Rev. Willford
Rev. Willford

The Rev. Aaron Willford didn't think he would stay in York 30 years.

"But I have developed a love for York and the people of York," said Willford, 58, of York City. "With all of its challenges, York has been and still remains a good place to raise your family and a good place to live."

Sunday marked the 30th year that Willford has been pastor of city-based Bethlehem Baptist Church, which held a celebration banquet for him last month.

Willford is married to Jean Willford and has four children and eight grandchildren.

Willford said he was 27 years old when he came to York in 1980 from Steelton, Dauphin County, to pastor Bethlehem.

"We've grown together, spiritually and numerically," he said. "I've matured over the years. I'm grateful for them putting up with me for 30 years."

Jeriesha Gilbert, the church's administrative assistant, said she has grown tremendously through Willford's preaching and teaching.

"He has inspired members to get involved in various ministries of the church," said Gilbert, an 18-year Bethlehem member. "He's an example for us to also be involved in the community at large."

Service: In 1982, Willford helped found the Black Ministers Association, consisting of more than a dozen congregations that come together for worship services and community activities.

Willford said that he has served on several mayoral transition committees. The pastor is a former York High wrestling coach. He now is a member of the York City school board.

Renovation: Willford was not able to observe his 30th pastoral anniversary in Bethlehem's church building, which is being repaired and renovated as a result of weather-related structural damage.

He said the building is expected to be ready for occupancy by late October. For now, the church meets in the auditorium of York Learning Center, 300 E. Sixth Ave. in North York. While he has been able to lead the church through various struggles, Willford said, there is one challenge he yet struggles with -- the death of church members.

"I've watched a number of strong pillars of the church (die), and that is tough," he said. "People don't understand the emptiness that pastors feel when members die. We know that they're present with the Lord, but we still miss them."

Willford said there is a valuable love lesson he learned as he grew older.

"We don't always have to agree with people, but we have to love them," he said. "If we don't, then we're not who we say we are in God."

-- Reach Eyana Adah McMillan at 505-5438 or emcmillan@yorkdispatch.com.