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St. Paul pastor to give final sermon Sunday

Frederick Ellis Dashiell Jr.
St. Paul pastor to give final sermon Sunday
The Rev. Dr. LeRoy Attles (left) shares a laugh with his wife, Henrietta, at the 22nd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast held by the Cambridge branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in this 2007 file photo. After 31 years as the leader of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambrideg, Attles will deliver his final sermon this Sunday. (Photo: Romana Vysatova)

After 31 years of service that saw him become a linchpin of the local religious community, the Rev. Dr. LeRoy Attles Sr. is stepping down as pastor of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Cambridge. After being honored at a banquet this Saturday, June 6, 2009, the church’s longtime head will deliver his final sermon on Sunday.

Under Attles’ leadership, St. Paul’s has increased its reach throughout Cambridge and Greater Boston. Highlights include the establishment of the church’s Christian Life Center and the launch of a host of programs through the Hildebrand Family Self-Help Center to help feed and house the homeless.

“God will give me another assignment once I’ve completed this one,” said Attles.

When he received the call to ministry while a student at Wilberforce University in Ohio during the 1960s, Attles scrapped his plans to become a college president.

“God had something else planned for me,” he said in an interview.

That plan has led him through the last five decades. Attles, now 75, has reached the age at which pastors and bishops, according to AME doctrine, are asked to step down. While Attles would rather continue leading St. Paul’s congregation, he said he recognizes that retirement offers new ways to serve God and his parishioners.

“At this point, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m retiring,” he said. “I’m looking forward to new opportunities.”

As news of his pending retirement spread, other AME pastors spoke about Attles’ significant influence.

“He is identified and recognized as one of the few shepherds among the pastors in Greater Boston,” said the Rev. Dr. Gregory Groover, pastor of Charles Street AME Church in Dorchester.

As Attles tells it, after arriving in Cambridge in 1977, he immediately recognized that much of his work would involve integrating the church with the local community, as well as helping homeless people in the area.

He remembers arriving at the church one day to find a woman with all of her possessions in bags sitting on the church steps. The woman told him that she was waiting for St. Paul’s to open so that she could have some shelter.

The experience drove Attles to convert the clergy houses owned by the church into the Hildebrand Family Self-Help Center. The center provides resources and assistance to low-income and homeless individuals and families seeking economic stability and long-term housing.

“So many people just need a chance,” Attles said.

As for the woman who spurred the pastor to start the center? The last Attles heard, she had found a job and recently purchased a condo.

The development and building of St. Paul’s Christian Life Center is another key accomplishment of Attles’ tenure. Located at 85 Bishop Allen Drive, the center was a bowling alley before the church bought and gutted it, turning it into a space that could be used to hold meetings and act as a communal gathering place.

Dedicated in 1988, the Christian Life Center has been an integral part of the Cambridge community for 20 years, hosting events ranging from wedding receptions to the Richard Allen Lecture Series, a string of talks co-sponsored by St. Paul’s and Harvard University that brings in noted African American speakers like scholar Cornel West, the late attorney Johnnie Cochran and the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, to lecture every President’s Day.

A large man with graying hair, clean-shaven save for a neat mustache, Attles reclined in his chair during a recent interview, seated behind a mahogany desk stacked neatly with various papers. Pictures of his family and Robert Norris, the first district bishop under whom he served, were arranged behind him.

Speaking in a sonorous voice with the slow, thoughtful cadence of a practiced public speaker, Attles discussed his plans for retirement.

“I believe whatever I do is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” Attles said.

He said he plans to do more work with Promise Ministries, the personal, nondenominational ministry he started in 1993, which has allowed him to publish two books, “The Fruit of the Spirit” and “Money Talk.” After retiring, Attles said he will publish his third book, “A Servant’s Testimony of God’s Faithfulness,” which will chronicle the ways in which the Holy Spirit used him during his time at St. Paul’s.

While this weekend’s banquet will be a celebration of Attles’ work, some still expressed sadness at his leaving.

“It’s very hard to talk about,” said Patricia Dance, a member of St. Paul’s congregation. “I’ll miss his preaching and teaching and the way he leads by the Holy Spirit in all he does.”