A Vision, an Empty Lot, an Answered Prayer

Temple of God Church, in Gilpin Court (Photos by Lucy Nalen)

by Lucy Nalen

Sam Winston, 61, serves as an elder at Temple of God apostolic church in Gilpin Court. Which means he’s a leader of the church that he helped build from scratch on an empty lot 20 years ago.

I asked him about the size of the congregation. “Sometimes 20, sometimes 25, sometimes four,” he said. “Sometimes we’re crowded, but we don’t put a number on it. The doors are open for everybody in the community.”

By community, Winston means the sprawl of low-income housing tracts across I-95 from Jackson Ward, between Gilpin Court and the old Shockhoe Hill Cemetery. 

He showed me a large wooden baptismal font, gleaming with a fresh coat of paint, that resides in the main sanctuary (right). Then he talked about the importance that religion plays in the community where he grew up and was baptized as a young man just a few blocks away.

That itself is quite a story.

When he was 19 years old, Winston was negotiating to buy some furniture from a salesman named Leroy Connor. When Connor changed the subject and began talking about religion and the word of God, Winston was intrigued.

A few weeks later Winston was downtown and missed his bus. He spotted a friend, one of several men who traveled the streets of Richmond witnessing and preaching. His gave Winston a ride home and a Bible.

“I starting reading it,” said Winston, “and just got really interested.”

Then he dropped in on Leroy Connor, the furniture salesman, to share his new-found interest in the Bible. Connor replied that he was no ordinary furniture salesman. He was also a pastor, and he urged Winston to visit his church nearby.

That’s when Winton’s life of religion truly began, at age 21. “I was just walking around and ended up in the church. I just fell in love with it. Then they baptized me, and I just stayed with the life.”

Two years later, Winston helped Connor act upon a spiritual vision. An open lot was for sale in the community, just the right size for the church he wanted to build.

“Leroy Connor, he bought the lot because he had a vision,” said Winston, gesturing to the church he and Connor built, now known by the name Temple of God.

When Connor passed away recently, Sam Winston recommitted himself to the mission of this simple little church in a rough neighborhood.

“The spirit led him here, and this was his vision.”