Robert J. Wright, Sr. shares fond memories of a robust Tampa District Lay Organization that led the old Tampa Annual Conference.
By Joyce C. Pink
Our Voice Writer
Robert J. Wright, Sr., “could go on and on” about the African Methodist Episcopal Church and his love for Mt. Olive, Tampa, where he is a life-long member. Another special place in his heart belongs to the Lay Organization.
“The Lay must be about the business of teaching about the A.M.E. Church. That’s what the goal should be. Teaching the laws of the church. The Lay needs be strong in each local church.” That’s what Mr. Wright wants the modern-day Lay to know.
Wise words from a wise man who once led the Tampa District Lay Organization, and a man whom the Rev. Gregory Gay, pastor of Mt. Olive, calls “an icon in the A.M.E. Church.”
Mr. Wright’s earliest memories of the Lay go back to the old Tampa Annual Conference that stretched along the west coast from Inverness in Citrus County, south to Naples, in Collier County.
“Benny Favors, Tampa District President, was my mentor. B.S. Proctor was Tampa Conference president, as well as the local president at Mt. Olive. They got me started in the Lay as a teen, around 18 or 19. I was a delegate to two General Conferences as a youth and to three as an adult,” says Mr. Wright, 82.
“It was an amazing experience to see the church at work, to see how laws are made. To see how bishops are elected and how appointments are made.”
J.L. Williams, who served as Episcopal Lay President, named Mr. Wright chair of the Legislative Committee for the Episcopal District. He also served on the Legislative Committee on the Connectional level and was instrumental in submitting legislation to the General Conference.
Mr. Favors and Mr. Proctor each served 24 consecutive years in their respective positions. That was just before the 8-year term limit mandate was put in place. All totaled, Mr. Wright served 23 nonconsecutive years as Tampa District president. “I was encouraged to pick up the banner that Benny Favors laid down. We were both out of Mt. Olive,” he said. On July 10, 2005, the Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church Lay Organization renamed itself the Favors-Wright Lay Organization in honor of the two leaders.
“Every church was strong when it came to the Lay. We had 13 churches on the Tampa District. Each one was strong because each one had strong leadership. We would see to it that pastors organized the Lay. Once, I had about 140 people in one Tampa District meeting. James Honors of Lakeland, who was a Conference president, once said that I had more people in my District meetings than he had in his Conference meetings.”
Mr. Wright was also an innovative leader. He says he was the first president in the Eleventh Episcopal District to hold a convention on what was then called a “Presiding Elder District.”
He remembers his travels with “stalwart Lay soldiers.” Most are no longer here, but some are. Names such as Cora Bell Larkin (the first female president of the Conference), Susie Padgett, Benjamin Padgett (a staunch Lay member before he became a minister), Herbert Bassett, Curtiss Wilson, Henry and Elizabeth Smith, Alma Morris and Sallye Holmes are names that roll off his tongue. All are legends who deserve to be honored.
Mr. Wright ceased being active in the Lay around 2001. He retired to take care of his wife (Mrs. Archia Wright passed in 2013) and then, his mother became ill. “I just can’t go like I used to. I know my limitations. I thank God for allowing me to reach 82.”
On Father’s Day this year, during a ceremony that brought tears to his eyes, Mr. Wright was honored for his longevity and his dedication to Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Gay calls Mr. Wright a close friend to him and family. “We’ve been through ups and downs, trials and tribulations.”
Mr. Wright, always full of information, serves as the “Holy Steward” at Mt. Olive.
“If you need info, he’s the one to call,” said the Rev. Gay. “He’s well-versed on A.M.E. history. He was way ahead of his time. He was an app (computer application) before there was one.”
This article first appeared in Our Voice, the official quarterly newsletter of the West Coast Conference Lay Organization.