Just a few weeks ago, the Rev. Charles Watkins sat in a packed Florence Civic Center with guests from 600 other statewide AME churches attending the district’s midyear conference.

Suddenly, the bishop summoned him.

Watkins didn’t think too much of it. Big moves don’t happen in midyear, typically.

But the bishop had big news.

He was assigning Watkins to be the new pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in downtown Charleston. It is the district’s First Church, the most prestigious and one pastored for 15 years by local NAACP leader the Rev. Joseph Darby.

Watkins returned to his seat wearing his best poker face.

Sitting nearby, Darby was about to be promoted as well to presiding elder of the 33 churches in the AME Church’s Beaufort District.

“It couldn’t have been more surprising,” Darby said. “But you pick yourself up off the floor and go forward.”

The bishop announced Darby’s promotion. Then he announced Watkins would become pastor of Morris Brown.

Watkins rose and stepped forward in front of so many eyes, ears filled with applause, praying he didn’t trip or fall.

Two days later, Watkins stepped up into the historic pulpit at Morris Brown for the first time.

He looked out over his new flock, which numbers around 3,000, rich with church notables, civil rights activists and political figures including U.S. Rep. James Clyburn. In 1969, the spot was the headquarters for the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during a strike by Charleston’s hospital workers.

Watkins’ heart raced; his nerves twisted with anxiety.

“I was very aware of how huge it was,” he recalled.

Servant pastor

Watkins is running late getting to his new office at Morris Brown one recent morning after receiving a call from a devastated family at his former church in Mount Pleasant who suddenly lost a loved one.

Would he come to them?

Technically, they no longer are his parishioners. But a pastor’s bonds to the people go beyond the workday and district appointments.

So he went.

Once he has tended to the grieving, he arrives at Morris Brown and eases into a parking spot marked “servant pastor.”

“Jesus came to serve, not to be served,” Watkins said. “That’s the hardest thing — people perceive the pastor is on a pedestal. It can easily sweep you up.”

Darby is confident Watkins’ temperament will keep him grounded in the story of Jesus cleaning his disciples’ travel-worn feet.

“He is an absolutely excellent choice to lead the church,” Darby said. “It’s very easy to get to a position like that where people tell you how great and excellent you are. You need to have the temperament not to believe it.”

Instead, Watkins feels the pressure of walking in Darby’s long shadow, not to mention those who came before him.

“Folks are madly in love with him,” Watkins said. “He was extremely organized. He knew this church very, very well and was a personable pastor. Plus, he was here for 15 years. It’s going to take me a while to win people over and for them to trust me. But I welcome earning my way to be their pastor.”

For now, Watkins plans no major changes at Morris Brown, noting: “It’s not broken.”

Army man

At 60, the ministry is a second career for Watkins, one he never imagined would bring him to such a prominent role.

The father of two grown daughters, he spent 21 years serving in the Army.

He grew up in Washington., D.C., going to public schools and spending holidays and summers with his grandparents, who lived 75 miles away in a small Maryland town. His grandma saw in the mischievous boy a future that he didn’t see for himself.

“You should be a preacher!” she would exclaim when he memorized Bible verses.

He preferred playing football, running track, hanging out at parties and missing curfew. Nothing criminal, but nothing angelic either.

“That’s who God chooses. He needs you to have the experiences,” Watkins said. “You have to have been there.”

Still, his grandma ensured he sat in the pews at her Ebenezer AME Church. She’d pull mints out of her purse, sending forth a scent that still reminds him of her loving presence.

But soon, he moved away, following his father and grandfather into the Army.

He served in many roles, including with the 82nd Airborne Division, the 41st Infantry Regiment and the ceremonial unit that handles military funerals in Arlington, Va.

While he was stationed in Germany, his social options sparse, he spent time in the base’s chapel and talking with chaplains. It was the first time he heard the concept of God calling people to the ministry.

The idea pulled on his thoughts as he realized how much he enjoyed teaching and serving as a role model while climbing the ranks.

Was he being called to something more?

At one point, he was a drill sergeant. But his favorite role was training the sergeants themselves.

“It’s not like you see on television,” he said. “You’re a role model. These young people emulate what they see in their drill sergeants. You can’t find anyone in the military who can’t name his drill sergeant. He made you a man.”

Watkins was named first sergeant over recruiting in Greenville. The Army had taught him discipline, and he felt passionate about letting young people know what it offered.

But there was that idea tugging at his thoughts again, the calling to serve God’s people.

At one point, he had worked with a man whose wife was dying of cancer. Watkins sat near the man, his Bible in hand, but didn’t approach his colleague.

Later, he wished he had.

He went home to his wife, Dolores. “I’m ready to take this to the next level,” he told her.

A new world

In 1994, Watkins preached his trial sermon at his grandmother’s church. By then, she had passed away.

It was a cloudy day, but as he spoke, the sun forced through, illuminating the sanctuary and filling him with a sense of her belief in him.

“If anyone thought this is where I’d be, it was her,” Watkins recalled. “Only God could put that together. All the emotions, all the memories.”

His first church was in Belton, S.C., a tiny place with barely 20 members.

After 21 years in the Army, he had retired with a rank high enough that people stood at attention when he entered.

Not so at the little church. He learned how much he didn’t know.

Eventually, with his doctorate in hand, he served at other churches and taught religion at Allen University. He came to the Lowcountry first at Bethel in St. George and then Greater Goodwill in Mount Pleasant. He thought he would retire there.

Barely a year later, he sat in the Florence Civic Center wearing his best poker face.

Moving forward

Darby is packing to move, no easy task after living in Morris Brown’s parsonage for nearly 15 years. He will relocate somewhere in Charleston.

“You remember that it’s not your church. It is Christ’s church,” Darby said.

However, Watkins assured his old friend that he’s not waiting at the door with his own boxes. He knows how challenging the unexpected move has been.

Darby will continue with the Charleston NAACP and preach around the district.

And when Watkins steps to the pulpit at Morris Brown this morning, he will preach for only his fourth Sunday there.

He hopes to feel less nerve-racked. He hopes to smell the mints from his grandma’s purse, reminding him of her confidence in him.

“Whenever God has me where I should be, then I can smell them,” he said.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.