A North Pekin pastor marked 50 years at McArthur Drive Baptist Church in North Pekin on Nov. 3.

Pastor Bobby Barnhill is originally from outside Paducah, Ky., and moved to the area when his father got a job with Caterpillar. 

Barnhill’s father was a pastor, too. Barnhill was able to attend college because of the GI Bill. He was drafted in 1961 and served for two years with the military. He called it “a blessing in disguise” because without serving he would not have gone on to college.

First, he attended Illinois Central College and then went onto Western Illinois University, where he got a Bachelor of Arts degree. He went back for his master’s degree and graduated from Trinity Theological Seminary.

Barnhill and his wife, Carolyn, have three children and three grandchildren.

In addition to being a pastor, he also worked at Komatsu for many years. Barnhill, 80, walked up and down the streets near the church when he first became pastor to get folks to go to his church. His efforts paid off, and as a result, the congregation grew.

“Most of the people on the street were baptized here,” he said. 

Children who attended the church when he started there, now have grandchildren. He said losing loved ones is the hard part about being a pastor but said it is important to grieve. It is also difficult to counsel people through their hard times. The easy part for him is talking about the Lord.

“I’ve enjoyed it all these years,” he said. “I’ve done 400 plus baptisms. I’m still enjoying it. It hasn’t always been easy on my family. One year we were in Florida on vacation, and the phone rang. My kids asked me not to answer it, because they knew if someone was calling, it probably meant something was wrong. Well, I answered it, and we had to leave immediately and drive back (home).”

Carolyn is proud to be his wife and of his work. 

“I was 26 (years old) when I moved here,” she said. “Bobby’s quiet until he preaches. He’s preached at both his parents’ funerals, my parents, siblings and other family members. To stand up there so stoic, that was hard on him. I’m amazed when he preaches. He’s the comforter. I told him on Saturday from the bottom of my heart, I would do it all over again.”

Saturday was the day of his surprise party thrown by parishioners 50 years after the exact day he started preaching: Nov. 3, 1968. It was held at McArthur Drive Baptist Church, 109 N. Mcarthur Drive, and even Carolyn was in the dark about it. Her sister helped get the couple to the church without tipping them off.

“It humbled me,” said Barnhill. “We were definitely surprised.”

A meal was served as Barnhill was celebrated. Family members from out of state were able to attend along with eight preachers from their association.

Barbara Turner was one of the people who put together the surprise party. She and her sisters used to sing with Carolyn in a church quartet nicknamed “The Songbirds.”

Turner described Barnhill as “a wonderful pastor who is very devoted, and (he’s) there when anyone needs him.”

She said she likes to give him a hard time about baseball because she is a Chicago Cubs fan while Barnhill likes the St. Louis Cardinals.

“We’ve had a lot of fun with that,” she said.

The party did not indicate retirement, though. Barnhill still preaches on Sundays, holds a Bible study once a week and is on-call around the clock.

“I figure the Lord will retire me when he wants to,” he said. “I still enjoy what I’m doing. A small church like this feels like family.”