The Rev. Thomas Howard Peoples Jr., who championed civil rights and spent 41 years as pastor of one of the oldest African-American churches in this part of the country, died June 7 at 79 years old.
Peoples, who went by the initials T.H., was pastor of Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church, which has occupied its current property at 540 West Maxwell St. in Lexington since 1820.
He would have celebrated his 80th birthday June 17.
Peoples was married for 56 years to Delma L. Peoples. They have five children, several of whom followed in their father’s footsteps and became pastors.
Over the years, “he baptized thousands of people,” said Rev. Herbert T. Owens Jr., Peoples’ longtime friend and his assistant at Pleasant Green.
Owens said Peoples was “the consummate pastor and friend,” a giving man who was still “pastoring” others despite his own health problems in the weeks before his death.
“It takes a very unique person who walks closely with God to be able to care for the souls of his parishioners,” Owens said. “He really knew how to care for peoples’ souls.”
And, Owens said, he was a scholar who had a gift for taking complex theological ideas and making them understandable and practical to his parishioners’ daily lives.
He said Peoples taught weekly classes for ministers, staying until the last question was answered.
Peoples also became known and respected for taking a stand on issues important to the community.
He offered comfort after the crash of Flight 5191, protested racial inequities in the Fayette County Public Schools and brought in the Congress of National Black Churches to help Lexington’s faith community address disparities in health care between blacks and whites.
After the shooting of Tony Sullivan, a black teenager, by Lexington police Sgt. Phil Vogel in 1994, Peoples co-chaired a group called Citizens of Lexington for Equality and Responsibility, or CLEAR, arguing that the government needed to be transparent about the case.
And when the city set up a committee in the mid-1990s to plan for downtown development, including the area where Peoples’ church stands, he went to city hall to protest the makeup of the group, saying the government was showing “disrespect and insensitivity toward its black citizens.”
Mayor Pam Miller and the Urban County Council responded that day by adding another black member to the group.
Peoples grew up attending Pleasant Green and became its pastor in 1978, after having served as pastor at First Baptist Church of Bracktown for 10 years and First Baptist Church of Versailles for five, according to an obituary.
Pleasant Green, along with Lexington’s First African Baptist Church, considers itself a descendant of a church founded in 1790 by a slave named Peter “Brother Captain” Duerett, making it one of the oldest churches west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Peoples, the church’s 18th pastor, told the Herald-Leader in a 1998 interview that “this church is Bible-based, and it’s person-centered. We’re concerned about the person. It’s neither to the left nor the right -- you’ll find both Republicans and Democrats here.”
Peoples said he tried to provide “two messages on Sunday in one sermon.” One message, he said, “has to do with God’s thoughts, and one has to do with what’s current, what’s going on around us. How does it affect us? What part do we play as Christians? That tells you we’re not a church that just teaches about heaven, because we live on this earth.”
Peoples was a Navy veteran who earned degrees from Simmons Bible College and Lexington Theological Seminary, according to the obituary.
“He was a beloved and respected community leader known for his sacrifices to encourage the hospitalized, incarcerated, the poor, and the marginalized,” the obituary stated.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Heritage Hall East at the Lexington Convention Center.
Visitation will be from noon to 3 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church and from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Tuesday at Heritage Hall.
A Masonic Rite of Passage ceremony will be held at the church at 7 p.m. Monday.
Milward Funeral Directors is in charge of arrangements.