Hearing the Call from Guyana
Sydney H. Ramphal grew up in a Hindu family in Guyana that eventually grew to 11 sons and four daughters born to the same set of parents. The family, with an East Indian heritage, included a grandfather who had been a Hindu elder.
Ramphal didn’t find spiritual answers in the faith, and at 17 — despite threats from his parents of disinheritance — surrendered his life to Jesus in 1954. Afterward, most of his siblings as well as his parents followed suit, with two of his brothers, Sam and Robert, also becoming ministers, along with his son, Sydney Samuel, and his daughter Pearl Rebecca Hublal.
Ordained in 1965, Ramphal became the first full-time Assemblies of God pastor in Guyana and he pioneered several congregations in the South American country. He became Sunday School director, an executive presbyter, general secretary, and assistant superintendent of the Guyanese AG.
Ramphal hosted American pastor George Westlake Jr. in 1973 when Westlake preached revival services in Guyana. The following year, on a two-month break from ministry in his homeland, Ramphal traveled to Canada and the U.S. — to preach. His heart became burdened for the inner city when he visited Miami.
While in the U.S., Ramphal also renewed ties with Westlake, then pastor of Sheffield Family Life Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Westlake told Ramphal of the need for another Pentecostal church in the area. Ramphal asked several fellow AG ministers in Guyana, but none expressed interest. He didn’t have any desire himself, and not just because of the career he had.
“I had just built a nice home, we had beautiful weather, and I didn’t want to leave family and friends I had grown up with,” Ramphal remembers.
Then, in 1974, Ramphal attended the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization in Switzerland. There he heard renowned U.S. evangelist Billy Graham plead with delegates from developing nations to help evangelize the inner cities of America.
Despite his achievements and comfortable life in Guyana, Ramphal felt the Lord calling him to urban Kansas City, Missouri. At 84, he still pastors the church he started in 1974 at 41st and Troost, Grace Assembly of God.
Initially, Ramphal made trips with his vehicle to pick up attendees. He taught Sunday School, preached, led singing, and drove people back home. The early going proved rough. The church, on the dividing line between Black and white sections of the city, is located in a high-crime area, where illegal drugs, gunshots, domestic violence, and prostitution are common problems.
As the church grew, eventually Grace Assembly purchased five buses to transport more than 175 attendees.
“I was so naïve I didn’t understand the dangers,” Ramphal says. “Church buses had windows broken, gasoline ciphered, seats cut, and batteries stolen.” Over the years, Grace Assembly has been broken into more than 25 times, with sound systems being the most frequent targeted item.
It hasn’t been much better when people are actually on the property.
“Our members have been held up with handguns, and cars have been vandalized and stolen,” Ramphal says. “When choir members go up to sing, sometimes their purses were gone by the time they returned. People have even thrown rocks at the choir — and not because of their singing.”
A fire, spreading because an arsonist set a vacant building next door ablaze, destroyed the church building in 1999. A laborious process to pass city codes delayed reconstruction on the same spot until 2003. With the church presence gone in the interim, crime in the neighborhood worsened.
Today, though, Grace Assembly has achieved a modicum of respect in the area because of its good works. Around fourth-fifths of the attendees are African American, with 10 percent African, 5 percent East Indian, and 5 percent Caucasian.
“That church is like a stable lighthouse on a granite island,” says George Westlake III, who succeeded his father as pastor of Sheffield Life Family Center, located about 8 miles northwest of Grace Assembly. “In value to the community, it’s very large.” Westlake, 57, has known the Ramphal family since his teenage years and says they are all genuine, God-honoring people. Sheffield pastor emeritus George Westlake Jr. is now 89.
Ramphal, along with African American pioneers such as Bob Harrison and Spencer Jones, became an early leader of the Inner City Workers Conference when it formed in 1980. The ministry served as the forerunner to the AG’s National Black Fellowship, which received formal recognition in 1990. Ramphal served as secretary of the group for 26 years.
Ramphal says the Lord hasn’t given him any indication he should retire. He says he is in good health, exercises daily, and eats a healthy diet. He and wife Pearly have been married 60 years.
Only son Sam moved to the U.S. at 13 and began attending Central Bible College at 16. Sam, now 59, became music minister at Grace Assembly in the beginning and now is associate pastor.
“Things have gotten better in the neighborhood,” Sam says. “The last theft we had was copper being taken from condensation units four years ago.”
Sam’s wife of 30 years, Jennifer, and their children — Alexis, Alyssa, and Joseph — are involved in the church. Sam’s sister Judy is in charge of media at Grace Assembly, while sister Laura is children’s pastor. Sister Pearl Rebecca Hublal is co-lead pastor with her husband, Lokenauth Hublal, at Cypress Hills Assembly of God in Brooklyn, New York.