The lives we've lost

Alvin Charles McElroy

When they met for early morning Bible study on Sundays, Bonnie Cannon would joke with Pastor Alvin Charles McElroy: Couldn’t he change the 8 a.m. class to a weeknight?

He never did, but Ms. Cannon still made time, inspired by the pastor’s discipline. The Bible study quickly became her favorite aspect of church and is now a cherished memory of the pastor, who died at Peconic Bay Medical Center March 26 after contracting the coronavirus. He was 79.

“He’d pour into you things that would help you live from week to week. How to have peace and joy even if you’re in a circumstance others would see as a bad situation. He wasn’t just preaching it, he lived it,” Ms. Cannon recalled.

Members of the close-knit Friendship Baptist Church are mourning the loss of the “maverick” pastor who served the Flanders community for more than 45 years.

“He was well-grounded,” his wife, the Rev. Maryanne McElroy said, describing how her husband’s accessible, down-to-earth personality quickly became a pillar for the community to lean on.

“He was very community minded. Most people just think a pastor shows up to preach on Sunday. It’s much more than that,” she said in an interview Friday.

A native of Sour Lake, Texas, Pastor McElroy was working in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in the 1960s, when he met Maryanne, a music student at Juilliard.

“We would go to church together and he said he’d always known he was called to ministry, so we married and moved to Virginia,” the Rev. McElroy said.

The couple relocated to Riverhead after he earned a bachelor’s in business administration and master’s in theology from Virginia Union University.

As Pastor McElroy began preaching at the Friendship Baptist Church, Maryanne opened her music shop, which was initially located near the Riverside traffic circle. They eventually moved the business to its current location at the corner of West Main Street and Raynor Avenue.

A newcomer to the community, Pastor McElroy immediately immersed himself, working with migrant farm workers, youth and minorities on a range of issues from substance abuse to entrepreneurship.

According to a biography on the church’s website, Pastor McElroy was a longtime member of the Riverhead Rotary, Riverhead Clergy Council and has served on boards at the East End Arts Council and Eastern Baptist Association.

He was also the first African-American to run for Town Council in Riverhead, according to the biography.

Ms. Cannon described her Pastor as a “magnificent” man who “truly epitomized his faith” and taught others to live with character, integrity and morals.

She was moved by his preachings about economic liberation, encouraging his congregation to pursue education, homeownership or open their own businesses.

“It was really uplifting and empowering,” Ms. Cannon said. “He didn’t mince his words, he wasn’t one to pacify you. He left a big legacy behind him.”

To Lou McElroy, the Pastor was simply “Uncle A.C.” In a phone interview from Houston, he described his uncle as the “kindest, gentlest man” he knew.

“[He and my aunt Maryanne] together would capture a room,” he said.

Lou, who is now an associate minister at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, a historic Baptist church, said he was inspired by his uncle — “a voice for the voiceless” — toward a life of ministry.

“I looked up to him,” he said.

The beloved pastor was remembered during a virtual mass posted on YouTube last week.

During the service, the Rev. McElroy said the sudden death of her husband of 50 years has “broken my heart and created a void that is overwhelming,” but she is relying on her faith and family near and far to find joy.

Like many other churches, Friendship Baptist has turned to multimedia ministry due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

“Because of the virus we can’t meet as a church, but we’re trying to be as creative as we possibly can,” the Rev. McElroy said, adding that the YouTube content allows for them to still have a spiritual connection amongst the congregation.

Predeceased by his son, Alvin Charles, a Persian Gulf veteran, Pastor McElroy is survived by his wife and two daughters. A private burial was held at Washington Memorial Park in Mt. Sinai. As with many recent deaths, family and his church community are planning a celebration of his life for a later date.

“We’ll do something in the future, when people can gather,” the Rev. McElroy said.