A church congregation in southern Pasquotank County is in mourning following the death of its pastor in a motorcycle accident less than two miles from the church Wednesday night.
The Rev. Calvin Preston Pitchford, 60, of the 4000 block of Timmerman Drive, Elizabeth City, died in a single-vehicle accident on Meadstown Road, the N.C. Highway Patrol said Thursday.
Sgt. B.P. Daniel said Pitchford was driving his 2003 Honda motorcycle north on Meadstown Road shortly before 8:50 p.m. when it went off the road on the left near the New Road intersection, entered a ditch and struck a culvert. Pitchford was thrown from the motorcycle and landed in the driveway of a nearby residence, Daniel said.
Pitchford was later pronounced dead at the scene, Daniel said. The cause of the accident is still under investigation, he said.
Pitchford was pastor at Symons Creek Tabernacle Church on Meadstown Road, and had just left the church from Bible study to head home about 15 minutes before the accident, several members of his congregation said on Thursday.
"Sad and heartbroken" is how Andy Meads, head deacon at Symons Creek, said most congregation members he's spoken with are reacting to Pitchford's death.
George Chory, also a deacon and the church's associate pastor, said members he's spoken to are "devastated and shocked, particularly since a lot of the core people in our church had just seen" Pitchford minutes before the accident.
According to both men, Pitchford and his wife, Robin, were both at the church Wednesday night for Bible study. They had driven to church separately, however, because as the church's choir director, Robin Pitchford needed to stay a little longer to finish up with choir practice. Pitchford, who had ridden his motorcycle, decided to leave early after Bible study was over and he had taken care of several church matters.
"Robin always was concerned about him on the bike," Chory said, recalling the events of Wednesday night. "I remember her saying, 'I heard him start his motorcycle up. I always say a little prayer because I want him to be safe.'"
Both Chory and Meads were still at the church when they heard an emergency vehicle go by roughly 15 minutes after Pitchford left. About 10 minutes later, someone from the church texted to inform them of what had happened. They left the church and went to the accident scene.
By then Robin Pitchford had already left the church and was on her way home in the direction her husband had traveled when she saw the road was blocked by emergency vehicles.
"She almost was about to take the detour when she decided to give him a call," Meads said. "When she got no response, she asked the emergency personnel (where the road was blocked) if the accident was a motorcycle accident...."
The night he was killed, Pitchford had been the pastor at Symons Creek for only a little more than a year. When he began pastoring the church last August, Symons Creek was hungry for a permanent pastor.
"We had had several pastors," Chory recalled. "We even had a period of time where we didn't have a pastor, just fill-ins."
Pitchford, who had resigned from another church, was looking for another church to pastor. After preaching several sermons at Symons Creek, church leaders decided to offer him the job as pastor. The congregation unanimously agreed with their choice.
"He got a 100-percent vote from church members, if that tells you anything," Meads said, referring to Pitchford's confirmation vote.
Meads believes one thing that made Pitchford attractive was his compassionate and caring nature. He also was already well known to a group of Symons Creek members because he frequently visited them at their homes.
"He was a very compassionate person," Chory agreed. "When it came to visitation, he would always visit sick people when they were in the hospital. The distance didn't matter to him."
Pitchford in fact had planned to visit someone in the hospital in Greenville on Thursday, Chory said.
"He always made time to go see people," he said. "He was a very caring person."
Meads also described Pitchford as a good leader and motivator.
"He was ex-military, so he had great leadership capabilities," Meads said. "He had a knack for getting everyone in church involved, getting them to work together."
Meads said Pitchford accomplished a lot in the short year he was Symons Creek's pastor. Among his initiatives was starting a children's class. Because Symons Creek's congregation is small, the church doesn't have a lot of members with small children. Pitchford wanted to start the class, however, because he believed the church was growing and one day would need one.
Meads, who's been a member at Symons Creek for 52 years, said the church's congregation did grow during the year Pitchford was pastor. The church now has 65-70 people attending Sunday services. Meads thinks that number was about 30-35 before Pitchford arrived.
Both Chory and Meads also described Pitchford as an experienced motorcyclist.
"He had ridden a motorcycle ever since he was 16," Chory said. "He would go on long bike rides. He would participate in veterans rides. ... He was very comfortable riding a bike. I can only think that something very unusual must have happened."
"He was an accomplished motorcyclist. He was not a rookie on a bike," Meads added. "He had ridden one for years. He would take riding trips to the mountains and elsewhere."
Like Chory, Meads isn't sure what happened Wednesday night, but he believes Meadstown Road is a "bad road" for riding a motorcycle.
Both men said church leaders haven't met yet to determine what to do going forward. They figure that meeting will take place in a few days and they'll start recruiting for substitute pastors. Chory noted that as an "independent" church" — Symons Creek isn't affiliated with a denomination — it's a little more difficult for it to recruit such pastors.
In the meantime, they plan to mourn the leader they've lost.
"This is a huge loss,” Chory said. “His death leaves a huge hole in the community. He was very effective in the community. He was also well-loved, not just at Symons Creek but in Elizabeth City as well. We will go on but it will be different without him being here."