Bishop Abney leaves spiritual legacyBishop Abney has spent the last 45 years making a difference in our community. This includes founding a now well-known church and a (charter school) academy that is of the expect more (as in we expect more of you, child) style. His children (and grandchildren) continue in his cause, so Grand Rapids will not lack for stirring leaders.
By Charles Honey (Press Religion Editor)
GRAND RAPIDS -- On the day Bishop William Abney died, memories of his kindness flooded back to those who loved him.
Famed gospel singer the Rev. Marvin Sapp remembered posing for his high school senior picture in a suit Bishop Abney had given him.
The Rev. Dennis McMurray spoke warmly of the Bible commentary his "spiritual father" gave him as he encouraged him to enter ministry.
And Shellie Cole-Mickens recalled a pastor who believed in her when no one else did, putting her in charge of his church's audio ministry after she left prison as an ex-crack addict.
"I would not be the woman I am today were it not for Bishop Abney," Cole-Mickens said Tuesday, following the beloved clergyman's death at age 80. "He breathed life back into me."
Such stories could be repeated thousands of times about the man who led Bethel Pentecostal Church Abundant Life Center for 45 years and was known around West Michigan and the country as an inspirational man of God.
"This city will miss him; this world will miss him," said McMurray, pastor of Renaissance Church of God in Christ. "This man was a world ambassador for Christianity."
"Our community has lost a great spiritual leader," said Mayor George Heartwell.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm called him "a pastor among pastors" who had "an extraordinary ability to cross denominational and racial lines."
In his last public appearance, Bishop Abney praised the governor at her inaugural prayer service at McMurray's church Jan. 7. He spoke weakly from a wheelchair, but his spirit appeared strong.
The bishop's health declined rapidly in the week leading to his death, which occurred shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday. He died surrounded by family members at Faith Hospice in Byron Center.
"We're saddened because we're human, but we know that as Christians this is not the end of the story. He's in heaven," said the Rev. Janathan Abney Austin, one of his two daughters.
"He's in a place he lived all his life to go."
Bishop Abney shed a tear but was at peace shortly before he died, said the Rev. Jathan Austin, the bishop's grandson and successor as Bethel's pastor.
"It's an awesome loss, but we're grateful he's no longer suffering," Jathan Austin said.
Bishop Abney had battled health problems in recent years, including diabetes-related kidney dialysis and failing eyesight, high blood pressure and degenerative bone disease in his hips.
He underwent surgery July 9 to remove a blood mass from the surface of his brain, the result of a fall in May. The surgery came two days after he announced his retirement and was followed by weeks of rehabilitation.
He made a dramatic return to the church Aug. 31 during a weeklong celebration of his 45 years of ministry and 80th birthday.
Clergy from across the country joined more than 1,000 worshippers for the occasion. A large turnout also is expected for his funeral, to be held Feb. 2 at Resurrection Life Church in Wyoming. A celebration concert will be held Feb. 1 at the same church. Bishop Abney will be lying in state for public viewing at Bethel on Tuesday.
The events will honor a man known as an inspired preacher and spirited singer. Under his leadership, Bethel produced a famous gospel choir as well as the hit-making DeBarge family and the renowned gospel singer Sapp.
"One of the greatest voices ever to live," Sapp said of the pastor who nurtured his musical skills as a teen.
"He was a voice for the oppressed and the poor and the downtrodden," said the Rev. Ed Dobson, retired pastor of Calvary Church who worked with the bishop on the EEC. "He modeled the Jesus way through a life devoted to others, black or white.
"God is saying, 'Well done, you good and faithful servant,' because he certainly was that."
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