Bishop Robert James Ward

Bishop Robert James Ward, a leader within the Church of God in Christ who helmed historic Kennerly Temple for more than 50 years, passed away Sunday morning at the age of 88.

“Our church has lost a great hero in our lives and in our ministry,” Elder Edgar “Petey” Madison said of his spiritual father and mentor, Bishop Robert James Ward.

Early Sunday, September 30, Bishop Ward – prelate of the Eastern Missouri First Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and longtime pastor of the historic Kennerly Temple, a legend within the COGIC denomination – was called home to be with the God he so faithfully served. He was 88 years old.

“He will forever hold a special place in the hearts of millions of members of the Church of God in Christ throughout the United States and around the world,” said Presiding Bishop and Chief Apostle of COGIC Charles Edward Blake Sr., the official leader of the six-million-plus member organization that has representation in more than 83 nations.

“He was the father figure of the Church of God in Christ in this region, so there is a major void, said Bishop Elijah Hankerson III, president of COGIC’s International Department of Evangelism, pastor of Life Center International COGIC Church and president of The St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition.

Born December 6, 1929 in Fitzhugh, Arkansas, Bishop Ward knew he was destined to preach as a child when he heard the voice of God tell him so. His pets and playmates became his first congregation.

For the next several decades, he remained committed to the call on his life and became an internationally renowned leader in COGIC through his pastoral service – including leading Kennerly Temple Church of God in Christ for 53 years, nearly half of the church’s history. In July, the street for which the church is named was renamed in honor of Ward.

“So much can be said about Bishop Robert  James Ward,” said Bishop Edwin C. Bass, chief operating officer of COGIC. “First and foremost, he was extraordinarily gifted and anointed preacher with the ability to convey the complex in a way that had great impact on people. For years, he captivated the St. Louis community, preaching on a weekly, Sunday night radio broadcast.”

It was the very broadcast he later came to host that drew him into the COGIC faith in what the saints refer to as “a call to Holiness.”

At 19 years old, not long after he arrived in St. Louis, he heard pastor and radio minister Elder F.J. Hayden preach in April 1950. He was so moved by the message that his family became devoted members of Kennerly Temple Church. The immediate leap of faith upon hearing that broadcast set Bishop Ward on a path to greatness within COGIC and the faith community in general.

By 1955, he was appointed assistant pastor of Kennerly Temple. He served in that capacity for six years. In 1961, he organized the St. Paul Church of God in Christ at 4363 Lee Ave. in St. Louis, where he served as senior pastor. 

Bishop Ward returned to Kennerly Temple when he was appointed senior pastor by Bishop M. H. Norman in September 1965. He served there in that capacity for the rest of his life. 

Through his work at Kennerly Temple, one of the historic “mother churches” within COGIC that has been a staple congregation for well over a century, Bishop Ward’s influence stretched to the very top of the denomination’s international leadership.

“Anyone who is someone in the Church of God in Christ nationally, it is because of his recommendation,” Bishop Hankerson said.

Bishop Ward had a hand in the relocation of the Holy Convocation from COGIC headquarters in Memphis to St. Louis after more than a century.

“He served for decades as an anchor for our denomination,” said Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, secretary for the COGIC General Board.

Bishop Daniels said that when the COGIC General Assembly made the determination for the convocation to be hosted in St. Louis, Bishop Ward was a stabilizer and “transformer” who assisted greatly in ensuring that it was a seamless transition.

“St. Louis became a second home for many of the critical and pivotal areas of our church,” Bishop Daniels said. “The first convocation not held in Memphis was held in St. Louis.”

A family man committed to education 

“He was a simple man – a man of the people,” said Bishop Ward’s daughter, Marilyn Ford. “He loved the people and he loved his church – and he was a family man.”

Last month, Ward and his wife, Mother Dorothy Ward, celebrated 72 years of marriage.

Ford said that he used his platform as a fierce proponent of education.

“Growing up in the South during the Jim Crow era, he wasn’t able to get that college education that is so essential to success,” Ford said. “Dad always stressed education. And although he didn’t have the opportunity, he wanted to make sure others had the opportunity. He preached that in the church and at home to his only child and his two grandchildren.”

Ford went on to become an attorney. Her children, Kishka-Kamari McClain and Gary L. Ford Jr., received their undergraduate degrees from Harvard University and respective law degrees from Yale University and Columbia University.  Gary L. Ford earned a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and is the author of an acclaimed biography on civil rights leader Constance Baker Motley.

“He preached the power and importance of education in the church, in the community and in his family,” Marilyn Ford said. “He was awesome.”

‘The end of an era’ 

As a preacher, Bishop Ward could shout, but he could also tell a story rooted in scripture that would reel you in.

“He could really illustrate a gospel message,” Bishop Hankerson said. “I would almost say it’s the end of an era for that type of preacher. The storytelling preacher has pretty much passed on. It’s a different style of preaching in 2018.”

He was a fervent prayer warrior too.

“He’s known for saying, ‘Ain’t nobody mad but the devil,’” said Elder Madison, who grew up in Kennerly Temple and has held leadership positions within COGIC’s international music ministry, including the role of vice president. “People who listened to the broadcast and heard him preach loved when he said that – and they loved to hear him pray.”

He served as a spiritual father for Elder Madison, Bishop Hankerson and countless others over his lifelong service to COGIC.

“Our church has lost a great hero in our lives and in our ministry,” Elder Madison said. “But it is our endeavor to continue – and carry out his legacy.”

Bishop Ward is survived by Mother Dorothy Ward, his wife of 72 years, his daughter Marilyn Ford and grandchildren Kishka-Kamari McClain and Gary L. Ford, Jr.

A public viewing for Bishop Ward will take place from noon – 6:30 p.m. on Monday, October 8. A local and jurisdictional celebration will follow at 7 p.m. The national celebration will take place at 11 a.m. Tuesday, October 9. COGIC Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake will officiate the national celebration. All services will take place at Kennerly Temple Church of God In Christ, 4307 Bishop Robert Ward Ave. (formerly Kennerly Avenue), St. Louis MO 63113.

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