While fighting on the front lines for the United States Marine Corps in the Korean War, Ralph Livingston Jefferson made a promise to God, his family said.
If he were to return home safely, he would devote his life to religious service and giving back to the community.
Jefferson earned three battle stars during the war and returned home with a Purple Heart on his chest and ambition in his soul.
In 1964, a few years after being ordained as a minister and an elder, Jefferson founded his own church — Jefferson Chapel, Church of God in Christ. The ministry later became Jefferson Temple, Church of God in Christ, which has operated in Bellport for 45 years.
Bishop Jefferson, a father of six who was born in Southampton and lived in Bellport for over 30 years, died Nov. 4 at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, his family said. He was 87.
"My dad’s fate was decided when he was in Korea," said daughter Loretta Jefferson, 58, of Bellport. "He realized (that) he was 18 years old, fighting in a real war, and the guys in his company around him, unfortunately, were slain. God was protecting him."
Loretta Jefferson continued: "When he came home, he was called to the ministry by God and that’s how it all started."
As a preacher, Ralph Jefferson was approachable. While his command of the scripture was never in doubt, he always made sure his congregation was on the same page.
"He was very knowledgeable," said Ronette Spann of Bellport, a longtime member of the church. "He would not only preach, but he would ask for questions and get feedback."
Ralph Jefferson was appointed Bishop of the Church of God in Christ in 2005 and assigned to the western Canada ecclesiastical jurisdiction. He would occasionally travel to Canada for services and conferences, his family said.
Ralph Jefferson was born on Nov. 6, 1932. After graduating from Southampton High School, where he played football and ran track, he served in the Marine Corps from 1952-1954, achieving the rank of corporal.
Following his military service, Jefferson entered the New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan and later attended the American Bible College of New York, and the United Christian College in Brooklyn, where he earned a doctorate. He also earned a certificate in biblical studies from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and degrees in Arts, Liberal Arts, and Social Science from Suffolk Community College in Selden and Long Island University in Southampton, his family said.
After preaching in King’s Chapel in Southampton, Ralph Jefferson felt called to start his own church, his family said. His Jefferson Chapel, Church of God in Christ began in Port Jefferson in 1964 and moved to Selden and Centereach before settling in Bellport in 1975.
"He would go to various homes, speak, and invite the person to come to church," said daughter Theresa Partlow, 65, of East Patchogue. "He made the person feel welcome. All are welcome, that was his motto. "
Community outreach and caring for the hungry was a never-ending mission for Ralph Jefferson. He organized a food pantry, in conjunction with Long Island Cares and Long Island Harvest, and invited those in need to partake. Each Sunday, he would pay for breakfast and a hot meal to be served to the children of the congregation, his family said.
During the Korean War, where children begged him for food, "he would take part of his ration and give to the children. He was always concerned about the needs of the people and when he came back to the United States he said he would take care of whoever needed to be taken care of," Partlow said.
Each Labor Day for nearly 25 years, the church would hold a ‘Give Back Day,’ where community members in need could have access to free school supplies and gently used clothing.
The day included unlimited food, games and activities for children, and a contest with a bike as a prize.
In years where school supply donations ran short, Ralph Jefferson paid for them himself, his family said.
His commitment to the community earned him the Long Island Advance Man of the Year honor in 1988.
Ralph Jefferson was the president of the eastern Long Island chapter of the NAACP from 1985-1986. In 1986, he became the first African American man to run for Southampton Village Trustee.
Although his campaign was unsuccessful, he was flattered by the number of votes he received and ultimately viewed the experience as a success, his family said.
He remained involved in politics by speaking at Town of Brookhaven public meetings and inviting political candidates and officeholders to speak to his congregation.
"He opened the doors of the church for political figures to come in and introduce themselves — who they are, what they’re running for, what’s their purpose," Loretta Jefferson said. "Over the years, people began to know who Bishop Jefferson was."
In addition to his daughters, Ralph Jefferson is survived by his wife of 66 years, Ada Mae Jefferson of Bellport, sons Joseph Jefferson and Ralphael Jefferson, both of Amityville, daughter Victoria Castor of Bellport, son-in-law Paul Partlow of East Patchogue, daughters-in-law Laurie Jefferson and Susan Jefferson of Amityville, sisters Dorothy Shaw of the Bronx and Marion Vickers of Hempstead, 19 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren.
He is predeceased by son Jerry Jefferson, parents William L. Jefferson and Lillie Mae Jefferson, brother Lawrence Jefferson and William Jefferson, sister-in-law Charlotte Jefferson and brother-in-law Arcell Vickers. Ralph Jefferson was buried at Calverton National Cemetery, his family said.