Michael W. Palmer, a former military police officer and department of corrections employee in the state of Virginia, never thought he’d become a pastor.
Palmer grew up around people who went to church but did not regularly attend himself. Consequently, he never considered becoming a pastor. “I thought everyone who preached grew up in church,” he said in an interview with Street Sense.
He would have never imagined being “worthy” enough to be a pastor. Yet, nearly two decades later, he is leading his third congregation – Bethesda Baptist Church in Ivy City, a neighborhood in Northeast Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t get saved until two months before my 30th birthday,” said Palmer, 49. Around that time he attended a friend’s wedding and the mother of the bride invited him to come back to the church that hosted the ceremony. Soon enough, he joined the congregation.
“I had toyed with the Lord for years,” Palmer said. “I’d never gotten serious until that moment.” He became a consistent churchgoer and the new millennium ushered in his calling to preach.
Palmer was born in Augusta, Georgia — the hometown of both of his parents — and raised in San Francisco, California. He has three older sisters who were also born in Augusta and two younger brothers.
“My parents had migrated west like a lot of Black people did in the 60s,” Palmer said. “They had already ended up in California when my mom was pregnant with me. She went back and ended up giving birth to me down there.”
His mother told him they only stayed in Georgia for about three months until he was old enough to ride the train back to California.
Shortly after graduating high school, Palmer joined the army.
“It was January 28th, and I’ll never forget: I was getting ready to get sworn in, in Oakland, California, watching this big screen and the shuttle blew up,” Palmer said. He and the rest of the world watched Space Shuttle Challenger explode during take-off, killing all aboard.
Palmer served in the Army for about seven years, stationed in places like Germany and Korea. After he was honorably discharged he became a police officer in Virginia. “My plan was just to go down to Roanoke for a few years and get some experience,” Palmer said. Three years turned into 12.
He said he spent about seven years with the police department and about five years with the department of corrections. After his first sermon, Palmer enrolled in Virginia Union University’s Master of Divinity program in Richmond. During the week he worked as a probation and parole officer, attending classes and pastoring on the weekends.
Palmer was dedicated to becoming a full-time pastor. For three years he made the drive from Roanoke to the university campus in Richmond, Virginia. Palmer’s first job as a pastor was at the First Baptist Church of Hollins in Roanoke. After leaving Virginia in 2004, Palmer said he was called to serve as a pastor at New Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He has been at his current church in Ivy City for about three years.
Palmer said the first thing he noticed when he got to Ivy City was that the church didn’t have a strong relationship with the community. The relationship wasn’t bad but Palmer said he saw an opportunity to make stronger more meaningful ties. Since becoming the pastor, Palmer said he has made great efforts to get out and connect with the community.
“I encourage our folk to have outside events.” Palmer said. “Open the gates invite people to come in.”
Palmer and his wife live an hour away in Maryland with their young son, yet he walks around the neighborhood and people recognize him as the pastor at from Bethesda Baptist Church.
He has shared joy and sorrow with the community.
Palmer recalled visiting a mother’s home after her son was shot and killed. He said that as he was walking to see her, people automatically knew where he was headed and thanked him for coming out.
Then he laughed as he recounted a time where a man sitting on his stoop told him he would come to church if Palmer bought him a beer. The pastor said he does not expect everyone he talks with to come to church, but he still hopes they will consider it.
“Life gets better. Your health may not improve and you might not get richer. But life does get better with a relationship with Christ,” Palmer said. He is currently a doctoral student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C., according to Bethesda Baptist Church website.