Remembering Samuel McCree

Posted by on Feb 7, 2010 in Neighborhood | 0 comments

Rev. Samuel McCree’s way led to many outreach ministries in Rochester

The Rev. Samuel McCree Jr. of Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church stands inside the shelter his church was building in September 1994 for women fleeing domestic violence.

In the basement of the church founded by the Rev. Samuel McCree Jr. is a large hall where more than 10,000 free breakfasts were served last year.

Just down the street from Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church is the Southwest Area Development Corp., an economic-growth agency.

McCree was the visionary founder of those and about a dozen other ministries in southwest Rochester. His impact in the neighborhood was so great that after he died a decade ago at age 52, the street where Zion Hill is located was renamed from Bronson Avenue to Dr. Samuel McCree Way.

That rare honor was indicative of the impact the Alabama-born McCree made and continues to make, say longtime friends and associates.

“He was one in a million, believe me,” said Dolores Johnson of Frost Avenue, a member of Zion Hill who knew McCree almost since he arrived in Rochester in 1969 to attend what is now known as Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He graduated in 1971.

“His legacy was to bring everyone together, to help each other. You know, ‘Reach out and touch someone.’ We don’t have a lot of that now.”

The son of an Alabama minister, McCree might seem to have been destined for a life of ministry. What was unusual was his approach to ministry — reaching out to drug addicts and battered women and people with AIDS, an approach that some ministers shunned as a fast-food style of ministry.

The result is a collection of community organizations that McCree founded, such as Project Spirit, which helps people recover from addictions; Project Faith, serving those with HIV or AIDS; Operation Open Arms, which helps abused women; and Esther House, a haven for mothers and children fleeing domestic violence.

McCree also created a scholarship program, now named after him, which awards at least $5,000 in financial aid to college students annually.

Former Rochester Mayor William A. Johnson Jr., who worked closely with McCree for years when Johnson was head of the local Urban League as well as when he was mayor, recalled McCree’s vision for renovating the former St. Mary’s Hospital.

McCree wanted to convert the hospital into a health care center to revitalize the Bull’s Head neighborhood. The plans never came to be; the campus, now operated by Unity Health Systems, is no longer a hospital but still is a hub for several programs and services.

McCree’s plans seemed overly ambitious to Johnson at first, but he became an advocate.

“I learned never to underestimate his determination,” Johnson said. “We had other ministers who never had that vision. But (McCree) was a firm believer that if he could start a program, a lot of people who were skeptical would come around. That was the optimism that he exuded.”

In 1994, Johnson traveled with McCree to McCree’s hometown of Mobile, Ala., where they examined the impact of urban renewal on the African-American community. Six years later, Johnson returned to eulogize McCree, who died of cancer in 2000.

While the disease ravaged McCree’s body, he got out of his hospital bed and returned to his church, Johnson said, appealing to the congregation to increase donations that had begun to dwindle during McCree’s absence.

“He said, ‘You’re not giving to Sam McCree, you’re giving to Zion Hill,’” Johnson said. “A month later, he died.”

The church is still going strong, with about 1,200 members, and McCree’s widow, Laura, remains heavily involved.

The Rev. Richard Douglass, who became pastor when McCree died, mentioned other charitable organizations that the church sponsors, such as a health and fitness ministry, a prison ministry and Project Connection, which puts needy people in touch with social-service agencies.

“We see our mission beyond these four walls,” Douglass said. “I meet people who come to this city who say, ‘I have to come to Zion Hill. I have to find out, who is this Dr. McCree?’ His name is not only local, but national. His passion for being his brother’s keeper is what drives us to do the number of outreach ministries we do.”

McCree worked with the Rochester School District, as director of parent and community development, before becoming a minister. Douglass said McCree always saw education and the church as interrelated, a sentiment echoed by Derrick Smith, a voice instructor at the Eastman School of Music who met McCree when he was 14.

“It always bothered him if there were African-Americans who were obviously talented, who didn’t apply themselves,” said Smith, 51, who said McCree was responsible for his going to Talladega College in Alabama, McCree’s alma mater. “He felt that kids needed to see that there are books, not only the Bible, that people are reading.”

The Rev. Errol Hunt, presiding elder of the Rochester-Syracuse district of A.M.E. Zion churches and a close friend of McCree’s, talked of McCree’s vision and how McCree’s congregation helped Hunt’s church build Frederick Douglass Village, a collection of 23 homes on Clarissa Street.

“In season and out of season, (McCree) never stopped doing what he was called to do,” Hunt said. “His philosophy was, if your brother is down, you stop to lift him up. He was blessed by God. I miss the kind of fellowship I had with him.”

By Alan Morrell, Staff writer, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

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