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2020 Community Leader of the Year: Lillian Pennon

Lillian Pennon’s dedication to her community was on full display in recent weeks during the Thanksgiving and holiday seasons inside her church, Galilee Church of God in Christ in Riverside.

Stacked on every available space inside the church were bags of food and other necessities that families and individuals are free to pick up, no questions asked. Hers is a food pantry for everyone in need, a goal to which she has dedicated her life.

“We are here to help; we are here to feed people, not to question them about their situation,” she said in a recent interview. “The Gospels compel us to help those who need help, and that is what we are doing here and that is what we will always do. It’s our calling.”

Ms. Pennon, 73, is the widow of the Rev. Dr. Roy Lee Pennon Sr., who was founder and longtime pastor of the church. He died Christmas Eve 2016, and Ms. Pennon has enthusiastically carried on his work to help those in need. The couple’s daughter Bettina is the church’s energetic pastor.

A recent tour of the church that shows more than food is made available for those in need. Rooms are stacked wall to wall with many items, from toiletries to children’s diapers.

“We are here to serve,” Ms. Pennon said.

And she means it. For her dedication to her church and her community, for keeping the memory of her husband alive in every way and for living — not just talking about — the Gospel’s messages, Ms. Pennon is the Riverhead News-Review’s Community Leader of the Year.

Two years after the Rev. Pennon’s death, Southampton Town symbolically renamed Old Quogue Road in Riverside “Pastor Roy L. Pennon Sr. Way” in his honor.. The designation was meant to recognize his work in his church and in the community at large — which his widow has picked up and fully embraced.

The Pennons were, in so many ways, church-building pioneers. The Rev. Pennon bought the Riverside building years ago, leaving behind a church in Center Moriches to begin anew in there, in a community that, as he learned, needed his attention.

This is how their daughter Crystal recalled those days: “It was a little dilapidated storefront, and when my father said we were leaving Burns Temple [in Center Moriches] and coming to Riverside, we were terrified, because when we drove up to this little church, it looked like a ghost town.

“Part of the ceiling was falling in, there was an old pot-belly stove in the corner and an old stand-up piano that had mold on it,” she continued, “but my father said, ‘This is where we’re supposed to be.’ ”

The Rev. Pennon worked day and night on the church, with his wife by his side, as she was both his partner in life and in work as well as the church administrator. The church membership grew by leaps and bounds, but some practices remained the same: The Rev. Pennon would not charge for funerals, for example, and help for the needy was always available.

“He was a lover of people. It didn’t matter who you were … he was able to see in people what they didn’t see in themselves,” Crystal Pennon said.

On a cold morning, Lillian Pennon gave a reporter a tour, showing that even the church office was filled with supplies for those in need. With her was the church’s food pantry coordinator, Juanita Trent, who shares Ms. Pennon’s desire to help the needy. “We also do a homebound distribution,” Ms. Pennon said.

“My husband came from a very poor family” in Oklahoma, she recalled as she sat in the church. “His family had very little. Food was always a challenge. That’s how he grew up. But he was blessed to help others; that was always his mission — to help people.

“He often said if he were ever in a better position, he wanted the church to stand up and help,” she recalled.

That vision has been fulfilled. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Ms. Pennon and Ms. Trent distributed food, dry goods and even toys to 1,130 people, a very large number in the small hamlet of Riverside.

She attributes her devotion to helping the needy to her own faith, but also her husband’s dedication. “He was a visionary,” she said. “And even though he isn’t here, we are continuing that work.”

Nearly every day, Ms. Pennon comes to the Riverside church to help out and to see what is needed. She is following, as best she can, the strong advice of her late husband: “How do we really serve God? We serve God by serving people.”

She added: “And, of course, there is more work to be done. The top of my list is to continue this ministry, to continue what we started. And I can feel God’s presence. He is pleased with what we are doing.”

Previous Winners

*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year

2019: The McMorris family
2018: Charlene Mascia
2017: Ron Fisher
2016: Dwayne Eleazer and Larry Williams
2015: Tony Sammartano
2014: Thelma Booker
2013: Vince Taldone
2012: Georgette Keller
2011: Nancy Swett
2010: Rich Podlas and Chuck Thomas
2009: Tom Gahan
2008: Keith Lewin
2007: Open Arms and Bread & More Inn
2006: Mike Brewer
2005: Sid Bail
2004: Kathy Berezny
2003: Jill Lewis
2002: Chrissy Prete
2001: Joe & Gloria Ingegno
2000: George Klopfer & Lt. Col. Anthony Cristiano
1999: Louise Wilkinson
1998: Charles Ramsey, Gwen Mack
1997: Judy Jacunski
1996: Peter Danowski
1995: Sherry Patterson
1994: Barry Barth, Bobby Goodale
1993: Arnold Braunskill, Don Owen
1992: Bernice Mack
1991: Judy Weiner
1990: Nancy Gassert, Gwen Branch
1989: Betty Brown
1988: Paul Baker