On the night of Monday, October 8, Kennerly Temple Church of God in Christ was at capacity. It was the first service of a two-day homegoing celebration for Bishop Robert James Ward. Cars lined the streets for more than two blocks in every direction as saints ushered Bishop Ward to glory. He passed away September 30 at the age of 88.
Bishop Ward was a nationally renowned leader within the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination. Kennerly Temple’s senior pastor for more than 50 years, he hosted the church’s popular radio program that featured his fiery sermons.
“Thank God for the ministry of Bishop R.J. Ward,” COGIC Presiding Bishop and Chief Apostle Charles E. Blake Sr. said during the Tuesday afternoon service. “Bishop Ward was a dear friend of mine, and a supporter and an encourager of my ministry.”
Bishop Blake took time away from his busy schedule of leading his flock of more than six million COGIC saints to deliver Bishop Ward’s eulogy.
“If you were saved under the ministry of Bishop R.J. Ward, I just want you to raise your hand at me,” Bishop Blake said. “If you received the Holy Ghost under his ministry, raise your hand.” Hands went up all over the church. “He was a great preacher – an anointed minister of the gospel. Bishop Ward could preach, y’all.”
The final services also offered deeper insight into the man behind the ministry – and how he managed to rise through the ranks as one of the most respected members of the faith community, in St. Louis and beyond.
When his granddaughter Kishka’Kamari McClain heard about a great preacher who had an impact in the community as a small child, it sounded familiar.
“I got confused,” McClain said. “I learned about another mighty man and mighty preacher at school – and went back the next day and told everybody that my granddaddy was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
From ‘Booney’ to bishop
“Some came tonight to talk about Bishop Robert James Ward, but I’m here to talk about Booney,” Bishop Ward’s daughter Attorney Marilyn Ward Ford said. “How many of you knew Booney?”
Shouts and laughter rang through the sanctuary.
“Booney” was born Robert James Ward on December 6, 1929 to an unwed teen mother in Fitzhugh, Arkansas in a community of tenant farmers and raised by his grandmother. They were so poor that he had to take a bucket down the road and beg for food. The mother of his classmate Dorothy Mae Lewis, who would later become his wife of 72 years, regularly filled the bucket with sorghum molasses and cornbread – which he and his grandmother ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Despite his challenging upbringing, he excelled in school and was the designated orator for his class. In order to help provide for the family, he worked the farm – until a dispute with the man who owned the farm where his family worked forever changed his fate. By this time, he was known as R.J.
“R.J. said, ‘You owe me this.’ The owner said, ‘No, I don’t,’” Ford said. “Folks said, ‘Booney just would not back down.’ Being a willful black man in Arkansas in 1950 could have life-ending consequences. Word got around that R.J. had argued with this white man. And somebody said, ‘He’d better get out of town.’”
They hid him in a cotton sack, and he was tossed in the baggage compartment of a Missouri Pacific Train – where he stayed until he arrived in St. Louis.
“When he got to St. Louis, he didn’t know anybody,” Ford said. “He had less than a dollar in his pocket.”
He slept on the benches of Union Station for a month while working to save enough money for a roof over his head and to bring his young wife and her family to St. Louis.
“He shined shoes. He did whatever he had to do – but he didn’t beg, and he didn’t rob anybody,” Ford said. “Then he got a job at Baden Hotel.”
Gainfully employed, he sent for his wife and her sisters.
“At this time R.J. was wondering why Dorothy Mae was spending all of her time at that church over on Kennerly Avenue,” Ford said. “She would leave at 6 o’clock and get home at midnight and be all sweaty when she got home.”
R.J. soon followed. He quickly advanced in the faith to became an assistant pastor. He founded St. Paul Church of God In Christ before he was called back to lead Kennerly Temple in 1965 – a position he would hold until his passing.
‘We are here because of his vision’
Over his 50-plus year tenure, Bishop Ward became a major influencer within the COGIC denomination. Members of the General Board, COGIC’S governing body, came from all over the country to sit in the pulpit as Bishop Ward was remembered.
Among them was St. Louis’ own Bishop Lawrence Wooten, senior pastor of Williams Temple Church of God In Christ and prelate of the Eastern Missouri Western Illinois Jurisdiction of COGIC.
“I truly thank God for all that he did,” Bishop Wooten said. “Bishop Ward did whatever he could to support this church.”
Bishop Ward played a major role in the transition of the annual Holy Convocation from COGIC headquarters in Memphis to St. Louis, where it has been held since 2010. When the saints arrived in St. Louis, Bishop Ward was a most dutiful host.
He had a major say in what went on in the denomination and was a wise and trusted counsel to countless individuals within the ministry – including Bishop Blake, Bishop William E. Scott, former pastor of Mount Calvary COGIC and prelate of the Illinois Southeast Jurisdiction, among countless others.
“Everybody will remember him saying, ‘Ain’t nobody mad but the devil,’” Bishop Scott said at the Monday night service. “However, it’s obvious by your presence here tonight in such great numbers that Bishop Ward had an impact on many lives.”
Bishop Scott said Bishop Ward loved to preach the gospel. He particularly loved to talk about the cross and Calvary and “how Jesus paid a debt that he didn’t owe and a debt that we couldn’t pay.”
“We are here because of his vision,” Bishop Scott said. “One of the great tributes you can give to his legacy is to live by the teachings that he has given all of us over the years. He empowered you to be victorious believers.”