"Don't look so sad," The Reverend Nathan Walker told his congregation at the start of Sunday's service. "This is the hardest sermon I've ever prepared. My first one was 1955."
The Reverend Nathan Walker has been serving as pastor at Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church for more than 21 years now. The congregation has grown to 600 strong during his leadership. But now, at age 75, his struggle with diabetes has made it impossible for him to continue.
"My health won't allow it," Rev. Walker said. "My age, and if I stay in it, though, you're going to have to serve me and that's wrong, instead of serving God."
His departure is sad for many long-time church members. For them, Walker was a friend as well as spiritual leader. And Walker says that doesn't have to end.
"I'll be available for prayer, counseling and all of that, so I'm no farther than the telephone," he said.
"He'll be a preacher forever, for the rest of his life and he'll be a pastor for the rest of his life," said Amos Croutch, who was baptized at Greater Mt. Olive in the mid 1930s.
Walker says he isn't sure what the future will hold for him, but he says he's not worried about that. He encouraged his congregation to also live their lives with their faith in God's hands.
"I don't care what situation you get yourself in, turn to God," Walker said. "Don't cry out to man, cry out to God."
At the end of the sermon, he walked into the congregation and personally said goodbye. Soon, someone new will stand at his pulpit, but his congregation will not forget the Reverend Nathan Walker.
"We're going to try and move on, but we won't forget him," long-time church member Eddie Clark said. "He'll always be remembered."
"God bless you children," Rev. Walker said as members of his congregation filed out at the end of the service. "You're in God's hands now. Don't worry. I'm going to stay around, God Bless you."
The Reverend Walker is also well known in the community. He's served for 15 years on the Gulfport School Board and plans to continue with that. He was recently honored for his community service by the Gulfport City Council and the Rotary Club.
A permanent replacement for Rev. Walker has not yet been chosen.