By Brian Walker
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
Despite the near freezing temperatures and wintery mix falling from the sky, it was warm inside the First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill the morning 88-year-old the Rev. John Ruffin Manley accepted the honor of being named Pastor Emeritus for his years of service to the church and community.
“When you can come through the snow and the rain like you have today, that sure means we’re on our way,” Manley told the audience after accepting the position.
The position of Pastor Emeritus is an honorary title generally given in retirement to recognize an individual’s work in the church over the years. It is intended to show the church’s love for its pastor and holds no official duties or responsibilities. This marks the first time the title has been given to a pastor at First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill.
Manley served as the church’s pastor for 65 years before retiring in 2011. Aside from his work with the church, Manley also became an important figure in the community, helping to guide members of his congregation though all aspects of their lives.
“He’s a very unique individual,” the Rev. Norris Trice, an associate minister at First Baptist, said. “Wisdom, leadership; you name it. We would refer to him as ‘the Dean’ when it comes to many things in our lives. You could go to him and he would get you on the right track.”
“He baptized me, he ordained me, preached at my mother’s funeral, preached at my father’s funeral…he did my marriage. He was a daddy, he was a father,” Trice said.
Manley was born in Murfreesboro in 1925, the second oldest of six children. He graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, and was later awarded an honorary doctorate. Additionally, he attended UNC-CH and earned a master’s degree in theology from Duke’s Divinity School. He is the father of one son, J.R. Manley Jr., a grandfather of two, and a great-grandfather of four.
The Rev. Chancy Rudolph Edwards, former president of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and a fellow Pastor Emeritus in Fayetteville, spoke at the ceremony about the first time he saw Manley on the campus of Shaw University.
“I saw this young man on campus with his head high, with his shoulders erect walking across the campus,” Edwards said. “Anybody who saw him move about the campus knew that he was a serious student and that he was on his way somewhere.”
Edwards wound up being right, of course; Manley was on his way. Manley would later become president of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina; vice-president of the National Baptist Convention; president of the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Chapel Hill-Carrboro; president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and was one of the founders of the South Orange Black Caucus, to name just a few of his many accomplishments.
Manley was also the first African-American to be elected to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board of Education and founded the First Baptist and Manley Estates in Chapel Hill, which provides affordable housing for low-income seniors.
“Dr. Manley felt that his duty and his calling was to love people, and in loving people he became involved in this community, and I mean involved,” Edwards said. “It was in this community where he put down his bucket, and he found not only water but he found himself some gold.”
And it nearly didn’t happen at all. When Manley first arrived in Chapel Hill, he was not given the warmest of welcomes.
Manley already had a job preaching when in 1946 when he was asked to come preach at First Baptist. However, when he arrived, Manley found that another preacher had come as well who wound up preaching instead of Manley.
“I said, ‘What in the world have I gotten myself into?’ Afterwards I told them ‘If you want me to come back I will,” Manley said, even though at the time, the church he was preaching at near Greensboro had offered to send him to school for free.
“The problem with that was their headquarters were right across from Bennett College where all those pretty girls were and that’s too much temptation for a preacher, no question about that,” Manley said, laughing.
So when First Baptist called again, Manley decided to give Chapel Hill another shot. “I said, ‘Well the Lord knows best,’ and so we’ve been right here ever since.”
Manley said Chapel Hill has supplied him with plenty of work over the years.
“This building (on Roberson Street) was not built here. I built this building and I built another building, the Hickory Road Baptist Church, where I pastored (simultaneously) for 46 years,” Manley said. “So it’s been one thing after the other. I haven’t had to look for any work; it just looks for me.”
“Dr. Manley can preach,” Edwards said. “Anybody who can hold down two station churches as long as he did, that meant he could preach. God gave him the strength to do two station churches preaching twice a Sunday to different congregations for many years, but John Manley didn’t wear out, he just kept on preaching…he preached the gospel so that men and women boys and girls might be saved. That’s the primary reason for it all.”
Besides ordaining Trice, Manley has licensed and ordained a dozen members of his congregation over the years.
“Most of us can talk about him as our spiritual minister, as the one under whom we accepted our call,” said the Rev. Josephine Harris, the church’s interim pastor. “Many ministers in the local ministry see him as the preacher’s preacher. He’s really there to provide that mentoring; be it spiritual be it theological, or be it son-or-daughter-I’m-giving-you-advice kind of stuff; just nurturing you spiritually and keeping us in our lane.”
“Definitely keeping us in our lane,” Harris added, laughing.
“I thought I’d heard and seen it all, but I tell you right now I feel as if I’m in a dream,” Manley told the audience after accepting the position.
“I know you have a lot of people calling on you but don’t send them to me, send them to God,” he joked.
At the reception after the ceremony, Manley said the day had been “beautiful, superb…I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better,” and then added with a glimmer in his eye, “Now I’m looking to take it easy for a while.”