Reverend Dillard: A faith of fervor

Reverend A. D. Dillard leads the congregation at First Baptist Church, NBC. DAILY RECORD PHOTOS BY DENISE CATHEY

Editor’s note: This is the tenth part in a series profiling San Marcos’ diverse religious leaders and what they bring to the community.

A few minutes before 11 in the morning, I took a seat on the second row of the First Baptist Church NBC – or the other First Baptist – and waited for services to begin, which I anticipated would begin with the appearance of Pastor Almond Dillard at 11. Since I was a new face, several church goers came over to welcome me to the service. 

As I focused my attention toward the pulpit, to get a first glimpse of the reverend, a male musical trio erupted over to my right. As they got deeper into the old gospel hymn, I noticed women, all dressed in red migrating toward the stage and occupying a row of chairs. When most had settled in and the hugging and the handshaking was mostly over, the ladies joined the men and that’s when the tune moved from the traditional rendition to the jazz version. 

Toe-tapping rhythm, moving, inspirational and spiritual. The congregation, joined in and reinforced the choir and 80 to 100 people became one in a musical praising of the Lord.

Music ensued for the next 30 minutes before the Reverend Dillard appeared to deliver his sermon. 

I’ll get back to that, but on Thursday, after the Sunday service, I began my interview with Dillard. “Tell me about yourself,” I prompted.

“I was born in Meridian, Mississippi,” he said. “I left there at three years old and went to Burlington, Iowa, where I lived until I was nine years old. Then I lived in California until I was 14. The next move took me to St. Louis, Missouri. That’s where I finished high school and entered the military.”

“You entered the military?” I responded, somewhat surprised. 

“I went into the Air Force in January 1974.” Reverend Dillard explained, “I retired in 1998 with 60 percent disability.”

I wondered what prompted Dillard to go into the Air Force. 

He related that his father was a pastor and he was raised in that environment. After high school graduation, there seemed to be nothing in St. Louis that offered much of a future. 

“I started preaching when I was 16,” he interjected. As graduation approached, he found out that he was lacking enough credits to graduate from high school. Come back and graduate in January, he was told. January comes and he still did not have enough credits.

“I got angry about that, and so I enlisted under the delayed enlistment program. Initially, I was going into the Marines, but my mother objected to that and she told me she would be much more comfortable if I chose the Air Force.

“So, I am a high school dropout, enlisting in the Air Force in 1974. My evaluation scores were high enough that I had some choice as to what I wanted to do. I chose telecommunications.”

Eventually Dillard got his G.E.D. “Then I started taking college courses on my lunch hour and while stationed in Panama, I was allowed to take additional college courses.”

As I listened to the story of his pursuit of a college degree, I began to see and understand the determination and tenacity of the man to whom I had earlier listened as he preached, with deeply felt, evangelical fervor, “To Live a Life or To Live a Lie.”

“From Panama, I was sent to Los Angeles Air Force base where I had the chance to take additional college courses at El Camino College. And it was at this assignment I met my lovely wife, Brenda.

“My college transcript is like a tossed salad of college names and locations, but when Brenda and I came to San Antonio, I completed my bachelor’s college degree with the Wayland Baptist adjunct, located in San Antonio. In addition, I received an MBA through Wayland Baptist.”

Education seems to be habitual with Dillard. In addition to all the foregoing studies and degrees, he recently had to give up his pursuit of a Doctor of Education degree. As he told me of his need to drop out of the doctoral program, he punctuated the information with, “I think I’ve got enough education, don’t you?” Indeed. 

“So, OK,” I said, “you were in California, how did you get to San Antonio?”

Dillard, with Brenda’s corrections and filling in the blanks, related that Brenda’s original position in California was eliminated and she was reassigned to a program in another location that involved a long and difficult commute. After enduring the miserable commute for a period, Brenda was offered a job in San Antonio. 

So, they journeyed to San Antonio, and as Dillard explains, “I stepped out on faith and we bought a house here. I went to the military personnel center at Randolph Air Force Base and lobbied for a job they didn’t have here. As luck would have it, they created a job in the military processing station here for a master sergeant. I was a master sergeant, and I got the job. The Lord made a way for me and Brenda and I moved here at the same time.”

Brenda and Dillard were a career couple. They had been through the relocation process several times whichever career demanded it. 

I’ve heard all about Brenda’s civilian career; I’ve heard all about Dillard’s military career. Nothing about a ministerial involvement. “So, how did that happen? Did you minister while in the Air Force?”

“Yes, while in Great Falls, Montana – the early days of my career – I was very active and led the African American Assembly in Great Falls. It was in a building that housed the Methodist, and the only one that had an African American interest – it was owned by African Americans. And, I can tell you that we, along with the Mormons, were not too welcome in Great Falls. I might add, they didn’t care much for military folks either.”

So, you were relegated to the one building available to you. 

“There was a Church of God in Christ minister there and they shared a building with us. The building belonged to the Methodist. I ministered to the Methodist and the Baptist. We had one choir and we alternated music on Sunday between Methodist rituals and music, and Church of God in Christ rituals and music. The Church of God in Christ was a little more upbeat, modern than the Methodist.”

That conversation led to other stories of separate denominations sharing buildings, choirs, piano players, etc. Whereupon, Dillard shared his view of “denominationalism.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” he told me, then he elaborated. “Now, I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about Christian denominationalism. It doesn’t matter. We all worship the same God. We are just divided along doctrinal lines. Our theology is the same. Christian theology is all the same. “

“So, in Montana, you, Reverend, were preaching to the Methodist and the Baptist.”

“At that time.” He said. “Our choir and our congregation consisted of Methodist, Baptist, Church of Christ in God members and we worshipped the same God. Now our membership was largely African Americans. We had a couple of families of Native Americans, but that was it. It was 1975-76 when I was doing this ministry. I was 18-19 years old, but remember I preached when I was 16.”

I wanted to incorporate some of Pastor Dillard’s private life. “So when did you and Brenda marry?”

“We married in June 1982 in Chapel of the Star in Los Angeles. We met while working on the same program – the Milstar program – at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

“I had a varied military career. From telecommunications, I went into administration and the Air Force eventually combined the two and called it Information Management.” 

“It seems you combined your avocation of ministering rather seamlessly with an Air Force career,” I said. 

“Yes, and after we were married, I worked with Brenda’s brother, who was a pastor. We went to a church that had a padlock on the door. We revitalized that church, so that we had a full choir, four deacon’s, ministries. We did this while commuting two hours each way. 

“I also did music in the Air Force. I competed in Air Force musical competition, did comedy and all sorts of things.”

At this point, I interrupted Reverend Dillard by reminding him that the first 30 minutes or so of the sermon I attended was presented in the conventional manner – enthusiastic, emphatic spoken message – but the last 15-20 minutes, he sang every word. And his singing left me marveling at this remarkable talent and unique way of presenting a sermon. 

“Is that normal?” I asked.

“Yes, that is normal. I don’t do it all the time, but yes.”

My curiosity was aroused as to why he didn’t go into music professionally. 

“There was a period in my life where I actually stepped away from the ministry for a minute to pursue music exclusively. I was working with entertainers, some of whom you would easily recognize.”

“Have you ever heard Lou Rawls’ Star Spangled Banner,” I inquired. 

“I used to do Lou Rawls in some of my competition,” the reverend responded. “I adopted a lot of his style, Sam Cook, Bobby Womack and others.”

This brought us back to the sermon of a few days ago. Dillard had transitioned to one of the gospel hymns and as he became energized, he walked among the congregation and at one point, handed the microphone to a lady sitting in the second row. She stood and with the smoothest transition one can imagine, picked up immediately where Pastor Dillard left off. It was as if Lou Rawls had handed the microphone to Aretha Franklin.

Dillard, with some prodding, revealed that beginning at around 14, he entered musical competitions and often won, but because his father was a minister, he couldn’t bring the trophy home. 

“Before Brenda and I met, I also did some modeling. My friend, Robin Harris, who did some popular TV, did comedy while I modeled and while I was singing. I produced and directed Air Force shows and competitions and he did comedy for me.”

Space prevents my listing the performers with whom Dillard has performed, produced, backed and opened for. Let’s just say, the Reverend Dillard, with Brenda’s complete backing, opens for the Lord every Sunday and brings the congregation a huge dose of spirituality through word, song and example.

San Marcos Daily Record

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