He may traffic in the celestial spheres, but his feet are firmly planted on Earth. My first chat with Rev. H. Gene Sykes—a Vietnam era veteran—introduced me to a pretty practical guy—no epiphanies or Road to Damascus moments.
“I started out as an electrical engineer,” he relates. “I was working in the corporate world around the age of 33 or 34 when I began to hear God calling me to do something different.”
Again, I was wondering if it was like Moses and the burning bush or Saul being thrown off his horse by a bolt of light, but no.
“I avoided it for a while more,” he says. It was “14 years until I finally accepted the call, became ordained, and came here.”
But he was no stranger to church. “I grew up in the church; from a child my mother took us to Sunday school.”
He’s a native of Tallahassee, Fla., and was educated there through college but got his electrical engineering degree in Cleveland.
“I was comfortable doing what I was doing,” he says. “It was very rewarding, addressing my areas of interest at the time. I had good jobs and opportunities.”
His transformation from the “comfortable” realms of electrical engineering to the ministry “was more of a conviction than anything,” he says. “I didn’t hear a voice, no flashes in the sky. It was a conviction that propelled me into the ministry.”
The Road to Reverend
Before you become a pastor of a church, you learn under other pastors. He was an assistant minister and “learned under three pastors” before landing the position at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Bayonne 25 years ago. Those churches were Shiloh Baptist in Plainfield, Concord Baptist in Perth Amboy, and St. Luke’s in Paterson.
“But just because I’ve been in New Jersey, that doesn’t make me a Jersey person,” he jokes. “Even after 25 years, Bayonnites would never accept me as that.”
But he’s always been a Baptist. “It’s what I know, part of my culture, I grew up in it, my conviction came from it, everything I learned about God.”
When he started in the ministry, before he had his own church, he was still working in the corporate world. “It satisfied my yearning to be of use to God’s people,” he says. “Preaching and proclaiming the word of God is one phase. Pastoring to head a church and congregation came later.”
Friendship Baptist is the “only pastoring I’ve ever had,” he says. “Basically, it’s a lot more headaches and heartaches, but it’s all good.”
Pastoring, he says, “runs the gamut from hangnails to death. It’s everything associated with a person’s life, not so much theology but everyday problems. I love it.”
Worshiping in a Changing World
To the uninitiated, churchgoing often means sermons, and sometimes pretty boring ones at that. But, Sykes discloses, “Sermons are pretty easy for me. They take time to prepare, but the delivery is pretty easy. The day-to-day ministry to people’s needs is most important.”
While issues such as pain and grief are constant, “problems change with society as society changes,” Sykes says. “People’s concerns change, the approach to living, attitudes, it’s a growth process.”
Sykes laments that some of the cultural changes are for the worse. “We thought we’d come a long way,” he says, “but civil rights specifically seems stagnant.”
He’s loathe to lay it at the feed of the current president. “We can’t put it at his doorstep,” he says. “We allowed it to happen, but we don’t have to listen to him.”
The Reverend’s way with words is evident when he says, “Accepting the unacceptable becomes acceptable. The way people conduct themselves sometimes strays away from the way God wants us to be, accepting the world rather than the church being the change agent.”
He sums up, “We should be the salt of the earth, not salted by the earth.”
“The Bible,” he says, “is pretty easy to understand, once we trust the word of God. The difficulty is when we let go of the word and interpret it.”
Sykes serves a congregation of some 300, with about 150 to 200 confirmed members in regular attendance. “The others come on Easter, Christmas, New Year’s, and Mother’s Day,” he laughs. “Nobody comes on Father’s Day.”
He says, “Music is a vital part of the worship experience. It’s the one instrument God gives all of us to worship Him together. We can’t all pray or preach together, but we can all sing together.”
Friendship Baptist was founded in 1926 by Southerners who resettled in Bayonne.
“It’s a nice town,” Sykes says. “It’s a good community with good people. I enjoy living here.” He lives with his wife, Fannie, who is the church secretary.
Future plans call for acquiring property to expand the church’s daycare facility.
In the meantime Friendship Baptist will continue to do what it’s called to do: feed the hungry and homeless and clothe the naked.
“It’s important for each of us to do the best job to serve the people of the city and the area,” Sykes says, “and pray that God continues to bless us as we go along.”—BLP
Busy in Bayonne
Rev. Sykes is active in a number of Bayonne organizations:
Vice chairman, Board of Commissioners of the Bayonne Housing Authority
Founder and CEO of the Bayonne Community Action Project and BCAP Build America Association, Inc.
He previously served as a member of the Bayonne 2000 Planning Committee, the Quad Zone Redevelopment Committee, the New Jersey Democratic Electoral College, the advisory board of directors for the Bayonne Medical center, president of the Bayonne chapter of Kiwanis International, board of directors for the Bayonne Youth Center, secretary of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Newark and Vicinity, member of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, and the Bayonne Interfaith Clergy.