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Longtime PC(USA) pastor the Rev. Wayne A. Steele Sr. announces retirement

The celebrated pastor of Louisville’s Peace Presbyterian Church served at ‘4210’ for 23 1/2 years

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Wayne A. Steele Sr., who served Peace Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, for 23 1/2 years, is calling it a career on June 30. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

LOUISVILLE — Peace Presbyterian Church has had the Rev. Wayne Steele’s number since 2000.

It’s 4210. And don’t ever forget it.

Newly arrived at Peace from his first pastorate at First United Presbyterian Church in Anniston, Alabama, the former businessman said that when he first started serving the 63-year-old African American congregation in southeast Louisville, the people in the community — and even  Mid-Kentucky Presbytery — “acted like they didn’t know where Peace was!”

“And that’s when I started realizing maybe I should tell them the address so that they would have a good understanding of where Peace was,” said Steele. “It came out of my being a shepherd; and the sheep, who have a tendency to go out of the gate, need to know where home is. And home for you is 4210 East Indian Trail. Wherever you go, 4210 is home for you. It’s okay to wander but you have to know your address.”

Almost overnight, Steele’s numerical shorthand “caught on like wildfire,” with “4210” regularly and enthusiastically called out during Sunday worship, at the church’s annual city-wide Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. brunch hosted by the Men of Peace, and at nearly every community event and presbytery meeting.

And the lost sheep of scripture weren’t the only inspiration behind Steele’s clever branding.

“When the prodigal son came to his senses, he had to come home,” Steele said, citing another well-known biblical story, which — in a sense — mirrors his own.

“When I was in high school, my father wanted me to go to Austin [Presbyterian Theological] Seminary, but I told him that pastors don’t make enough money and that wasn’t something I was leaning towards,” he recalled. “Even though my father wanted me to be a minister and he kept on preaching that sermon way back in the ‘70s, because I wanted to be just like my father and go to Xavier University [of Louisiana], when he was filling out the paperwork for me to go to Austin, I was applying to Xavier behind his back. I didn’t feel called or led to the ministry.”

And yet, Steele acknowledged, “the calling was always there.” He just had to find his way home.

“I’m a fourth-generation Presbyterian so all I’ve ever known is Presbyterianism,” he said. “If they took my blood, it wouldn’t be A or B but P for Presbyterian, it’s been in me for so long! My father was a big-time elder at Berean Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, and when I became an elder, I took his place. He died in September 1978, and I was ordained in December of 1978. But it wasn’t until around 1990 that I started thinking again about my calling.”

At that time, Steele was enjoying professional and financial success as the part-owner of two thriving McDonald’s franchises in Miami, Florida, where he was active in a local PC(USA) congregation. That’s when his whole world changed in an instant.

“One morning at 4 a.m., someone broke into our McDonald’s, so I got up to see what happened,” he said. “I waited for the police to investigate, then I got into my car and went home. As soon as I got home, I got another call saying the same McDonald’s was broken into again. That’s when the Spirit of the Lord said, ‘This is not for you. This is not what I want you to know.’ Later that day when I talked to my partner, he shocked me when he said, ‘I knew you were called into the ministry; I was just wondering when you’d become aware of it.’ I said, ‘I wish you had told me about it!’”

That was just the affirmation that Steele was looking for, confirming unequivocally for him that ordained ministry was indeed what God was calling him to do.

After graduating from the historically Black, Presbyterian-affiliated Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Steele was ordained in 1995 to his first call in the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley.

“It was a calling, and once the calling takes place, you accept it,” Steele said wistfully. “That’s when it really turns it to a j-o-y. And for these 28 years, it has really been a joy. I have absolutely, positively no regrets of leaving McDonald’s, leaving the business world, or leaving a successful accounting practice. No regrets.”

And once he had fully accepted that he was called, discerning a move to Peace in 2000 came easily.

“After the search committee contacted me, I had to hurry up and put a PIF [Personal Information Form] together because I didn’t have one,” Steele said. “Then one thing led to another, and they invited me and my family here for the church’s MLK Brunch and showed us around the city. My wife Rosemary and especially my daughter liked what they saw. You see in Anniston, all the high schools graduated on the football field, so it was a special attraction to our daughter to think about graduating at the Kentucky [Exposition] Center!”

But while his call to serve Peace was undeniable, Steele admitted that his decision to retire as of June 30 has been “somewhat rough.” Ending ties with the congregation he has served for so long — and where his three children and all four of his grandchildren worship — is not without its challenges.

Yet he knows, as he enters his next chapter of ministry, that the church is in good hands — God’s hands.

“Rev. Steele brought a new and refreshing energy to the congregation of Peace over 23 years ago,” said Ruling Elder Denise Tyner Overstreet, a member of the church for 61 years and clerk of session for the last 20. “He helped to refine and define the mission of the church. Rev. Steele has worked hard within the Newburg community to build trust and alliances with other churches and the people who live in the area surrounding the church. While addressing the needs of the Newburg community, he never forgot the importance of being a part of the greater community of Louisville, the commonwealth of Kentucky, the United States, the world, the Presbyterian faith and the God we serve.”

Peace Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, plans a June 24 celebration for the 23 1/2 years of service of the Rev. Wayne A. Steele Sr. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

For Steele, one of his greatest joys over his many years serving Louisville’s most diverse community was Peace’s Kids’ Café, which the church sponsored and hosted for seven years.

“The Kids’ Café was something else,” he recalled fondly. “We touched so many little kids’ lives. In fact, some of them are still running around in the community and they still know me as Rev. Steele. It brings me much joy. ‘How is Miss Norma Jean [Maddox],’ they all ask me. She was the director of it. We helped the kids with math, reading, writing papers and doing their homework. It was like the Genesis story — God stepped out where there was nothing and made it something.”

To make the Kids’ Café a success, Steele said that the congregation overcame an increasing number of obstacles to gather all of the necessary resources and tirelessly recruit sufficient volunteers — including young people from area high schools — to develop the kind of relationships that make a difference in young lives.

Today, both the congregation and the historically Black Newburg community continue to face both similar — and different — challenges.

“The needs are greater, the poor are getting poorer,” Steele said. “The other challenge is that we have a shortage of volunteers. The church is competing against other things in the world for people’s time. And then there’s the challenge that Covid-19 left us with. People are just not coming back. That’s universal. That’s not a Peace thing or a Newburg thing.”

In addressing systemic poverty and such other universal challenges as structural racism, the Matthew 25 Mid-Kentucky Presbytery has faithfully walked alongside Steele and the people of Peace, one of the presbytery’s 20 Matthew 25 congregations.

“Rev. Wayne Steele has been, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the presbytery’s ‘drum majors for justice,’” said the Rev. Dr. John L. Odom, general presbyter. “He has been a ‘drum major for peace.’ He has been a valuable colleague and a source of wisdom within the presbytery.”

Steele has also been a champion for congregational vitality by growing disciples.

“My personal spiritual growth is off the chain,” said Ruling Elder Robert Charles. “Over the 23 years I have worshiped and worked with Rev. Steele, I can say he is a tireless worker for the Lord. Our mission statement, ‘Bible Based, Christ Centered, Mission Minded,’ exemplifies the spirit Rev. Steele leaves with us here at Peace Church.”

As Steele prepares to say a final goodbye at a congregational celebration that is planned for Sunday, June 25, he said he is looking forward to “enjoying life at a leisurely pace.”

“I’d like to be able to do some things that I want to do when I want to do them instead of in between a meeting or sermon preparation or hospital visitation,” he said. “We almost never get a Sabbath day but when we do, if the phone rings and someone is in the hospital, we’re going. That’s the nature of the calling that is within us.”

In a letter addressed to the congregation dated May 23, Steele wrote, “I hope you welcome your interim pastor and the next installed pastor with the same excitement, love and warmth that enveloped me when I arrived as a stranger among you in March 2000. I will try to honor you by focusing my energy on that which God has determined for my future, and will joyfully, in whatever I do, share all that you have taught me about being a pastor.”

And it all happened at 4210.

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