Pastor helped revitalize Thessalonia Baptist Church
In his 32 years as pastor of Thessalonia Baptist Church, Rev. Shellie Sampson preached a doctrine he called “gradual revelation.” Recognize that every good deed you have done in life was an act of God and not yourself, he told his flock.
It was something he lived as well as preached, said Rev. Malobe Sampson, Shellie Sampson’s son and acting pastor at the church on Rev. James A. Polite Avenue.
When he was not preaching at the Sunday services, he was working to better the neighborhood, said Joi Sampson, the minister’s daughter-in-law and public relations manager for the church.
“He was a highly educated man and always preached about the importance of education,” Sister Shirley Fleming, a parishioner, said.
The minister, who became pastor of the church in 1982, succeeding Rev. James Polite, led a campaign to build a Community Center Cultural, which houses Thessalonia Institute of Education/Religion, the TIR Bookstore and Thessalonia Academy, a religious elementary school, that to date has sent more than 100 students on to attend boarding schools and universities.
“He was a very intellectual guy and offered so many support services for our community,” said Rafael Salamanca, district manager of Community Board 2.
On Jan. 20, Sampson suffered a heart attack, which ultimately took his life at the age of 73. As a sign of remembrance, Community Board 2 has voted unanimously to co-name East 163rd Street and Rev. James A. Polite Avenue after Sampson.
The board will pass its recommendation to Council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who will send her recommendation to the City Council. If approved, the street sign will read “Rev. Shellie Sampson Way.”
“Hunts Point was always very important to him,” his daughter-in-law said. “He always wanted to be involved in the community and offer as many resources he possibly could to it.”
The church started a food pantry for the poor of the community. Created in 1997, the pantry struggled at first, according to Jannie Pressley, the pantry’s chairwoman and a long-time parishioner of Thessalonia Church.
“We were under-resourced from the beginning,” Pressley said. “Thank God the reverend came along. He was the one that made it grow.”
Under his leadership, the pantry combined forces with food outlets that gave discounted prices. It now serves hundreds of people every Tuesday from 10 a.m.to 12:30 p.m.
“I hope that it continues to grow,” Pressley said. “We need it here, so I hope that we, as a parish, do not let it die without him here.”
Malobe Sampson said his father’s programs will continue to grow under his leadership of the church.
“We are here to stay,” he said. “The theory that I learned from my father along with the hands-on work ethic of my mother will help me to continue this church going forward,”
He said the church is working on a new program called the Community of Heroes event. It will honor residents who have a positive impact on the community.
“Most of the time when you hear about the South Bronx it’s bad news. We want to show that there is a lot of good going on here and carry out both God’s and my father’s mission,” Malobe Sampson said.
Members of the congregation say Sampson was known for his deep and insightful sermons, but added that he never failed to add some humor to his preaching. His daughter-in-law recalled lines like, “There’s no party like the Holy Ghost party,” used to convey beliefs in a comedic way.
“He was a fun and funny individual,” Joi Sampson said. “He was highly intelligent but was always down to earth.”
She knew Sampson as both a family member and a preacher. She said if there was one thing that the reverend would like people to take from his life, it would be to excel in everything you do by doing it to the best of your abilities.
Salvation was the ultimate message Sampson preached about. Knowing that the good you do ultimately comes from God was the message of gradual revelation that the pastor wanted all to acknowledge.