Hundreds celebrate the life of the Rev. Durant, who leaves a 'legacy for inspiration'
PITTSFIELD -- There was no mention of a funeral Wednesday morning.
Instead, the paper programs passed out by the white gloved-hands of ushers at the First Baptist Church on South Street called it a "Home Going Celebration" for the Rev. Willard H. Durant, the respected community leader and beloved retired pastor of Pittsfield's Price Memorial AME Zion Church.
Durant passed away at Berkshire Medical Center on Saturday. He was 78.
Hundreds of people filled the entire first floor and part of the balcony of the First Baptist Church in order to celebrate and remember the reverend's life and legacy,
The event was observed with great dignity, soulful song and passionate prayer.
"This is a service of remembrance, thanksgiving and celebration of the life of the Rev. Willard Durant," said Quentin Chin, interim pastor of the church.
The makeup of the crowd gave testimony to the vast way Durant has touched the lives of others -- from the middle-aged woman in the McDonald's uniform to the pew full of well-dressed children with dreadlocks to the elder man in the yarmulke.
Numerous family members and friends of Durant, state and local dignitaries, clergy members of all faiths, and all other kinds and colors of people from the community shared laughter, tears and "amens" together during the nearly two-hour ceremony. The Rev. Leonard D. Comithier, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Albany, N.Y., officiated it.
The service began with the entire congregation on its feet singing the hymn, "In the Garden."
The Presiding Elder Rev. Margaret Lawson of the Boston District of the New England Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) Church sent regards from The Rev. Mildred "Bonnie" Hines, president of the Board of Bishops for the AME Zion Church.
"Our heart is with you, our prayers are for you," said Lawson before singing a prayer.
The Price Memorial AME Zion Church Choir then sang a prayer of victory which brought great rejoicing in the church, standing, clapping and an echo of "hallelujahs."
"Just another reminder that this is a celebration," said Comithier, who urged mourners to "hold fast to your memories and speak often of Rev. Durant."
In eulogy, Nakeida Bethel-Smith, Jack Downing, and Durant's sons Mark Durant and Tyus Durant spoke of the late reverend as a faith leader, friend and family member, respectively.
"There is something to be said about someone whose legacy spreads like wildfire," said Bethel-Smith, a congregant of Price Memorial. In the faith community, many simply referred to Durant as "The Rev. D."
"He would always make himself available to you. If you needed something, he'd make sure you got it," said Bethel-Smith. She encouraged people to "look to [Durant's] legacy for inspiration."
Downing is the president and CEO of Soldier On, a veterans' agency for which Durant had served as chaplain. The two men have a history spanning more than four decades, and beginning in a shoe shine parlor on West Street in 1966.
Durant was shining Downing's shoes. Durant was 23. Downing was 31. Durant lived on John Street. Downing lived on South John Street.
"That night, we walked home together and we became friends," said Downing. "There's nothing fake about Will Durant. He wanted to change the world everywhere he went."
Over the years, Downing watched his friend rise against adversity and become a tireless advocate for the welfare, humane treatment and equal rights of others.
"For a young black man in the 1960s in Pittsfield, Mass., it was not always easy. It's not easy today. You know you're different and people look at you. But Willard had a permanent attitude of forgiveness. If there was chaos, he would bring peace to the situation," Downing said.
He called Durant a "servant-leader" who was "into tolerance, not titles," though Durant held several titles in Pittsfield, from mental health counselor to co-director of the Christian Center. He shared the latter title with his wife Rosemary, who passed away three years ago.
"The only homage Willard really needs is the community that raised him up," Downing said.
Mark Durant and his brother, Tyus Durant, then took to the pulpit and offered both humility and gratitude to the hundreds of people gathered in respect of their father.
"He is who his is because of you," said Mark.
"We will always carry gratitude for the community for loving our father," he said, before Tyus shared a prayer.
Following a stirring solo hymn performed by Cheryl Taliaferro, the Rev. Comithier, in closing, delivered an impassioned meditation about Durant's spirit living on.
"We have to live in the absence of Rev. Durant but we can find hope in the hub of our heartache," Comithier said.
In a 2002 interview with The Eagle, after winning the city's first Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Community Service, Durant cited his own beliefs in this community and its people.
"When you're an optimist, you can see ground that needs to be turned over and planted," said Durant. "We need to have the vision that people can grow where they are, that they don't need to move. A lot of positive things can happen, and I really think the people of Pittsfield need a vision that includes them, as part of that vision."