Horace Sanders Jr. doesn’t believe in the fire and brimstone approach. He’d much rather talk about the grace of God, not his wrath.
“We teach people to live within God’s grace, and to extend that grace to others,” said Sanders, senior pastor at the Mt. Olivet Missionary Baptist Church in the Hamilton Hill section of Schenectady.
Striving for perfection
“We all have shortcomings, and we all fall short of the glory of God. We try to remember to teach that we should be open to people and to forgive them, and not be hypercritical of their faults. We strive toward perfection, but we all have faults.”
A Bronx native who grew up in rural South Carolina, Sanders has been pastor at Mt. Olivet for nearly a year, filling the vacancy left by the retirement of the Rev. Albert J. Holman in the fall of 2010.
A full-time administrator at CDPHP, Sanders is in a part-time position at Mt. Olivet, but it’s something he puts his whole heart and soul into.
“I love everything about this job, and if I didn’t I wouldn’t be doing it,” said Sanders, who lives with his wife, Debra, and their three children (Ariana Chanel, Trinity Michelle and Horace Christian III) in Clifton Park.
“There are tough parts, and it requires you to wear multiple hats. But the sense of fulfillment you get, the sense of being useful to God, makes you enjoy every part of it.”
He was born in the Bronx almost 44 years ago. His father died when Horace was just 5, and his mother decided to relocate with her four children — Horace, his twin sister, and two other daughters — to Ridgeland, S.C., where she had grown up.
“That’s where she was born, and she didn’t want to raise her kids in the city on the street as a single mother,” said Sanders. “So she took us down there until we all graduated from high school, and then she headed back to New York. She had done her job. She had helped us all get out on our own.”
Going to church was always a big part of family life for Sanders.
“It was a very rural life, country living, and I don’t know if we really all liked it that much,” he said. “But it turned out to be the best for us. We were sheltered, and the avenues to access in our lives were limited to school and church. I had the foundation of church laid in my life. We were always going to church.”
For a while, however, he drifted away from his religious upbringing.
“Like a lot of people, you get in your teens and you want to stretch your wings and branch away from the church a bit,” he said. “But it got to the point where I realized something was missing. Being out in the world wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, so I started seeking God again.”
It wasn’t until he came to New York City in 1990 that his path became clear.
“All I knew was in South Carolina, so I felt like I had to come to New York and learn about the place of my birth,” he said. “I basically followed my mother to New York. I found some work in the health care field, and then I felt like God gave me the call to the ministry. To me, when you’re called to the ministry you have to be trained and equipped for the task, so I went to school.”
He continued working and taking classes at the College of New Rochelle, majoring in religious studies. He graduated in January of 2002 and then headed to Madison, N.J., where he began taking seminary courses at Drew University.
Sanders got his master of divinity degree from Drew in October of 2008, and at the time had already been preaching at the Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Peekskill.
“It was a lot of work, but it was also an exciting time, and ironically Drew was not a Baptist seminary but a Methodist one,” he said.
“I think the program there proved very beneficial to me. It was designed to bring in diversity and give people different experiences. It was designed to stretch you and expand your thinking in how you approach your ministry, and I enjoyed it very much.”
After five years of preaching full time in Peekskill, he and his family moved to Clifton Park, began working at CDPHP, and started going to church at the Union Missionary Baptist Church in Albany. He and Debra, who got her own master of divinity degree from the New York Theological Seminary in May of 2003, were named associate pastors.
Good first impression
“When he and his wife showed up here, I put them both to work,” said the Rev. Victor Covington, senior pastor at Union Missionary in Albany. “I got a good strong impression of him and his wife right away. Horace is definitely a people person. He adapts easily to any conversation at any level, and he’s very strong in his Christian convictions. I knew he wasn’t going to be long between churches.”
Sanders said his time at Union Missionary was well spent.
“It was a good time for me to sit and listen to God and wait for his next assignment,” he said. “Then I got a call from Schenectady; they had been without a pastor for a while, and they asked me to come in and preach one Sunday morning.”
According to Deacon Robert Frazier, the search committee and just about everybody else at Mt. Olivet that day liked what Sanders said and how he said it. After two more visits and an official interview, the church members overwhelmingly voted him in as the group’s next pastor.
“We were looking for someone who could preach and be a good leader,” said Frazier, who has been a member at Mt. Olivet since moving to Schenectady in 1963. “We asked him questions. We liked his answers, and we also really liked the way he teaches and preaches. He’s doing a very good job.”
Although Sanders doesn’t live in Schenectady, Frazier says he has become a vital part of the community.
“He has worked with others to see if we can work out a solution to stop the violence here,” said Frazier. “He has really gotten involved in the community since he showed up, and he’s a great listener. He’s an outgoing person, a person you can talk to with a good sense of humor, but he also likes to listen. He enjoys listening to people and hearing what they have to say.”
And, if Sanders doesn’t agree with someone’s position on a certain biblical or spiritual issue, it’s not the end of the world.
“People who come to our church have the freedom to make choices and believe what they want to believe,” he said. “Other churches might be really strict about what their position is on a subject, and while I teach the Scriptures and share what I know, I put the onus on them to make their own decisions. We have the freedom to choose, but we will all have to stand before the judgement throne on that day and give an account of why and what we have chosen.”
Sanders doesn’t enjoy labeling himself or his congregation, and when it comes to conservatives or liberals, he says there is plenty of room for both in his church.
“We have our Baptist ideals and we try to live a life established upon the Baptist polity,” he said.
“That’s what we ascribe to, but a certain person’s conservatism or liberalism is something they are free to express here. I would say that we here wouldn’t consider ourselves extremely conservative, and to be honest there’s a conservative factor within the Baptist denomination that kind of scares me. I don’t consider myself to be liberal or conservative, but I think other people might generally describe us as being more liberal than conservative.”
Regardless of the political, cultural and social makeup of his congregation, things are happening at Mt. Olivet. Numbers have increased since Sanders came upon the scene, and the church is doing strong missionary work under his guidance.
“Missionary is the word that describes the thrust of our ministry,” he said. “We strive to share and help in every aspect that is possible. We try to provide at least a 10th of our overall budget toward mission ministry. It could be here at home, when somebody gets burned out of their house in the Schenectady area, or it could be donations for relief of the Hurricane Sandy victims, or tragedies that hit Haiti or Japan, or wherever. If it’s not a major disaster, it could be just helping out someone who is struggling to get their next meal. We help out in any way we can.”
Sanders is also a big believer in the ecumenical approach. On New Year’s Day, his church hosted a special interfaith service.
“I believe it’s absolutely important to network through communities of faith,” he said. “We have to build our relationships to help build coalitions to better get things done. I think that sort of thing is very beneficial.”
The initial congregation of the Mt. Olivet Missionary Baptist Church met in the 1930s on Broadway in Schenectady. The current church building went up in 1975, and there are early plans afoot to put on a major addition.
“We are definitely looking to expand,” said Sanders. “We are very much in need of space.”