Nearly 800 people attended a farewell gala for retiring First African Baptist Church in Delaware County pastor Richard Dent at the DrexelBrook Special Events Center on Sunday.
The parking lot at 4700 Drexelbrook Drive quickly filled and two ballrooms reached capacity as 770 guests visitors filled the seats. More than 1,000 people had requested tickets, exceeding the facility’s capacity.
“I am overwhelmed to see this many people out,” Dent said in an interview. “It’s kind of difficult to leave them. People become like family to you and I hate to leave them. It’s very difficult, but I wouldn’t take anything for my journey.”
Dent has pastored First African for 34 years and established a deep and intimate connection with the members of his flock. Those with whom he has ministered typically described him as a father figure.
He is known for his personal attention to the care and welfare of each member of the congregation, making their concerns and issues his own and working with them through good times and bad.
“I didn’t want to leave the church with a debt and so I prayed,” Dent said. “A couple of weeks after I prayed that prayer [two years ago], someone made an anonymous gift of $3.5 million and we were able to pay off the church and do a lot of renovations, so there’s power in prayer,” he said.
Asked about his congregation, Dent said, “They are sad, they are very upset, and I’m upset. You hate to leave but it was just time for me to retire. I made that decision, but it was difficult, there are mixed emotions.”
The 78-year-old minister said he wanted to retire to spend time with his wife and family.
“My son has a home in Florida, that’s where we are going,” he said.
There was no shortage of speakers who took to the podium to wish the retiring pastor a fond farewell, including Robert Bogle, president and CEO of The Philadelphia Tribune.
“This is an important time in the life of First African. Pastor Dent has served this church for 34 years and has done a job that needs to be recognized and we owe this tribute to him,” said Bogle.
“Rev. Richard A. Dent is an incredible leader, not only in his church but also in his community,” said Rev. W. Wilson Goode. “I know few people who are more respected than he is. I’ve never heard one word of criticism about him and that’s unusual for people who are doing things.
“There are very few preachers that I’ve met in my 65 years of working with churches that even come close to his achievement in reaching out to the community and providing services,” Goode said.
Among the long line of those who offered tributes were his children, Rev. Richard A. Dent III and Jennifer Brown, who both moved the audience with stories of their father and his wife, First Lady Beatrice Dent, and their dedication and commitment to their family and the flock of First African.
“It was my intention to shake everybody’s hand who was in this place, but I realized that that just wasn’t possible,” said Dent to the crowd, who stood and applauded as he and his wife approached the microphone for concluding remarks.
“I’ll depart by saying what I said this morning: You have to love people to be involved in the Lord’s church. If you love people, the Lord will bless you in ways that you never thought possible.”
Dent went on to recount his early days. “I was kicked out of all kinds of schools. Public schools, private schools, we didn’t have charter schools back then, but wherever it was, I didn’t make it,” he said.
Dent said he decided to rebel against his parents, but God loved him regardless of his rebellion and eventually that love transformed his life.
“Remember that, to be nice to people and treat people the way that you would like to be treated and do the Lord’s work,” he said.
“The essence of life is service which you render to others,” Dent said, bidding farewell to the ministry he loved and selflessly served for over three decades.