If there is a single adjective to describe a half-century plus in ministry, including 34 years as Wayman A.M.E. Church pastor, Rev. Dr. Alphonse Reff, Sr. would prefer “servant.”
“First, be faithful to God,” said Reff. “Second, love the people. Feed the people as well, then become a person who’s involved in the community…” He steps down later this month as the longest serving pastor in church’s nearly 100-year history.
He and his life partner, Mrs. Janice Reff, will be celebrated on Sunday, September 17 at Wayman A.M.E. Church during the 11 am worship service. The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul honored Reff with an honorary day last April. A.M.E. Council of Bishops President and Fourth Episcopal District Presiding Bishop John White came to town to speak at Reff’s retirement celebration this past spring.
Prior to leaving office in January, President Barack Obama sent Reff a congratulatory letter, which might have been the final step in a year of celebration and recognition.
Mrs. Reff’s ministry includes singing in the choir and leading the church’s Margaret Rose Missionary Society that supports the church’s community outreach.
The couple spoke to the MSR last week inside Wayman’s sanctuary.
“To give back is my greatest asset,” said Mrs. Reff. “My greatest joy is to be able to come to church on Sunday, and go around the whole congregation and speak and love, and give a hug to everyone in the congregation.
“Because that…may be the only hug that they get for the whole week, not just for the day. That is my gift to the congregation — I love on the people.”
The Reffs were assigned to Wayman in 1984 after serving at St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church in Duluth. During their leadership, the church mortgage was retired in 1998 and major renovations to the sanctuary and undercroft were completed in 2003.
During Rev. Reff’s tenure, he served on many community boards and projects. In 1999, he and CEO Eric Mahmoud, founder of Harvest Network of Schools, formed a then-unheard of church-school collaborative.
Bishop Richard Howell, of Shiloh Temple International, said, “This man certainly can write the book on integrity and character, not just as a preacher but also as a human being.”
The couple didn’t envision such a long stint, especially when typical pastoral appointments in the A.M.E. Church are for one year at a time. “We always envisioned being here then moving elsewhere,” Reff said. “Number one, I didn’t think I would be here this long based on the history of the A.M.E. Church.”
He remembered one member’s “motivating” advice: “On the first Sunday here, [the person said] ‘Don’t unpack your bags, because this is a seven-year church.’” Reff was told the longest pastor’s service was 14 years. Reff joked that he intended to retire from Wayman.
Mrs. Reff didn’t think they would be there long either. “We thought we would be staying here for seven years… God was not ready for us to move, and the bishop saw fit that we come back year after year. And the congregation saw fit to accept us back year after year.”
“By the grace of God, I’ve served the longest of any pastor here,” said Reff. “Records can be broken, but I don’t think it will be broken in my time.”
Both also are very supportive of young people from cradle to college, whether in church or away from it, members or non-members. Pastor Reff proudly recognized their accomplishments from the pulpit during services.
“We always have a love for our kids,” reiterated Mrs. Reff. Pastor Reff added, “It is important to be connected, because children, whether they are in the church or not, you got to bring them in and let them know that the faith community loves them. We have to exemplify our Christianity with the kids, with the babies. The kids always will have a special place in our hearts.”
The Reffs are also retiring as the founding Presiding Elder and First Lady of the 10-church St. Paul Minneapolis District, which spans through the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Iowa. He was appointed when it was founded in 2004. The district’s youngest church, Lily of the Valley in Apple Valley, celebrated its 10th anniversary; Reff was the scheduled preacher there.
“He is approachable, available, compassionate, caring, discerning, insightful, committed and dedicated,” noted Lily of The Valley founding Pastor Rev. Dr. William Smith. “A country preacher with a sophisticated style that is truly the envy of every aspiring clergy.”
Mrs. Reff said, “It’s been 13 long years and it has been a blessing for both of us to be able to have very good fellowships with all of the churches on our district. We thank God for that.”
Reff will officially retire from his appointed posts this month at the Chicago Annual Conference in Chicago on September 25-29. He is the first A.M.E. pastor in Minnesota to ever hold duel posts on a regular basis.
Finally, Pastor and Presiding Elder Reff simply reflected: “If you have anything to say [about him], say, ‘he was a servant of God, and he served the people here. He tried to do the work of the Master.’ My living won’t be in vain. That would be my legacy.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com