PITTSBORO — There’s an old adage native residents of an area say about someone who comes into their community, fitting into it like they’ve always been there.
“He’s not from here, but he got here as quick as he could.”
In the minds of many, that assessment applies to the Rev. Ray Gooch, who came to Chatham County in June of 1982 to serve two Methodist churches: Pleasant Hill and Browns Chapel. Now, after almost 40 years in that role, Gooch has reached the Methodist clergy’s mandatory retirement age and is moving on.
He’s going back to his childhood home, the little community of Wilson, about a dozen miles south of Oxford in Granville County. He officially retires June 30.
“I inherited the home place from my parents,” he said. “My sister (Darnelle Averre) is there on the other side of the garden.”
Gooch — who has been called the “Pope of Chatham County” because of the length and depth of his ministry — came to the local scene from Roper, in Washington County, after serving three churches on the Albemarle Charge in northeastern North Carolina for seven years.
“I have been wonderfully blessed by the people of Chatham County,” he said, “and have enjoyed the connection with the people and churches here.”
Gooch’s feelings for the pastorate began at an early age.
“I remember in the 5th grade our teacher asked what we wanted to be when we grew up,” he said. “I heard someone say, ‘I want to be a preacher like Mr. McRae.’ I turned around to see who said that, and it was me.”
When he arrived in Chatham County, he discovered the two churches had much in common but were also different.
“Both Pleasant Hill and Browns Chapel are small rural parishes where there are lots of family relations,” Gooch said. “Browns Chapel has grown more because more folks are moving into that area, Briar Chapel, for instance, but Pleasant Hill is also a solid stable community. One of its biggest challenges was recovering from the fire that did so much damage in the early ‘90s.
“When I came, lots of folks were still farming,” he added. “That’s been a big change. Now there aren’t so many. Some folks still have cows, but they have other jobs, as well.”
During his local career, Gooch became known for a number of talents and ministries. He started piano lessons in the 4th grade, now often singing at church services, accompanying himself. He’s also known for his cakes — caramel and fresh coconut are specialties — as well as pies, including fried apple.
“I started cooking as a boy,” he said. “Mom worked second shift at a hospital and would put bread dough in the refrigerator. When I got home I’d bake it. Daddy said a meal wasn’t complete without a piece of bread for pushing your food around the plate.”
That kitchen familiarity served him well with the two congregations through the years.
“At Browns Chapel, we did Brunswick stew and barbecue and built a fellowship hall,” he said. “We also had a connection with Auburn Tripp to provide food when he was an auctioneer because he didn’t want people to leave the auction. At Pleasant Hill, we did chicken stew suppers, starting out in different homes with church members taking shifts. We built a fellowship hall from that.”
In a time when many pastors might be narrowly focused, Gooch had a strong interest in people at different ends of the spectrum. One is youth.
“There have been good youth programs at both churches,” he said, “with times when there would be many youth; other times not, but youth ministry has been a primary thing with total support from both churches.”
At the same time, Gooch has had a busy ministry with senior adults, both in nursing homes, care facilities and homes.
“The seed for that was a course in divinity school on ministry for people in institutional settings,” he said. “I did an internship at the Murdoch Center in Butner and then one at the Western North Carolina Center in Morganton. It was a ministry for people often overlooked.”
In his first place of service in Roper, he was asked to chair the board of the Roanoke Development Center — “which I’m glad to say is still there,” he said. Coming to Chatham, he was invited to serve as a Hospice volunteer chaplain, including at the Laurels of Chatham when it first opened. From that came opportunities to lead worship services and “to meet families in their homes I would likely never have met.” In time, those relationships would provide an opportunity to serve families through memorials and funerals.
Charles Lutterloh, a member of Browns Chapel, seconds that.
“Ray does a great job with the youth, but also working with the elderly and not just the people at Pleasant Hill and Browns Chapel,” Lutterloh said. “He’s dedicated to the people of Chatham County and visits anybody and everybody regularly.”
Through the years, it was almost a custom for Methodist pastors to be reassigned annually, often with four years at the same location considered a lengthy stay.
“Early on, someone told me it would take four years just to get to know folks,” Gooch said. “I thought, you know I don’t believe I’m that slow. I’ve learned some families let you be their pastor from day one and take you into their confidence while others watch you for a while to build up a level of trust, although some never do, of course. I know there were times when some folks didn’t care for me and wanted me to leave but often something would come along and we’d build a relationship.”
There were occasions when it seemed he might be moved to another location.
“I remember once when word got out the district superintendent [DS] was going to move me,” he recalled. “At that particular moment, I didn’t think it was the right time for the churches, or for me, but the DS was going to anyway. So, I went to the bishop and talked with him. He told me to go home, do my work and not worry about it. The next day, the DS came to my house and was not happy. He told me he would move me the next year, but that didn’t happen, either.”
William Mitchell, a member of Pleasant Hill, sees his pastor as one who not only talks of ministry but does it, as well.
“What do you say, truth be told about a man who talks the talk and walks the walk?” he said. “Ray puts the ‘is’ in ‘Christian’ and exudes it daily. But he also challenges us to strive to be what we should be in our worship of the Lord. Whether it’s countless hours of visiting, taking youth to cities and towns they may never have had the opportunity to go, organizing fundraisers for needs after tragedies or feeding the masses, Ray is the ‘Leatherman’ multi-tool of a minister.”
Now that his Chatham County service is nearing its end, the time is a bit bittersweet.
“I just think it’s all been a good fit,” Gooch said.
“He’s just been such an inspiration to so many people, such a talented fellow from his preaching to his biscuits,” Lutterloh added. “And, you know, I’ve never heard the same sermon twice. He’s a gifted storyteller, and that’s one reason he’s such a good preacher; he relates the Bible to life.”
Gooch sees a bit of irony and humor in his first place of service and 40 years in Chatham.
“The thing is when I left Roper after seven years, I was depressed,” he said. “I didn’t really want to start over, and I promised myself I’d not stay seven years at any other place.
“Instead, it’s been more like six times seven. It’s been good.”
As a way to thank Gooch for his service, members of the two churches are sponsoring a retirement reception from 2 until 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 4, at the Chatham County Agricultural and Conference Center on U.S. Hwy. 64, just west of Pittsboro. The public is invited.
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