Saturday, February 03, 2007

Abney's love of God was infectious

From The Grand Rapids Press, Saturday, February 3, 2007

Abney's love of God was infectious
By Charles Honey (Press Religion Editor)

If Bishop William Abney could have jumped up and started shouting, he would have.

All around him, glorious mayhem let loose at Bethel Pentecostal Church. The spirit had caught fire at Abney's memorial service Wednesday night and would not be put out.

A gospel band played furiously, people clapped their hands joyously and a woman danced ecstatically around the casket of Bethel's beloved pastor, who lay in peaceful repose through it all.

It was entirely fitting. This was the spirit Abney ignited in his 45 years at Bethel. Now his faith family was sending him home as he would have wanted, with singing, dancing, tears and laughter.

"This is not a funeral. This is a home-going celebration," the packed house proclaimed, and so it was: a celebration of a spiritual father to his congregation and an exemplary faith leader to all of West Michigan.

This past week of events honoring Abney brought into clearer focus what many of us already knew. Here was a good man of God, generous, kind, passionate for justice, a sweet singer for the Lord. We were blessed to have him for so long.

Now, at age 80, he has moved on. And if you are one of his faithful, you will not question he has gone home to glory.

"This is not the end," said Bishop Ronald Young of Philadelphia, who led Wednesday night's service for Bethel members, friends and family. "He just graduated from this earthly life, and he graduated cum laude."

Tissues circulated as with weeping and exultation Abney's church held commencement. The holy presence was palpable as they sang softly, "Lay down the burdens you have carried, for in this sanctuary God is here, God is here ..."

It was an especially moving moment in a night filled with them. And though an outsider, I felt a welcoming warmth I have always felt at Bethel. Whether in worship or in his office, Bishop Abney made me feel that way.

His was a gentle, smiling presence. He made you feel special, like it had been too long since he'd last seen you. His slight frame and soft voice carried surprising spiritual power. When you heard that voice burst forth in song, it knocked you back on your heels.

"I Won't Complain" was his signature song, and he never did through a host of ailments. He felt too blessed to bother. Abney conveyed that grateful spirit to all of us, while firmly pushing for the right and the just.

Every once in awhile someone comes along who speaks the spirit of God with special clarity. Quibble with theological details if you must, but the sense of grace transcends race, class and creed. Bishop Abney was such a man.

Wednesday night, speaker after speaker attested to that. They called him their spiritual father, a pastor who pulled them out of addictions and despair into lives of meaning and hope, often putting them in positions of leadership.

Shellie Cole-Mickens, head of Bethel's media ministry, said she was a "thug from the street" when Abney took her to breakfast and left a $100 tip. She almost stole it, she said to uproarious laughter.

"I would not be the woman I am today were it not for Bishop Abney," she said.

Deacon David Wilson said God sent Abney to him when his life was a wreck.

"He was like an angel in a world of darkness," he said.

Abney's family made touching remarks, his sister Mamie saying, "I wanted to be just like him." His brother Norman: "He was my inspiration to be saved." Son Andre: "Daddy taught me to get on my knees and worship God."

Six of his brothers and sisters rendered "Down by the Riverside" with delightful part singing.

His wife, Lorraine, thanked God for the care her children and grandchildren gave Abney in his final days. At his death, she said, "It was glorious when he went home with the Lord."

And so it was this week. Fare well, Bishop Abney. If you won't complain, we certainly won't either.

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This is not my work. It is just too good to hide from Google.

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