Rev. Douglas Sands talks and laughs with a classmate from high school, Joan Holley, after a church service at White Rock Independent Methodist Episcopal Church, in Sykesville, July 5._- Original Credit: Natalie Eastwood/Staff photo
Rev. Douglas Sands talks and laughs with a classmate from high school, Joan Holley, after a church service at White Rock Independent Methodist Episcopal Church, in Sykesville, July 5._- Original Credit: Natalie Eastwood/Staff photo (HANDOUT)

Rev. Douglas Sands, 81, stretches his arms wide each Sunday morning with a smile to match as he leads his 30-some congregation members in hymnals at White Rock Independent Methodist Episcopal Church in Sykesville.

Keenan Hudson, Sands' cousin, said that the preacher has so much energy when he delivers a sermon that Sands has to remove his rings because his fingers swell.

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Sands knew he was called to the church, but it took him until he was 45 to fulfill that role, he said.

However, Sands was hardly idle in the more than four decades before he became a pastor — he went from living in a log cabin in Cooksville to graduating from Morgan State University, serving two years in the Army on active duty, working as a construction superintendent on the Alaskan pipeline, serving under two Maryland governors, standing among thousands of people to listen to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, marrying his wife of now 43 years, raising four children and creating 81 years of stories.

After retiring as a pastor in 2004, Sands began preaching for White Rock Church in 2007 as a volunteer to help out the small church, which cannot afford to pay a full time pastor.

"He really has a passion for the church and a passion for God," said congregation member Taressa Costley.

When he was a child, Sands attended Mount Gregory United Methodist Church. Of everything that he did in his youth, Sands said, he most enjoyed being in the church.

"I became fascinated with Bible study. I'm fascinated with the Bible as a book. I knew that I was being called into the ministry but I also knew that I was being called to do other things with my life and felt that it would be unfair to people if I did what I wanted to do and also called myself their pastor. And it wouldn't be fair to me to be their pastor and not do what I wanted to do," Sands said.

Sands grew up in a log cabin without plumbing and electricity with his two parents and six siblings — three sisters and three brothers. Sands said he shared a straw tick mattress with his three brothers.

"I enjoyed my childhood ... too many kids in the house and whatnot. I loved challenges. I loved school. I had perfect attendance for 12 years," Sands said.

Sands describes himself as a "little rascal" who was always getting in trouble, but Sands' older sister, Theresa Norris, disagrees.

"He wasn't a little rascal. He was a big rascal. He was the entertainer in the family," she said.

Even in school Sands wore a smile, said Joan Holley, who attended Harriet Tubman High School with Sands. Sands graduated as valedictorian in 1952.

"And he didn't have to study because he was smart as a whip," Holley said.

Sands said that without ever having taken geometry or trigonometry, he passed the admittance test to Johns Hopkins University. As an African-American, Sands was told that he would only be admitted if he said he was Hispanic. Since he refused to lie about his ethnicity, Sands instead went to Morgan State University where he was involved in the Reserve Officer's Training Corps.

Before becoming a pastor, much of his work dealt with fighting for equality for African-Americans.

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"I knew he was going to do something great. I always felt that, but I didn't know what or where," Holley said.

Sands started his activism in elementary school by selling memberships to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for about 10 cents apiece.

In 1963, he joined thousands of individuals in Washington D.C. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. It was Sands' job to direct people where they needed to go, but when they kept coming in droves, he threw up his hands and joined them, he said.

"[The organizers] had no idea these people wouldn't stop coming. But it was so harmonious that nobody complained, people helped each other, strangers helped each other, people put children on their shoulders, and it just turned into something that took off," Sands said.

Sands described it as the most beautiful day of his life. Beatnik music, spirituals and music of the peace movement played leading up to King's speech, mellowing the people and touching their souls, Sands said.

"In response to [racism], people came together in genuine love. And changed some lives for sure," Sands said.

Sands also worked to open rest stops and restaurants along route 40 for African-Americans in the 1960s.

African diplomats of new, independent countries were trying to travel from New York to Washington D.C. along route 40 but could not stop to eat or rest because of segregated facilities in the south. President John F. Kennedy took an initiative to change this, and Sands became a part of it by talking to restaurant owners to convince them to open their doors to all people.

"Some people wouldn't even gas their cars because [the owners] were black," Sands said.

These kinds of restrictions — not being allowed into a restaurant or not being allowed to try clothes on in the department store — were all symptoms of racism, Sands said.

It was such a different time, Sands said, that it is hard for people of this generation to fathom a world of segregation.

"Even to get black people and white people to sit down and down and talk to each other in 1959 was an accomplishment here in Maryland," Sands said.

From 1971 to 1973, Sands served as the president of the Howard County Chapter of the NAACP.

He was executive secretary of the Maryland Commission of Interracial Problems and Relations from 1959 to 1963 under Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes. Sands worked to create state laws against discrimination and open public places to everyone. Years later, Sands was on staff of Maryland Governor Harry Hughes from 1979 to 1987 as the director of the Office of Minority Business Enterprise and the director of the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.

Currently, Sands is giving up his position as the president of the Maryland NAACP Religious Affairs Committee at the end of July, so that he can manage the Maryland NAACP State Choir, which sings at different churches open to the public.

People only ever receive a little bit of love, but they deserve a whole lot more, Sands said. Even when he is faced with people who only have hate, he throws them his love.

Hudson described Sands as charismatic and as the kind of man who goes to people who are sick or just need help.

"[He] does everything he can to help anybody," Hudson said.

Sands teaches love to his congregation, too, Costley said. She said that Sands' sermons carry a singular message of acceptance, telling people that "when you say you love, you should love everyone not just one group."

White Rock Church is at 6300 White Rock Road, Sykesville.

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