DAVIDSON – Paul Leonard is the type of man who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty in pursuit of his mission.
A member of Davidson College’s class of 1962 and a former Presbyterian minister, Leonard has had a long career in the ministry, the private sector, and, most recently, serving as chairman of the board and interim CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.
He recalls attending a church picnic as a child and being chastised by a woman about the tower of food balancing precariously on his plate.
“I learned right then and there that it was important not just to leave food for others, but to serve others,” he said.
As he ministered to Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte from 1964-68, he felt somewhat separated from the laity and sought a way to create a more equal footing. He soon founded the non-traditional Church in the City to focus on community action and service.
“A woman I knew at the time, Gwyn Herd, told me about a family she had been able to assist via public housing,” he said. “But the family’s four kids had to share a bed and slept in it cross-ways. That’s when I realized how much people needed help. Back in the ’60s, you could focus on integration or women’s rights or anti-war issues. I picked housing.”
Terry Laney, executive director of Our Towns Habitat for Humanity in Cornelius, considers Leonard a mentor and inspiration. In 2000, after volunteering at Habitat’s General Store, Laney was hired by Leonard as store manager and moved the operation to Cornelius.
“When Paul served as president of the board at Our Towns Habitat, he led by example. I remember him helping to paint our newly constructed floor in the new store. It was hours and hours of work with lots of gray paint everywhere, some of it getting on the floor. We laughed about it and built a close relationship,” Laney said.
In 2011, Leonard solidified a partnership between Habitat and Davidson United Methodist Church, enabling 822 families in Guatemala to receive smokeless stoves.
What stands out most in Leonard’s mind though is a phone call he received almost two years ago from Ruth, a member of Church in the City. At 97, Ruth was suffering from macular degeneration, and her husband, Dick, 98, often could not be roused from stupors at the retirement home they lived in.
“I drove to visit Ruth and bring her to see Dick. We went down to listen to some music playing in one of the common rooms, and when Dick heard ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ he came alive. Ruth was so happy and kept saying to me, ‘you’re my only pastor,’ and so I told her ‘you’re my only church.’”