackson was my coach (she was the first female African-American professor at Millersville University).

My mother was a poet and my father was a pastor, so public speaking was somewhat natural to me.

When did you know you wanted to preach?

I knew I did not want to preach! (Laughs.) My father really wanted me to become a preacher. When I graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in 1965, my father arranged a scholarship for me at Lancaster Theological Seminary, but I wanted to see the world. I was born and raised in Lancaster, and I met my wife, Katie, when I was in college. We started a family and moved around a bit, living for a time in Omaha, Nebraska, and Yonkers, New York. Along the way, though, the call to preach was gnawing at me.

When I was 28, I had this splitting headache, and it felt like someone was driving a screwdriver through my head. I went to the doctor and found that I had viral meningitis, which is not as severe as bacterial, but it’s still serious. And so, I simply was lying in my bed, and I said to the Lord, “If this is what you want me to do, I’ll do it.”

And after that, you know, a weight lifted from me. It was not a bargaining chip. But it just felt like my not accepting the call to preach and getting this splitting headache were somehow linked.

How do you know when you’re running away from your calling?

There’s just this uneasiness, this unsettled feeling that never goes away. It’s like if you have a computer, and you want to turn off a computer but you can’t shut it down all the way because there’s always still a program running in the background. … So I guess, for me, my headache was the Lord saying you have to either fish or cut bait. So I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” When I did, my headache went away.

More than 40 years later, in 2015, I received my doctor of ministry degree from Lancaster Theological Seminary, where my father wanted me to attend so many years ago.

You founded Bright Side in 1980. How did you go from running away from your calling to starting your own church?

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SOURCE: Lancaster Online – Penny Wren