By Paul F. South
As Dr. Leo Day finished the last note of the last song he would sing as Worship Pastor at Pensacola’s Olive Baptist Church, the congregation rose to its feet with a five minute cascade of applause.
Some worshipers –men and women alike – brushed away tears with their fingers, or dabbed at their eyes with tissue.
Day is the new dean of the School of Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He leaves after eight years at Olive, a time Senior Pastor Dr. Ted Traylor called “groundbreaking”, both culturally and creatively.
On the face of it, there is nothing extraordinary about a minister or rabbi or priest leaving a congregation. Most departures rarely cause a ripple beyond the church family or the immediate neighborhood.
But this is different. Day, an African-American, served as minister of music at one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s large – and predominately white –churches. As the tears and cheers of that last Sunday attest, Day leaves Olive as a beloved figure.
“This has been one of the great joys of my life,” Day said in a recent interview.” Every season that God has called me to, I never saw them coming. He has literally plucked me out of my environment and said, `I want you to do this.’”
The Almighty, Day said, used Hurricane Katrina to bring him to Pensacola. In late July, 2005, Day had come to Olive as interim worship pastor from the faculty at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Before Katrina battered New Orleans to its knees in August of that year, Day was ready to retire there, even in his mid-30s. Academia, and the city with its good, bad and ugly, were his passion.
The New Orleans campus was flooded by waters that lapped at the tops of street signs. What was supposed to be a temporary position in Pensacola was about to change.
“Had it not been for Katrina, I would not be here,” Day said. “That’s why I say God is very sovereign. He’s very deliberate in His intentions for me and what He communicates to me. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people were affected by Katrina and I often joke— and it’s only a joke – that God sent Katrina just for me, only to find out that He sent Katrina for many people that He was calling to other places, some directly and some indirectly as far as they’re concerned. But God is direct in everything He does.”
“Had Olive called –had any church called –before Katrina hit – I think I probably would have laughed out loud and said ` I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’ I am completely happy teaching at a university for the rest of my life and God is so good to me,” Day said. “I would have missed the will of God.”
After months of searching and prayer, however, Olive’s choice was clear. Leo Day was their man to lead its music ministry. The choice –one that Day describes as a “brave move” by Traylor – was not without controversy. The thought of an African-American in a leadership role angered some.
“He’s very sensitive to the spirit. He knew that God had done something sovereign here because he’d been talking about race relations before I came, but had no idea as to how to do it. Suddenly Katrina happens and suddenly, I’m here. This is God,” Day said.
Traylor stood his ground, even after contentious deacons meetings. Some deacons –a minority — departed.
“Instead of embracing the call of God in their hearts and the call of change, they left,” Day said.
Day didn’t flinch, thanks to a deep faith and sense of self instilled in Day and his seven siblings by his mother, Mary Elizabeth, while growing up in Canton, Miss.
“My mom taught me very early on what to expect in life, and sadly a lot of what she taught me has turned out to be true. But she always taught us that we w than thaty. ere bigger We are not to be like them, whoever “them” is. She taught me who I am, who I am to be, and who I am to be in all situations. She raised eight kids by herself and made sure we were fat and happy. We were a very poor family. But who we were in terms of things was never to determine our stature in life. She taught us that. My mom is my hero.”
When Day joined the Olive staff in those early days, he could count the number of black faces in the congregation on one hand. Five years ago, he counted nearly 300 in one of two Sunday morning services. It’s diversity has grown in the years since, in keeping with words of a children’s hymn: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”
”That was four or five years ago,” Day said. “As Baptists, we love numbers and stuff but that was very telling for me that day. When you see someone up front that resembles you, you are more prone to walk through the door and you are going to stay. Why? Because it looks like family to you. That has been a very beautiful thing.”
What does it say about the Southern Baptist Convention, and about Olive?
“We’ve come a long way. If you are a trailblazer, you don’t have time to know that you are a trailblazer, because you’re so busy doing what you do that you’re not aware of the impact; you’re nowhere near evaluating what you’ve done. For me, it comes down to a certain boldness that God would not call a black man into a white church that was insecure. My boast in in Christ, and in my mom, not in me.”
Traylor agreed. “I think there’s two avenues there. First, it’s a statement about Olive and the progress that’s been made there. We made some steps in saying and formalizing that we wanted to be leaders in racial reconciliation,” he said. “There’s been great progress there. Wonderful steps in the right direction.”
Day’s ministry reached beyond the church. He performed with the Choral Society of Pensacola and the Pensacola Opera, and served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of West Florida. And, multiple times over the years, performed pro bono at naturalization services for new American citizens, singing patriotic American songs in the native
languages of the new citizens. Of his activities outside the church, Day said, “This makes my heart tick the most.”
Xiaolun Chen, creative director of the choral society, said Day has helped build a bridge between the church and the arts community.
“He’s a wonderful person, always professional Chen said. “We realize that there is a distance between (the two groups), but we do our best to bring them as close as we can. Leo did a wonderful job in both areas. I believe quality music can bring people together. He’s contributed to greater understanding between the Christian community and the arts community.”
Within the church, Traylor said, Day brought three things: “Joy, energy and excellence. Losing those things in days to come will be tough for us to deal with because his infectious smile just brings joy to the people. Then his energy that he has. He’s a tireless individual. And he does what he does with excellence. Those three things will impact our church for a long time,” Traylor said. ”For God to put us together has said a good thing about bringing black and white together in the church. I think that has made impact in our community.”
Day is hesitant to call himself a bridge builder or trailblazer. But there is one message he wants to leave behind as he heads west, beyond a choir and church that loves him, or his community activity or anything else.
“Apart from the smile, apart from the musical training, apart from the choir. Apart from all he does, race relations and everything else, Leo Day is a man who loves Jesus. Everything I do is in response to His leading in my life.”
Day’s last song at Olive?
“He Leadeth Me.”