Pulpit to politics, remembering Leonidas B. Young II

Joey Matthews | 1/22/2016, 6:46 a.m.
The Rev. Leonidas B. Young II rose from the pulpit of historic Fourth Baptist Church in the East End to ...
The Rev. Leonidas B. Young II speaks to his congregation at New Kingdom Christian Ministries on North Side in December 2014. Photo by Sandra Sellars

The Rev. Leonidas B. Young II rose from the pulpit of historic Fourth Baptist Church in the East End to the pinnacle of Richmond political power, serving as the city’s mayor from 1994 to 1996.

Elected to Richmond City Council representing the East End’s 7th District from 1992 to 1999, he was considered a rising political star by many at the time.

However, any aspirations he might have had for higher office evaporated when he was convicted of federal public corruption charges in February 1999.

Under suspicion for several years, he pleaded guilty to accepting money while mayor to promote the sale of city cemeteries to a private company, evading taxes by failing to report about $7,000 of illegal income on his federal taxes and obstructing justice by urging an ally to lie to authorities about the corruption. He also admitted to embezzling inheritance money from an elderly couple in his church to help pay for extramarital affairs.

The day his trial was to begin, he pleaded guilty. Earlier that same morning, he resigned from City Council and his church soon booted him out as pastor.

He served about 18 months in a federal prison in South Carolina.

After his release, he returned to his Richmond roots to found and pastor New Kingdom Christian Ministries, where his ministry aimed to lift others who, like him, had lost their way.

On his redemptive path, Rev. Young had his rights restored in 2012 by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell. He then cast his hat in the political ring one final time last June in an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination to represent Richmond in the House of Delegates.

Rev. Young, a powerful and inspiring orator, is being remembered by the community for his years of pastoral and public service, his precipitous fall from grace and his resurrection as a faith leader following his death at a Richmond hospital Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016.

He was surrounded by loved ones when he succumbed to cancer at age 62. He had been diagnosed with the disease in December.

A wake will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25, at New Kingdom Christian Ministries, 3200 Dill Ave., on North Side.

Family, friends and others will memorialize his life at his funeral at noon Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Fifth Baptist Church, 1415 W. Cary St., where he was baptized and ordained.

Shocked by the news of his death, about 150 congregation members gathered Sunday at New Kingdom to honor Rev. Young’s memory.

The Rev. Chris Moore, an assistant pastor at the church, told the worshippers, “We know God is good” and that should remain the foremost thought as members “weep and mourn.”

Jerome Barley, a church elder, echoed Rev. Young’s message of forgiveness. “He made mistakes and God lifted him up and he grew from there,” he said.

Mary Manning, a church member, vowed that even in grief, “the church will carry on” Rev. Young’s mission and honor his memory.

In a Facebook post, Richmond gospel singer Cora Armstrong stated, “Lee was a very powerful, passionate, loving man of God. He believed in second chances and not casting judgment on others.

“If you ever visited his church, then you already knew you were walking into God’s hospital where he told his worshippers, ‘No perfect people were allowed.’ He once told me that ‘going through the struggle not only can help you rebound, but you can come back stronger.’ ’’

Others in the community also recalled Rev. Young with mostly fond thoughts.

“I was stunned when I first heard that Lee Young died,” U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who served on City Council with Rev. Young and later as Richmond mayor and then governor, stated in an email to the Free Press. “He was a man of significant gifts, and I saw firsthand when he was mayor how much he could accomplish.

“I never understood why, with so much to offer, he pursued an improper path instead of continuing on an upward public service trajectory,” he added.

“But his efforts after his incarceration were notable and noble and he became a strong example of how to use a second chance to get better,” Sen. Kaine continued. “In doing this, he inspired others to believe there was a second chance for them. I’ll think of that as his legacy.”

The Rev. Earl Brown of Fifth Baptist Church spoke of Rev. Young’s decades-long connection with the church, where his father, Leonidas Young Sr., still serves as a deacon.

“We remained good friends during his time of conflict,” Rev. Brown said. “I was with him last Thursday in the hospital.”

He recalled him as someone dedicated to helping the downtrodden.

“Many in his congregation were formerly incarcerated like he was and many others were trying to overcome drugs. He brought many of them to the light and helped many of them to be rehabbed.”

Asked what Rev. Young’s legacy would be, Rev. Brown said, “It will be of forgiveness and of restoration, to show what God can do.

“He made a mistake,” he added. “We all have made mistakes and he recovered from it and he never stopped until the illness.”

Born in Richmond in 1953, Rev. Young earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Virginia Union University in 1978 and a master’s of divinity degree in 1982 from Drew University in Madison, N.J.

Following in the steps of his grandfather and great-grandfather, he became a clergyman. He was ordained at Fifth Baptist in 1975. His first pastorate started that same year at Bethel Baptist Church in Gloucester County.

He moved in 1979 to pastor New Hope Baptist Church in East Orange, N.J., and returned to Richmond in 1990, when he was installed as the sixth pastor at Fourth Baptist Church on P Street, which, at 156 years old, is the oldest African-American church in Church Hill.

Dr. Emory Berry, the church’s current pastor and eighth in its history, recalled Rev. Young as “a friend and mentor” and “someone who was a phenomenal preacher and did a great job of inspiring people, motivating them and challenging them to be a better human being. He was very approachable and personable.”

Dr. Berry recalled how he went to Rev. Young’s New Kingdom church to preach in 2012. Several members of Fourth Baptist accompanied him.

“There was a moment of reconciliation,” Dr. Berry said, “when he apologized for any hurt he had caused them. There were a lot of tears shed and there was a lot of forgiveness in that room. That spoke a lot about his integrity and character.”

Rev. Young is survived by his wife, Sanya Young; daughters Ariel Young and Erika Williams; a son, Leonidas Young III; his parents, Leonidas Young Sr. and Cora Bell Young; three sisters, Jean Gilmore, Carolyn Hughes and Lora Hack; and a host of other relatives and friends.

Staff writer Jeremy M. Lazarus contributed to this article.