As the Rev. Al Gallmon quietly took his place in front of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis before Sunday's service, the congregation loudly serenaded him with "hallelujahs" and "amens." ¶ This wasn't a typical worship service. It featured more praise, more music, more tears and more hugs than usual.¶ That's because it was Gallmon's last sermon at Fellowship.¶ "It is such a blessing to be loved," the baritone-voice preacher told the standing-room-only crowd.¶ "It's also bittersweet."¶ More than 1,000 well-wishers gave a tearful and rousing sendoff to Gallmon, who over 11 years helped the North Side church grow from a congregation of 75 to one of the largest Baptist churches in the city.

Gallmon, who will turn 56 next month, recently announced his resignation as Fellowship's senior pastor. He and his wife, Wilma, plan to move to Tampa, Fla., to be closer to their aging mothers. A search for his replacement will be conducted.

"We don't feel really, really sad because we know it's for a divine calling, his family," said Mary Cunningham, a longtime Fellowship member. "He will always have his extended family here."

During his time in Minneapolis, Gallmon, a former banker who took up the ministry in his early 30s, gained recognition not only as a prominent preacher, but also as an influential civic leader.

From 2001 to 2004, he served on the Minneapolis school board. In 2003, he was president of the Minneapolis NAACP. He also served on several influential advisory boards and commissions and is widely credited with helping bring denominations together.

With help from the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, Gallmon and Fellowship helped create the Center of Families, a community center designed to help improve relations among Minnesotans of African heritage. The center is right next to Fellowship.

"He's a very dynamic community leader who has made a positive impact," Ezell Jones, a noted businessman and Fellowship member, said before Gallmon's spirited sermon. "His leaving will certainly create a void.

"But we're going to complete the journey he started."

Seeking forgiveness

Last year, Gallmon admitted to using a church credit card to cover more than $18,500 in personal expenses and failing to promptly report more than $62,000 in overcompensation due to an accounting mistake by the church. He apologized publicly, agreed to repay the money, and his congregation forgave him.

That forgiveness was evident on Sunday in the frequent praises, blessings and spontaneous choruses directed at Gallmon and his family.

During the service, he asked attendees to participate in a Fellowship congregation ritual -- to tell a person near you that you love them and that "there's nothing you can do about it."

Several children rushed onstage to hug him and Fellowship member Yunita Wright-Thomas gleefully shouted, "Pastor Gallmon, we all love you, and there's nothing you can do about it!"

Gallmon, who moment earlier had been swaying and clapping to a spirited number by the choir, was caught off guard and reduced to tears.

During the two-hour-plus service, he repeatedly thanked the congregation "for being so good to us." His wife, Wilma, and his daughter, JoAnna, 21, a student at Tuskegee University in Alabama, joined him in front of the church.

JoAnna has "grown up without the shackles of being a 'preacher's kid,'" Gallmon told the worshipers. "You assisted us in helping raise her into a young lady."

He said he doesn't know what he'll be doing in Tampa but that just as the choir had sung earlier, "that's all right."

"I do know this, though: God is not through with Al Gallmon yet," he said.

During his final sermon, titled "Pardon My Dust" -- a metaphor for maintaining humility -- Gallmon said no matter what goals a person achieves, in spite of everything, "you still are dust."

Borrowing a phrase from educator and historian Benjamin E. Mays, Gallmon told attendees he hopes he's leaving Fellowship and the Twin Cities community in a much better place.

Cunningham had an opinion on that. "He has," she said softly. "He has."

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790