Pastor began, ended ministry at McDonough church

Photo by Elaine Rackley 
More than 1,200 people attended funeral services for Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Renita Helen Thomas.

Photo by Elaine Rackley More than 1,200 people attended funeral services for Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Renita Helen Thomas.

Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church said farewell to its leader Wednesday. Senior Pastor Renita Helen Thomas, 51, died on Oct. 20, of cancer. She began serving as the church’s pastor on June 26.

An estimated 1,200 well-wishers were at the services on Wednesday. Among them were McDonough Mayor Billy Copeland, and his wife, Gloria, other civic and community leaders, and nearly 300 clergy members, including Bishop Alfred L. Norris, interim pastor of Wesley Chapel, Rev. Sharma D. Lewis, former pastor of Wesley Chapel, Senior Pastor Danny Alexander, of Cedar Grove UMC, and Senior Pastor Richard Winn, of Ben Hill UMC.

Civil Rights icon Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, 90, of the Cascade United Methodist Church, delivered the sermon.

“Renita was at home with the young people of the church,” he said. “Renita was at home with the elderly of the church, and Renita was at home with Renita. She was comfortable with herself. She’s gone home now; you don’t have to cry for Renita anymore.”

Thomas, of McDonough, joined Wesley Chapel UMC at age two, with her brother, Edward “Ed” Thomas and their parents, Edward B. and Claudine G. Thomas. In an August interview with the Henry Daily Herald, Thomas was beaming about her return to her home church.

“The best thing about being at Wesley Chapel [now] is having the opportunity to serve and make an impact with people I know,” she said.

“Pastor Thomas had an elite advantage of knowing half of the church population personally,” said Scott Mahone, Wesley Chapel UMC Missions Ministry chairperson. “Her very first mission was to reunite and strengthen the church family, and she accomplished that by conducting a series of community get-togethers.”

Mahone said he has known Thomas and her family since childhood. He and the pastor’s brother, Edward, were roommates at the University of Georgia. “Pastor Thomas fully embraced the strategic plans that had been developed by [former pastor, Sharma D. ] Lewis, and the congregation to take our church forward. Although her time at Wesley was brief, her impact and legacy will be felt for decades,” he said.

Pastor Thomas credited Rev. King A. Harris with helping her become ordained in the United Methodist Church. While attending courses at West Georgia College, Thomas said she read the Bible in its entirety. She graduated in 1981. At age 23, she became an associate pastor under Walter L. Kimbrough, at Cascade United Methodist Church, in Atlanta. In 1986, she was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church. She served six years under Rev. Lowery. In 1993, she became pastor of Cedar Grove UMC, and served for 10 years. She was the congregation’s first black pastor.

Thomas had assignments as associate director in church development of the North Georgia Conference, and as an associate director in Connectional Ministry. She also worked as the Director of Black Church Development for five years. She, and her brother, Edward, were black students who helped to integrate McDonough Elementary School.

Renita Thomas’ parents were Henry County educators. Pastor Thomas’ father died in 2002. Her father heard her preach in person, her mother had to listen to her daughter’s first message as a minister on a cassette tape.

In 1983, her mother died of a heart attack, at the age of 57, three days after listening to her daughter’s first sermon.