When Reverend Steve Peake ’74 was a boy, he sat in a one-room segregated schoolhouse in tiny Fleming-Neon, Ky., listening to women from a nearby Christian organization tell the story of John the Baptist. They brought with them an easel and Bible characters cut from felt that they placed upon a board to tell the children the “good news” of the Gospel.
“That interested me early in life, to hear them tell those stories,” Rev. Peake said, noting that his ministry today focuses on these same stories with hopes of inspiring people to want to know more about Christ.
Peake attended that little segregated school through the sixth grade. In the seventh grade, the schools were finally integrated, which Peake describes as a smooth transition because he had been playing with the local white children all his young life anyway. They were already friends. Next door lived foster children of multiple races raised by black parents. When he grew up, Steve wanted to help children like them.
“I wanted to be a social worker, a child adoption agent. That was my dream. I thought my purpose in life must be to work with children and get them adopted into good homes.”
Making good on these plans began with attending Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky., for two years. When the two years were up, a dean at the college took Peake and three other students to Berea College, a place they could continue their education. Peake chose to attend and majored in sociology.
At Berea, Peake discovered an environment much more diverse than the community he was used to back in Fleming-Neon, which he says had perhaps only 25 black children in it. “At Berea,” he said, “I met all these different colors of people. I learned that people might be different, but they’re similar in so many ways.”
He found, too, a campus community interested in his success. “It was like they understood poor people. The counselors didn’t seem like they were above the students. They treated you well, like they cared. I think they had a commitment to showing students who were far from home, or just down the road from home, that they cared about them. That was the thing that stuck out to me.”
Though he graduated with a sociology degree, finding work in adoption services back home proved elusive. Instead, Peake took up employment at Appalachian Regional Healthcare, (ARH) first as an operating room technician and then as a billing clerk. He retired from ARH in 2015, after 39 years. He did, however, live out his dream of getting children adopted in another, more spiritual than literal way: by joining the clergy.
His call to minister to the children of God came through his stomach. Women at the church, he discovered, were cooking dinner every Sunday, which was motivation to attend. When he got there, the men in the church invited him to sing in the choir. Because he was a college graduate, the church later asked him to teach Sunday school. Soon, Peake was ordained as a deacon and was reading scripture on a local minister’s radio show.
“My mentor was a gray-headed white gentleman who was a diesel mechanic by trade, but also a minister.” One day, that radio minister handed Peake the reins.
“He said, ‘Son, I’m going to open with prayer, take about 15 minutes, and then I’m going to turn it over to you. You talk to people on the air, and whatever you got to tell them, you tell them.’”
In 1991, Peake formally accepted the call to ministry. Once ordained, he took over preaching duties at two small churches that met on alternating Sundays, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist in Pikeville and his home church, Corinth Missionary Baptist.
“I focus on telling the stories to inspire people to want to know more about Christ,” Peake said. “A lot of people are drawn in through the stories. I always wanted to be a child adoption agent, and this minister said to me, you are an adoption agent because you’re getting people adopted into the family of God.”
This spiritual adoption business is soon to grow. Though Peake has pastored only black churches in his 28 years of ministry, a woman from a nearby church with a predominantly white congregation recently invited him to come preach to them. Peake feels ready for this new branch of ministry, in part, because of what he learned at Berea.
“The mix of people at Berea,” Peake said, “helped me learn you can be friends with people who don’t have to be your race. We all have a purpose. Everybody wants to be loved and accepted.”