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After 39 years, the man who led the church with the motto, The Church with an Open Door -- Salem Union Baptist Church, has passed on God's baton.
Reverend Charles W. Saunders was celebrated at a retirement service at the Taylor Street church on Sunday, May 19, known as Pentecost Sunday. He was told as he went off into retirement that he was simply headed into a brand new season.
According to Mount Tabor Full Gospel Baptist Church Senior Pastor Bishop Neil Ellis, as Dr. Saunders retires he should do so knowing that he was a man sent from God. He told Saunders that if he was not that he would not have been able to do all the things he was able to.
Saunders served the convention as its longest serving president to date. Under his leadership, he led the way in bringing Jordan Prince Williams High School out of debt and made it an attractive and impactful academic institution once again. He served as its principal for 17 years.
Under Saunders' leadership, the school grew so rapidly that the leadership of the Baptist Convention saw the need to begin an academic institution that now bears his name -- Charles W. Saunders Baptist School. He was also the brainchild and driving force behind the establishment of the Bahamas Baptist College.
Saunders served as advisor to the Baptist Community College, superintendent of the Bahamas Baptist Union and president of the National Baptist Convention, all while sitting in the pastor's chair of Salem. And it is said that the church's membership never felt cheated or deprived as he went about his other duties. Ellis said Saunders was able to do all that he did because he was a man sent from God.
"In every generation, God raises up a man with a specific purpose for a specific people, gives him a specific assignment for a specific season. It should be very clear to all and sundry, that Charles Wellington Saunders did not choose this vocation. God chose him," Ellis told a packed church.
"I'm satisfied that one of the main reasons [Saunders] was able to operate on such a high level with such an accelerated pace and accomplished so very much was because he was chosen. [And] when God chooses a man, he does not ask for anybody's opinion, nor does he seek anybody's permission. God chooses that man and without getting anybody's approval, he sets [him] into place. And when God chooses a man for a particular assignment, one thing is guaranteed, he equips that man for the assignment."
A done deal
The Mt. Tabor church leader told Saunders that as he demitted office, he should know that he was chosen for and appointed to his pastoral assignment and that it was not something that he stumbled into. He told Saunders that the last 39 years of his life was a done deal even before he was born.
"I believe the reason why Dr. Saunders was so effective and impactful, the reason he was so powerful and influential, the reason why he was able to help bring so many people back on track with their lives and ministries, the reason why he was able to rescue the perishing and care for the dying, the reason why he was able to lift the standard of ministry in The Bahamas, particularly in the Baptist order for over four decades, I believe is because he was chosen for this," Ellis said.
"Charles Saunders was able to do so much, and at the same time, maintain a high level of integrity. This man had the hand of God on him. He was chosen and appointed to the Salem Union Baptist Church and at the same time he was chosen and appointed to the Bahamas Baptist Union and at the same time he was chosen and appointed to the Bahamas National Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention, and at the same time he was on the board of The College of The Bahamas, and at the same time he was the chairman of the Police Service Commission, and at the same time he served on the board of the Central Bank of The Bahamas. How could a man do all this, except he's been chosen."
Saunders was also the only person for whom the constitution of the Baptist convention was changed three times to extend his tenure. Prior to those times, every other president had served three years and moved on. According to Ellis, who was convention president at the time, the generation of leaders apparently did not want to get rid of Saunders. He said they wanted him to continue to serve. Saunders had to finally say he'd had enough.
"Charles W. Saunders was chosen and appointed with a specific assignment to bear fruit. Over the last 39 years, one year short of a generation, many persons can attest that they found life in Jesus Christ through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God through this man," Ellis said.
Heaven applauding for work well done
Ellis added that Rev. Charles Saunders, a man referred to as a prophet, pastor and teacher, was chosen and appointed to bear fruit so that God is glorified, and that Charles Saunders had been faithful to the assignment; and that Saunders' life is an assurance to those who have been chosen, appointed, assigned to bear fruit and remain faithful to their assignment.
As he retired, Saunders, who was born in Moss Town, Exuma, was told that he fought his fight, that he ran his race and unapologetically kept the faith; that he came to the capital city and rose to national prominence, including occupying the seat of the highest office in his denomination.
"While hell is still afraid of him, heaven I believe is applauding him for work well done," said Ellis.
Ellis reminded the congregation that Saunders had touched and made a difference in the lives of so many people in The Bahamas and North America. He said that many of the Baptist preachers who lead congregations today have been ordained by Saunders, recommended to their church by him, had their churches commissioned by him, were mentored by him, or in some cases, married by him. He did all of the aforementioned for Ellis. He said there was not one significant event in his life over the past 32 years that Saunders did not have a hand in, and that he and his wife Patrice were indebted to him.
"He was always there for the young, budding pastors and preachers. He understood that a great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men. It is noteworthy that several years ago, the Ingraham government saw fit to name a significant highway in his honor -- the Charles W. Saunders highway," Ellis said.
Saunders, who was ordained an assistant pastor in 1968, was described as a Bahamian living legend, a history maker, a faith walker and an agent of change in his generation. He said as he looked down at the congregation gathered to celebrate his retirement, the one thing he did was to thank God that it was not a funeral service. He also thanked God for getting him to where he is today, and recalled that at the time of his ordination he said to God to trust him and that he would do what God wanted him to do and say.
"My philosophy has been lean on the Lord and He will make crooked paths straight, rough paths smooth and He will stand with you," said Saunders.
He also reminded Bahamians to be kind to each other and that God blesses kindness. Saunders said he would always be there for people who need his help -- other than financially, as he is officially a retiree now.
Present at Saunders' retirement service was Prime Minister Perry Christie, as well as the former prime minister, Hubert Ingraham, and Leader of the Opposition Dr. Hubert Minnis. Evangelist Maureena Dean, a 93-year-old church member who had been ill for some time, made it a point to attend the service for Saunders. Students of Charles W. Saunders School and their teachers were also present.