Members of the historic White Rock Church in Sykesville came together March 1 to pay homage to their pastor, the Rev. Douglas Sands, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

Sands, who was at the forefront of Baltimore’s desegregation effort in the 1950s and 1960s, was feted by more than 200 friends, loved ones and church members from throughout Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. Some came from as far away as Texas. The church was filled to overflowing.

In Black church tradition, the celebratory meal included soul food—fried chicken, baked ham, collard greens, potato salad, rolls, apple pie, cake and iced tea.

The decorations included a table displaying memorabilia of Sands’ activism. The display included the gold Reebok tennis shoes he wore when he walked 542 miles to pray at 103 local churches whose members participated in the Prayer Vigil for Nonviolence and Peace between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday in 2001.

“He’s been a cornerstone in the community,” church member Bill Hudson said.

“He tries to do what is right not only for himself, but for the people that he serves…He deserves to be recognized.”

Even as church leaders were planning the celebration, Sands was awaiting word on two measures he has actively supported in Annapolis that would allow some churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church to maintain their assets. A law passed in 1976 allows the UMC to own the assets of member churches, even those that started many, many years ago and were purchased without assistance from the UMC.

White Rock, once associated with the UMC, broke away three years ago and Sands and his members have been told that the church and its assets no longer belong to the congregation. Sands and his members are battling—along with some other local pastors and congregations—against seizure of their churches.

White Rock was recently offered the opportunity to return to the Baltimore-Washington Conference, but refused.

Kenneth Mitchell, pastor of Sunnyside New Life Community Church in Frederick, Md., said he met Sands when they joined forces after both churches decided to secede from the UMC.

“The Lord brought us together as his soldiers to fight the illegality and the injustice of this law,” said Mitchell.

Members of the historic church, which was built by Blacks just after the end of the Civil War, described Sands as a man of peace, courage and faith who provides them with spiritual leadership. He also guides them in negotiating man-made conflicts, members said.

“He is faithful to the word of God and the mission of Christ,” said Sands’ wife, Barbara. “He believes in the ministry of Christ and he believes in justice for all.

He’s a fair person.”

As a young man, Sands, a native of Cooksville, Md., was valedictorian of his high school, served as a youth fellowship leader and sang in the choir at Mt. Gregory Methodist Church. He learned activism from his parents and also from his principal at the Black school in Cooksville, Silas E. Craft. Craft, in 1949, started a movement to build a new high school for Blacks and to name it Harriet Tubman High School.

“The school board wouldn’t put the name on the building, but we called it that anyway,” Sands said.

While a student at then-Morgan State College, he was among a group of young people who protested at businesses near the campus, including a Read’s Drug Store branch, Hecht’s department store, the Northwood Theater and other places of public accommodation that discriminated against Blacks.

Sands has received several awards for his activism. Since January, he has served as chairman of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP’s Committee on Religious Affairs.

Sands’ son, Curtis, said his father taught him and his siblings the importance of helping others.

“It’s important for him to teach others about the struggle that he’s been through, especially the struggle that Black people are still going through,” Curtis Sands said. “He’s instilled certain things in me that I feel are important to continue to share. He has also taught me the importance of fighting for fairness.”