BROWNVILLE JUNCTION, Maine — The new minister at the Brownville Junction United Methodist Church has a weighty resume that includes influential friends, a mastery of more than 11 languages and a background that includes imprisonment for resisting apartheid in his South African homeland.
The Rev. Isaac Leshy Paynter, 52, a black man who has ministered in large Canadian and Illinois churches, finds the small Piscataquis County church and the community to his liking.
“Once you meet the people, you fall in love with small communities,” Paynter said during a recent interview.
For Paynter, the circuitous route his life has taken before landing in Brownville has been an intriguing one. Born in Johannesburg, Paynter attended a Catholic church in the morning with his mother, who was studying to be a nurse, and a Methodist church with his grandmother later in the day, he said. “So I got double dose [of religion],” the father of five children joked.
As a teenager, Paynter was involved in activities at both churches and the South African Student Organization, which resisted the ruling party’s apartheid policies.
“In short, we were really the voice of the church to demand justice and the end of racial discrimination because South Africa was known as the only country where public racial discrimination was part of the law,” Paynter said.
It was that voice, however, that caused him and others to become imprisoned. While he served about three months in prison and was released, some of his friends were not so lucky and were killed after torture in detention, he said.
“That was nothing unusual. It was just part and parcel of really having to oppose the injustice that was there,” Paynter said.
Christianity is very clear that certain things are right and certain things are wrong, he said. “There comes a time when you say, ‘This is what we believe, this is the message of the Gospel’ — Jesus fought against injustice.”
While attending the University of South Africa, Paynter married a Lutheran minister’s daughter and they had a son. At 20, he and other South African students moved elsewhere in Africa to continue their studies. It was difficult for their families who had to remain behind, he said. With the help of the World Council of Churches, the United Nations and other organizations and churches, the students obtained scholarships and left for England. Because mathematics was his strength, Paynter worked to earn a mathematics degree.
When he finished his studies, his wife, Gilty, joined him in England and they and their son moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario. For the next 15 years, Paynter ministered to a community of 35,000 people in addition to conducting a special ministry in Toronto. His Lutheran church had one of the biggest ministries working with South African exiles and supported the fight against apartheid.
Because of that, Nelson Mandela came to Canada in the early 1990s after serving 27 years in prison to meet with church officials. Mandela and his former wife, Winnie, were hosted by Paynter and others. “We were able to have some time to be with him,” he recalled.
After Mandela became South Africa’s president, he invited Paynter and other church dignitaries to be his guests in South Africa, according to Paynter. There they visited Robben Island, where Mandela spent much of his incarceration, he said.
Paynter, who also has a degree in divinity, later moved from Canada to Buffalo, N.Y., where he served a Lutheran church before moving to Chicago, where he ministered in a Methodist church. When his contract at that church expired, Paynter went into the international exchange ministry, which sent Americans to South Africa and South Africans to America so each could learn more about their respective people and country.
“It is unique to be in a place, hear a story, share with the people and then connect on that basis,” Paynter said.
Still, he missed serving a church, so he searched for a part-time ministry and found the Brownville offering, which allows him to teach mathematics part time at Husson University.
“I’m getting the story here of the local issues,” Paynter said. “It’s a small congregation; all the realities are here and all the opportunities are here.”
Paynter said he and church members are meeting with residents and town officials to see how the church can serve the community, whether it be to offer elder day care or to help fight domestic abuse. He noted the church already operates one of the larger thrift shops in the region, and he believes it will continue to grow.
As the new kid on the block, Paynter said, he can view things differently from residents who have lived in the community for years.
“I think opportunities are here. It may be tough right now, but good things will be happening,” he said.
When he returns to his homeland once or twice a year to visit relatives and friends, Paynter said there is always a temptation to remain and be part of the change, but he recognizes his life is different now. He said he still assists churches that help South Africans get the education they need so they can return to serve the country.
Paynter said that for him and others like him who choose to stay elsewhere, their work is to give back and say “thank you” to those who supported their cause and education. “For some of us who have seen that [generosity] and know the generosity of human beings all over the world, home is where we are, wherever God calls us,” he stated.
His current home is an exciting place to be, Paynter said, because of the inauguration of the nation’s first black president. It is an example of what democracy can do, since whites as well as blacks voted for Barack Obama, he said. “This really says there is a spirit that is part of the American spirit that is just incredible, that is awesome,” Paynter said.
“As I talk about it now, I even feel emotional that in America, yes, you can dream here, all things are possible,” Paynter said. “The whole world is looking and saying this would not happen in England, it would not happen in Germany and it would not happen in Hungary, but it is happening in this incredible democracy that is leading the world, so really, for me, America deserves to be the leader of the world. You have to feel humbled by what has happened here.”
Paynter said he sees that same example of democracy in Brownville.
“The realities are different but people are always people. There is something that happens when you get to be with people. You realize that we all have the same struggles whether you are in Canada or whether you’re in Brownville Junction,” he said.