Rev. Asa Roberts celebrating a half-century as pastor
The Rev. Asa Roberts never planned to be a preacher, and never wanted to come to New Kensington.
But when God calls, you answer.
He’s celebrating a half-century as pastor at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in New Kensington. And on Sunday, his congregation is holding day-of-recognition events to honor not only his ministry, but his career as a community leader and civil rights activist.
A leader on the streets and the sanctuary
As a reporter and editor at the former New Kensington Daily Dispatch in the 1960s, Paul Hess got to know Roberts quite well. He was among a group of leaders seeking better opportunities for blacks in the area.
“The Rev. Roberts is an extraordinary man, a combination of fiery anger and injustice, a restrained dignity that commanded respect and a deep love for the flock he serves at Mount Calvary,” Hess said.
Diane Hightower, of Lower Burrell, a church member for about 45 years, calls Roberts a preacher, a teacher and a leader.
Roberts helped establish Valley Royal Court Houses, a housing development near the church, served as a founding board member for Penn State New Kensington and invited a chapter of Narcotics Anonymous to meet at the church.
“He’s the kind of pastor to work with issues and people who needed the church, as opposed to some pastors who wouldn’t go to certain neighborhoods,” Hightower said.
Still in the pulpit
At 93, Roberts moves around his church gingerly, but well.
He wears a gray suit with neatly pleated pants, a black turtleneck and a three-button jacket. Trendy glasses with thick black frames sit perched on his forehead, a simple gold watch adorns his wrist and a white handkerchief peeks from his left lapel pocket.
The minister, who holds a doctorate in divinity from the Allegheny Union Baptist Association of Pittsburgh, prefers to be called “Pastor.” He keeps that doctorate in divinity certificate folded up in an envelope.
Two Sundays a month, he stands in front of about 30 wooden pews beneath a high-peaked roof. Light shines through vertical stained glass windows in the front and back of the room.
He also teaches Bible classes on Wednesdays and conducts funerals. Five assistant preachers help out.
At this past Wednesday’s class, the discussion topic was: “How could a loving God send someone to Hellâ¢ Why should a loving God send someone to Hell?”
Here’s the secret, he said: “God don’t send you to Hell. You go to Hell by choice.”
He holds two long index fingers in the air and says one’s Heaven and one’s Hell.
“When I leave here, they say ‘Pastor, where you going?’ I say ‘I’m going up.’ ‘Why you going up?’ … He looking at my soul. This old body ain’t no good to him.”
Roberts calls himself a “strong fundamental preacher.” Or, alternatively, “an old-timey preacher.”
The Lower Burrell resident said he loves sinners, just not their sin.
“I help them come from darkness to light,” he said.
A pastor’s child
Roberts was born in a Kirkland, Ga., log cabin. His father, himself a pastor, chose the name “Asa” from the Bible. He hoped that his firstborn son would find the ministry, too.
“My father, when he got married, he said I want my first child to be a boy child, and I want that boy child to be a preacher, and I never knew that,” Roberts said. “That was his wish for me.”
Roberts watched the tough life of his father during the Great Depression.
“When I got to be 8 or 9 years old, we hardly had food to eat during the Depression times,” Roberts said. “I said, ‘No preaching for me; you starve to death.’ ”
In June 1952, after returning from service as a master sergeant in the Army, Roberts was called to the ministry.
“You do get called, there’s a spirit,” he said. “When I told my Dad, he just screamed and hollered. He said ‘Thank you Jesus, my prayer’s been answered.’ ”
Roberts, who then lived in Detroit, studied at Detroit Bible Institute, then was assigned to Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Aliquippa. After seven years there, he was called to New Kensington.
“I didn’t want to really come here because the church was down there by the river,” he said. “Right in front of the church was a junk place where they put all the iron and stuff and the railroad ran by.”
So Roberts talked to his father about it, and his Dad gave some advice.
” ‘Son, you better listen to what the Lord wants you to do because you’re not your own boss now, you know,’ ” Roberts remembers his father saying. “He said, ‘Son, you better listen to what the Lord wants.’ ”
And as both his fathers — heavenly and earthly — would have it, Roberts arrived at New Kensington’s Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in 1961.
50 years later, he’s still preaching.
‘ We have achieved it’
The church has about 200 members, Roberts estimates. Both the church and the town are well integrated racially, he said.
“We have achieved it,” he said. “This little town is one of the most integrated towns.”
Roberts is a lifetime NAACP member who attended the 1963 March on Washington and grew up with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We would go to conventions together and see each other and play around each other and carry on,” Roberts remembers.
Years later, Roberts was in the throng of civil rights advocates for King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in the nation’s Capitol.
“There was so much unity there, and it wasn’t just all black folks. It was very well mixed, very well mixed. I just, I can’t describe it. I can’t describe it. It was marvelous. People from all nationalities mingling together for one purpose … just let us be free, that’s all we want.”
Almost five years later, Roberts attended King’s funeral.
“He knew that he wasn’t going to be around long,” Roberts said. “I tell everybody, if you walk close to the Lord and live you have an idea … that something’s coming.”
And while civil rights was a national issue, it was a local one, too.
Hess, a Harrison resident, pulled out a story he wrote about a large rally in downtown New Kensington in March of 1965. During the rally, Roberts spoke about the murder of a Unitarian minister from Boston who was beaten to death in Selma, Al., which was ground zero for civil rights activity — and often violent opposition.
“Who murdered him?” Roberts told a hushed crowd. “Every man, every woman, every boy, every girl who teaches and practices hate instead of love.”
The turbulent 1960s also brought Roberts together with Daniel and Anita Fine of New Kensington, who were civil rights activists and heavily involved Vietnam-era anti-war movements and efforts for nuclear disarmament.
Fine, a physician, described Roberts as “an icon for causes of peace and justice.”
“He provided great leadership in the civil rights struggle and he provided places where people could meet and talk about ending the war in Vietnam and bringing soldiers home,” Dr. Fine said. “He’s been consistently that kind of a leader and source of inspiration … He’s a model of courage
Following Roberts’ footsteps
Roberts and his wife, the late Egertha Taylor Roberts had four children — Cynthia Jean Rogers, Jacqueline J. Simmons, Asa Roberts Jr., and the late Marian Jeanette Roberts. Roberts truly loves the area and its people.
Asa Jr. — the Rev. Asa Roberts Jr. — is a third-generation preacher. His father prayed for him to follow in his footsteps, but like his own father before him, kept it quiet.
Apparently, that influence isn’t limited to Roberts’ own family.
About a month ago, the elder Roberts baptized a dozen people ages 6 and older.
One was Arnell Barnette, 9, a soon-to-be fourth grader at Arnold’s H.D. Berkey Elementary School. Every Sunday morning, Arnell shakes Roberts’ hand and says he wants to be a pastor when he grows up.
“I want to teach everybody to love God and let God come into your heart,” the boy says.
To Roberts, that’s a good feeling.
“It’s just amazing because he says ‘I want to be a pastor just like my pastor,’ ” Roberts said. “And as long as I live, I’m going to watch him grow.”
What: Journey of a Faithful Pastor
When: 10:45 a.m. worship, with guest preacher the Rev. Dr. Delano Paige, pastor emeritus of Roadman Street Missionary Baptist Church in Pittsburgh.
Where: Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, 1150 Fourth Ave., New Kensington