Senior Pastor Corey J. Waters Sr. embraced them warmly and respectfully in the sunlit sanctuary at Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church.
First Reatha Mosley, then Ivory Lee Mabry, Mildred Owens and Gladys Davis.
"Sister, it's so good to see you," he said softly to each.
Then the young clergyman bent down to greet Leonard Fields, who was in a wheelchair.
"Brother, I am happy to see you, too," Waters said.
The feeling was mutual.
Despite the infirmities wrought by advanced years, the church elders were enjoying their moment in God's light. The octogenarians, including Minnie Gainer, will be recognized by the congregation at 3 p.m. Sunday at 501 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. W., with a banquet, gifts and praise.
"It's wonderful," Mosley said.
"One of the best things to happen to me," Mabry said.
"I appreciate it because I've never been honored for anything," Owens said.
None of them have.
"I'm flabbergasted," Davis said.
Some of the elders, such as Mosley and Mabry, grew up in the church, a 113-year-old community institution. Some, such as Owens and Davis, joined it as adults.
Gethsemane is central to their existence."It changed my whole life, took me off the street and brought me here to serve God," Fields said. "It gave me something I never had."
Sunday's acclamation will reinforce the congregation's
reverence for them.
"It does my heart good to see them, because some of them used to mentor me when I was a little boy," said Ralph Green, 65, chairman of Gethsemane's board of trustees. "They're our heritage and show us where we come from."
That sentiment resonated with Waters, who assumed the pastorship a few months ago.
"When people get elderly, they tend to be forgotten and we don't want them to think that," the St. Petersburg resident said. "The congregation wanted to reach out, let them know they are appreciated. We still love them.
"Even though I'm the pastor, I have to earn their trust. They know everybody, who to talk to, how to get things done."
Richard Thomas, 62, a Gethsemane usher and lifelong member, helped organize Sunday's event.
"I was brought up in the old church with a lot of elders and I saw how they lived their lives," he said. "These honorees set an example for younger members to follow. We don't have many (elders) left. When they pass on to their eternal reward, the others should say, 'I remember them and continue it on.'"
Count Ryan Smith among those younger members who is inspired to follow in their hallowed footsteps.
"I see where I can go as long as I keep God first," the 36-year-old said. "I look at them as the type of person I should be like someday."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix