| Seth Lartey’s Ministry is Bringing
Back the Neighborhood
At first glance, the old Brown & Williamson (B&W) cigarette factory in downtown Winston-Salem seems an unlikely anchor for a redevelopment project to breathe life back into this once thriving, predominantly black community.
That’s the vision, however, of the Rev. Seth O. Lartey D’90, pastor of Goler Memorial AME Zion Church.
Lartey, 47, a native of the West African nation of Liberia, has big plans for this neighborhood, whose decline has coincided in part with tobacco’s fall from grace. Backed by his congregation, Lartey formed the Goler Depot Street Renaissance Community Development Corporation (CDC), which serves as the driving force behind a multimillion dollar redevelopment plan to transform a 10-acre downtown tract into a walkable residential and commercial “campus.”
Lartey begins a walking tour of Goler Heights at the B&W building, which houses both the Goler CDC and Goler Memorial’s administrative offices and nine-member staff. The renovated first floor includes a large meeting room, which is regularly used by the city’s Black Chamber of Commerce and any other group that needs a place to gather.
“People must be able to meet together,” says Lartey, “in order to form community. In most black communities, you do not have facilities for people to congregate.”
Lartey’s group purchased the B&W building in 2001 for the bargain price of $645,000. The six-story brick structure with shiny wooden floors once hummed with the sound of cigarette-making machinery. Hanging on an office wall is an architect’s rendering of the master plan. Once it’s renovated, the B&W building will feature 80 residential units for artists, with studio space included.
In the surrounding blocks, Lartey has set aside several tracts for townhouses, some of which are already under construction. The plan begins with bringing people back to live in Goler Heights. Commercial interests, he believes, will follow.
A credit union, retail stores, gathering spots for youth and the elderly, and a health care facility are all part of the dream. Services for the homeless and AIDS patients, a daycare center, and affordable housing are also in the works.
Just a short walk from the B&W building is Goler Memorial AME Zion, where Lartey has been pastor since 1992. Before he arrived, the congregation had made plans to leave downtown and build a new church on the city’s east side. But it wasn’t long before Lartey realized the decision to leave Goler Heights, where the church had been since 1881, was not unanimous.
Many of the longtime elderly members wanted to remain, while the younger people wanted to move. “We had to win those over who wanted to move,” he says, “and, afterwards, we had to win all of them over to realize that [redevelopment] was not going to happen overnight.”
A plan had to be crafted, funds had to be raised, land had to be acquired, and backers had to be found. When the B&W building suddenly became available for purchase, construction of a 15,000-square-foot enrichment center next door to the church—a key component of the master plan—had to be put on hold. “There’s been a lot of delayed gratification,” Lartey says with a chuckle.
The master plan includes construction of a new 1,000-seat church on an empty lot next to the current church building, which will be converted into a cultural heritage center. The pedestrian-friendly streetscape includes apartments built above businesses and shops, and a full range of services and commercial offerings, all on a city bus route.
This vision has won the backing of Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, one of many city officials who supports revitalizing what he describes as downtown Winston-Salem’s “northern gateway.” A city administrator for more than 30 years, Joines says the project is “a tremendous example” of Lartey’s leadership skills.
Joines also serves as president of the Winston-Salem Alliance, a nonprofit development corporation which has pumped $1.2 million into Lartey’s project “because of our strong belief in its importance to the city.”
Lartey is an optimist and a “very clear thinker—a strategic thinker—which has led him to be able to see a clear vision for this area, and more importantly to be able to communicate that vision to his congregation and the community,” says Joines.
Derwick Paige, Winston-Salem’s assistant city manager for community and economic development, agrees: “Basically what they’re trying to create is a mixed-use neighborhood to restore that community to its days of glory.”
Raised in a family of means, Lartey’s grandfather was Liberia’s postmaster general, and the first elected African bishop of the AME Zion Church. His grandfather’s interests led Lartey to “more involvement in organized religion.” His grandmother was a missionary and daughter of a Liberian vice president. Lartey has one brother and three sisters, but his family often took in other children to raise.
On Aug. 3, 1976, Lartey, who was 20, experienced what he calls “a transformative moment.” He and a friend had cut class, and while standing in the living room of another friend’s home, Lartey says he saw the Lord.
“That moment I saw myself as though standing before God on the day of judgment, and when I looked at my life, I was not ready,” Lartey said. “That was the transformative moment for me.”
Immediately, he cut ties to his partying friends, forgoing nights out in social clubs. “The inclination I had from that day on was more of telling people about God, showing people the way of God, teaching people how to live for God. That was all my desire. For me everything was, ‘How do you make people better by knowing God?’ ”
Eventually, Lartey received a scholarship to come to the United States to attend Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. There, while serving as student body president, he met Jacqueline Williams, a North Carolina native who remembers her future husband as a hard worker and a gentleman.
“Friendship led to courtship. Courtship led to marriage,” Jacqueline
says. After graduating, Lartey earned
Today, the couple has three young children: Solomon, Alicia and Victoria.
While there are myriad challenges being married to her “workaholic” husband, who earned his doctor of ministry degree from New Jersey’s Drew University last November, Jacqueline remains her husband’s best friend and biggest supporter.
She says he is influenced by “the Spirit that’s within him that drives him to do good. He’s always working. He comes from a family that always did things for others and tried making life better for humanity. I think that was instilled in him growing up…. He feels like he needs to make things better for humanity and by making it better for humanity he’s making it better for himself and his family as well.”
The Rev. Horace C. Walser, presiding elder of the Winston-Salem District of the AME Zion Church, says Lartey is willing to venture into ministries that would scare off other ministers.
“He has a sincere calling to do the work, and he takes it extremely seriously; he lives it,” Walser says. “He goes where the needs are the greatest, and he has a keen sense of the needs of his fellow man.”
Goler Memorial’s motto—“Equipping, evangelizing and expanding the kingdom of God through the word and the power of the Holy Spirit’’—inspires Lartey’s vision.
“We’re going to focus on evangelization, discipleship and equipping the saints for the work of ministry,” he says. He cites the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel as further inspiration.
“Jesus says that the Spirit of God is upon me. He has anointed me to do something for the poor. He’s anointed me to preach good news. He’s anointed me to set the captives free,” Lartey says.
Although he has now lived most of his adult life in this country, Lartey maintains close ties to his African homeland. In December, he traveled to Liberia to “assess the educational and health needs of children,” many of whom have been displaced by civil war, and to determine what can be done in the U.S. to help Liberians.
The presence of United Nations peacekeepers in Monrovia, the nation’s capital, makes it safe to travel there, says Lartey, who organized a campaign in Winston-Salem to send a shipment of food, clothing and medical supplies to Liberia.
“I see myself as one who is never, ever satisfied with seeing people in the state that is less than,” he says. “I’m always encouraging them, and wanting to see them do better.”
Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer based in Garner, N.C. His most recent article for Divinity magazine was a profile about the Rev. Betty Ann Brown D’96.
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