Special to South Florida Times

When the Rev. Dr. Walter T. Richardson took the reigns as senior pastor of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church some 27 years ago, the congregation numbered less than 200. Sunday worship service took place twice a month.

Now, as members get ready to install a new senior pastor, Perrine-based Sweet Home, founded in 1952, has 3,500 active members who worship in a majestic new edifice.

The Rev. Jeremy Upton will be installed Oct. 3 as the fourth leader in the church’s history. At 36, he is a sixth-generation preacher in his family. He moved to the area from Atlanta, Ga., where he was on the staff at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church headed by Bishop Eddie Long.

When Upton graduated from Morehouse College, preaching was not on his mind.
“I first thought I would do something safe and regular, like being an accountant or a school teacher, where I would have regular hours,” he said. “But God had His hand on me and wouldn’t let me go. Everything I tried to do led me back to Him.’’

Called to the ministry in 1995, Upton received his preaching license three years later. “I learned this is how I want to live my life,” he said. “For me, it was ultimately knowing that there was nothing else to do.’’

Upton was born in Sweetwater, Tenn. “As I grew up,” he joked, “I discovered that the best thing to ever come out of Sweetwater was I-75 South.

He married 11 years ago on Oct. 16 former NASA physicist, Brianna, 35, who gave up her job to care for their children, Brejah, 9; Aria, 7; and Lex III, 4, named for Upton’s grandfather.

He has a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse college and a master’s degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and has done post-graduate studies at Oxford, England.

Still, Upton admits to being a “bit” nervous as his installation nears. "Following some like Dr. Richardson, who had so many years of service here, I’ve got to wonder: What can I bring to the table?” he said.

He will indeed be following some big footsteps.

Many longtime Sweet Home members will remember that when Richardson came to the church in 1983, Sunday worship service was held only on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

“That’s the way it was in Perrine back then,” Richardson said. “All the Baptist churches had the same Sunday schedule.

Some worshipped on the first and third Sundays and others worshipped on the second and fourth Sundays.

“At Sweet Home, we had service on the second and fourth Sunday. The people were used to it. It was like the rural South. Many of the pastors were also pastoring at several other small churches.”

But on Easter Sunday morning 1984, Sweet Home’s congregation joined worshipers at Morning Star Baptist church for sunrise service. It left Richardson feeling spiritually uplifted.

“We had a great time,’’ he said, “and I decided to play a little trick on the congregation. At the end of the service, I stood and said, “I’m going to Sweet Home and anyone who wants to can follow me.’’

That’s all he had to say. When he arrived at the church, the parking lot was filled with cars. Encouraged by the response, Richardson told his congregation he would be back the next Sunday.

“We’ve been having church every Sunday since,’’ he said, adding, “Some didn’t like the change but they were out numbered. The move really helped the people in the area, spiritually. As far as I know, now every Baptist church south of Richmond Heights has church every Sunday.’’

Once the weekly service was established, Richardson, who followed his father, Bishop Walter H. Richardson, into the ministry said, “I saw several things that I was not familiar with, such as most of the members didn’t carry their Bibles to church. Getting the people used to a steady diet of relevant Word was my biggest challenge.”

As the congregation got used to coming to church every Sunday, Richardson, an accomplished musician, started training the choir and establishing a Music Ministry. He instituted Holy Communion for the first Sunday of the month. Later, he organized an all Male Choir.

“We did a number of things to keep the people interested in coming to church,” he said.

It wasn’t many years later that Richardson led the congregation in building a new sanctuary. Worship service was temporarily held in the cafeteria of a nearby school.

Two years ago, he led the church into its present location, a spraw-ling complex at 10701 SW 184th St.

With the completion of the new sanctuary and the announcement last year of Richardson’s retirement, Sweet Home entered a new era.

“I stayed one year longer than I’d intended,” Richardson said. “My goal was to retire at age 60 and spend some quality time with my family.’’

Upton plans to extend the growth of the church and its role in making a difference to the community. “We are on this corner to be the answer to the issues of crime and deterioration of the family and the need for our children to grow up with high moral standards,” he said. “My goal is to get us to not just worship in the church but also to make a difference in the streets,’’ he said.

The church will host a pre-installation service at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, September 29th when Pastor Alphonso Jackson Sr. will preach.

Upton’s father-in-law, the Rev. Dr. Craig Smith of Chicago’s Freedom Baptist Church, will preach at 7:30 a.m. Oct. 3. The Rev. Dr. Denny Davis of St. John Baptist Church of Dallas will preach at the 11 a.m. service; and at the installation service at 6:30 p.m. the Bishop Eddie L. Long of New Birth Cathedral in Lithonia, Georgia will preach.

An installation reception will be held at 2:30 p.m. at the Palmetto Bay Village. Tickets are $40 each and may be purchased by calling Arisimmer McCoy, 305-251-5753.