Rev. Thomas S. Gillespie is arguably one of the most well-known residents of Lowell. He’s made his mark in the community as the first African American elected to Lowell City Council, as a pastor for many years and now, as the newest moderator of the Gaston County Missionary Baptist Association.
Loving life in Lowell
There’s no place like home and in Gillespie’s case, there’s no place like Lowell. Gillespie lives in the same house he was born in. He’s served in local politics off and on since the 1970s, and he’s got no plans for leaving any time soon.
“I have visited a lot of places, but Lowell is just the place that I want to be,” he said.
At one point Gillespie’s father, the Rev. Samuel Thomas Gillespie, ran for office as the first African American candidate, but was unsuccessful.
“He inspired me to pick up the mantle where he left off,” said Gillespie.
The younger Gillespie has served as a city council member off and on for years and is the current mayor pro-tem. He’s held positions since the 1970s, serving for a little more than a decade in total.
According to Gillespie, the city welcomed having an African-American serve on council.
“That’s the good part; I am really blessed to have a city that embraces the Afro-American people, whether they be male or female, young or old. Lowell is a town that shows love to all its people,” he said.
And although Gaston County has seen some diversity over the years, with Pearl Burris-Floyd, the first African-American county commissioner, T. Jeffers, Gastonia’s first black mayor, and multiple other African-American elected officials, there’s still a noticeable lack of representation both at the county and state level, he said.
“Gaston County is embracing the Afro-American politicians and candidates. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go … The Afro-American people, they truly always deserve a place at the table,” said Gillespie.
A family of pastors
Gillespie came from a religious family, with both his father and his grandfather serving as pastors. He’s one of five children born to the Rev. Samuel Gillespie and Emma (Kay) Kilgore Gillespie.
The older Gillespie was the pastor at Lovely Hill Baptist Church in Gastonia and as a result, his children grew up actively involved in church.
“My father, having attended theological school, I can remember he would always sit us down and give us Biblical instructions,” said Gillespie.
He attended Gaston College and Belmont Abbey College, where he intended to earn a pre-law degree. Instead of practicing law, he felt the call to become a pastor in 1976.
Gillespie followed in his father’s footsteps and preached at Lovely Hill.
He received training from the Southern Baptist Seminary Extension and earned a Master of Divinity degree from Gardner-Webb University in 2013.
The following year, he participated in a trip to Israel and Jordan hosted by Robert Canoy, dean of the School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb.
“That changed my life completely. I’m forever grateful to Dr. Robert Canoy because one of my dreams was to actually walk in the Holy Land where Jesus walked and when we got there, it’s a difference between reading about David being chased by Saul and actually going to the place where he was chased by Saul,” said Gillespie.
Almost nine years ago, Gillespie founded Hebron, The Church of Jesus Christ Missionary Baptist Church.
“We started with a drop cord that ran from my mom’s house. We took an old car lot and we transformed it into a beautiful little Eden oasis,” he said.
The church was created with the belief that members should bear witness and get out of church and into the community. Specifically, he’s mentioned in his book “The Messiah’s Witness” following the examples set by Jehovah’s Witnesses in going from door-to-door.
“We got to go out and witness to people. We got to knock on doors,” he said.
His book was published in 2007. The term “Messiah’s witness,” he says, is one original to him.
“It was revealed to me that Messiah is Jesus the anointed and we’re to witness. I put the words together. Therefore I try to be original with Christ and he’s original with me. That’s how the book came up,” said Gillespie. “I wrote the small book because we are all to be Messiah’s witness because Jesus is the anointed one.”
A different kind of election
Gillespie was elected in July to be the 20th moderator of the Gaston County Missionary Baptist Association, an organization overseeing 30 churches representing Gaston County.
“I think it’s a crowning achievement to be elected the moderator because I’m following in the footsteps of great moderators like Theodore Armstrong, Dr. Kenneth Alexander, and a host of others,” he said.
The association is part of the larger General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, an association of primarily African American Baptist churches that supports educational and missionary efforts on both a local and state level.
As moderator, he oversees committees working on Christian education, political and community action projects. One of the projects the association is working on, headed up by Moderator Emeritus Jerry Friday, is the restoration of Saint Paul Baptist Church.
In his current position, Gillespie hopes to encourage others to get out and witness and to help remind those in need who they are.
“People say, ‘Oh that’s a drug addict.’ That ain’t your name; that’s what happened to you. If we could remind little Susie of when she was in the pigtails and reciting Easter poems on Sunday, if we could remind those people out there who they are, we can change the world.”
For more information about the Gaston County Missionary Baptist Association, visit gcmbanc.org.
Reach reporter Brandy Beard at [email protected] or 704-869-1840.