RACINE — There was one seat that noticeably lacked a physical body Sunday morning.
Service began while people were still filing into the church. Deacon Willie Herdin led the congregation through the two-hour service as he stood at the altar with a choir of 10, a drummer and an organist behind him and a congregation before him.
There were many hugs before the service. There were even more hugs during the service. Tissues were distributed for tears of sorrow and tears of joy. The approximately 40 people in attendance all felt something on Sunday morning at Christ Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, 815 Park Ave. This was the first service without their pastor, the Rev. Mark D. Gates.
“He had a love that was contagious,” Herdin said. “If you sat and talked with him ... you’d feel that love, because it was contagious.”
Gates was killed Wednesday while working for the Racine Department of Public Works as he had done for seven years. It was a normal shift and he was loading a recycling bin into the truck at about 9:50 a.m. in the 4400 block of Washington Avenue when a Ford Mustang hit Gates and pinned him to the recycling truck.
After being transported to Ascension All Saints Hospital and later flown to Froedtert Hospital, Gates died at about 3:12 p.m. Wednesday.
Despite Gates’ sudden departure from the world, the members of his congregation were not the only ones mourning. Many in the community had felt his presence in their lives.
So as the pastor’s chair sat adorned with a black bow to signify mourning, Herdin stood up in front of the crowd and let them know that Gates will always be with them.
“One Sunday he stood here and he talked about what legacy he would leave,” Herdin said. “Well, Pastor, you left one.”
In the front row
In the front row of the service stood Iris Gates, Mark’s wife and the first lady of the church. Throughout the service she would rub her hands, then she would receive an arm around her or someone taking her hands as the Bible readings were done.
Then a voice rang out over the crowd as Herdin completed his words. The choir took its place and sang out to the heavens, as if making sure their pastor could hear them.
“He may not be here in the physical,” Herdin said. “But he is here in the spiritual.”
The choir sang two songs. Both playing as everyone who could stand was on their feet. The prayer was powerful and consumed them. Ethel Gates, Mark’s mother, stood near the choir, her head down, eyes closed and her hands reaching for the heavens for her son.
“You took the right son,” Ethel said before the congregation as she shed tears. “Coming into the church this morning and not looking at my son …”
Iris stood in the front row similarly. She clapped her hands as the choir sang until tears starting rolling down her cheeks. Churchgoers flocked to her with tissues, hugs and kind words as the choir sang on.
“Everywhere I go,” the choir sang. “I’m gonna let it shine.”
Iris sat down as she was consoled by several members. It was something she would receive throughout the service, something the congregation let her know they would always give her and her family.
“You will always be first lady,” Herdin said.
Many came forward to remember Gates, whether as pastor, friend, community leader, son, husband or as a person. Some shared stories. Some offered kind words to Iris. Some were unable to speak because they were brought to tears before they were able to utter a word.
“He was a loving and caring person, and you can see the power he had on people here,” Herdin said. “He was always there and wanting to help. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. That’s the kind of person he was.”
With a final song, the service concluded. A mourning room was filled with mixed emotions, but mostly smiles. Smiles from the memories and joy that their pastor had brought them. Iris received more condolences, then the congregation moved to the basement for after-service treats.
The room emptied slowly and the pastor’s chair was still there. The black bow was still there and. As Herdin said: “Pastor will always be there.”