His wife of 53 years and his vast prayer circle were not at all surprised when the last word that Bishop Willie James Ellis Jr. uttered before he passed was, “Amen.”
Bishop Ellis, retired longtime pastor of the New Northside M.B. Church and civil rights leader, passed Tuesday, March 20, 2012 after a long illness at the age of 74.
“All day yesterday, the song kept coming to me – ‘Let the Church Say Amen,’” said his widow, First Lady Beverly Elaine Ellis. “So I knew it was okay. Everybody I talked to, that’s what they’re saying.”
His church family was well prepared. The New Northside congregation sang “Let the Church Say Amen” the Sunday just before he passed. It even touched his longtime friend who will deliver Bishop Ellis’ eulogy – and he was not even in St. Louis for that service.
“I got the call when I was traveling home from Atlanta Tuesday evening and I had a gospel station on and the first song that came on was ‘Let the Church Say Amen,” said the Rev. B.T. Rice, pastor of New Horizon 7th Day Christian Church.
Bishop Ellis’ family and church family were singing the same song around the house yesterday as they prepared for his services this weekend.
They had more reasons to feel a calm finality on behalf of the departed than the providential “Amen” chorus.
“His daughter, Evangelist Rolanda Jones, preached two weeks ago, and we took him to see her,” said his widow. “He was so anointed at that point that people started falling out when they passed by him. When she was up there preaching, he kept calling, ‘Preach! Preach!’ He saw her deliver her message.”
He also enjoyed another spiritual first during his last days when his grandson, William Ashton Spencer III, was called to ministry under his leadership. It was Bishop Ellis’ first grandson to answer the call.
These emerging spiritual leaders join a long line of people who benefitted from Bishop Ellis’ encouragement.
Retired Congressman Bill Clay enjoyed Bishop Ellis’ support starting from his first campaign for St. Louis Board of Aldermen in 1958.
“A lot of people said I didn’t have a chance, but he was one of the few who said, ‘Keep on keeping on,’” Clay said.
The holy man’s attention to political reality was characteristic.
“He was the kind of minister who believed God’s mission for him was to work both sides of the River Jordan,” Clay said.
“He used to say one of his missions was to save souls on one side of the river, and another mission was to improve the quality of life on this side of the river. Too many preachers are only worried about salvation, they’re not worried about their flock here. He was always worrying about how to improve life and eliminate racism and even sexism – even back then.”
Pastor Rice already is working on that eulogy in his head.
“I have to figure out how to capture his entire legacy within a little time frame,” Pastor Rice said. “We have 47 years of ministry led by a visionary. His accomplishments were not only in his church but in the city, the state. I’ve got to figure out how to put all that into a capsule in my time allotted.”
Bishop Ellis himself seemed to understand best the meaning of our time allotted.
The night he died, his wife, family and a “room full preachers” were sitting with him in the family room. “He started to breathe real hard,” his widow recalled his last struggle. “I told him it was okay if he wanted to go. Then he started to breathe slower until he succumbed. In 15 minutes, he was gone.”
Bishop Ellis is survived by his wife of 53 years, Beverly Elaine Ellis; two daughters, Pamela Jones and Rolanda Jones; a son, Tyrone Gibson; six grandchildren, Beverly Anderson, Ashley Delaney, Brittany Stamps, Hiram Kisart Jr., William Ashton Spencer III and Alexis Elaine Spencer and six great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be held noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 24 at New Northshide M.B. Church, 8645 Goodfellow.
Evangelist Ruth Latchison Nichols will lead the praise service 6-8 p.m. Saturday, March 24 at New Northside Conference Center, 5939 Goodfellow.
The Rev. B.T. Rice will lead the funeral 5 p.m. Sunday, March 25 at New Northshide M.B. Church, 8645 Goodfellow, with internment to follow at St. Peters Cemetery.
Services have been entrusted to Austin Layne. Condolences may be sent to the widow Beverly Elaine Ellis at 4108 Caballo Crossing Court, Florissant MO 63034.
Bishop Willie James Ellis Jr.
Shepherd and visionary
Willie James Ellis Jr. (Sonny) was born July 14, 1937 in Clarksdale, Mississippi; the eldest of four children born to Mr. Willie James Ellis Sr. and Mrs. Modia Lee Ellis.
He was a product of the St. Louis Public Schools and Sumner High School, where he was an avid member of the choir.
He and his high school sweetheart, also a choir member, Beverly Elaine Coleman, were married on July 26, 1958.
At Hopewell it was known that he was chosen by God with his inspirational singing, choir directing and active duties in the church. On July 6, 1960 he received his ministerial license and was ordained on April 22, 1962.
On January 13, 1964, the Lord sent Rev. Willie James Ellis Jr. and First Lady Beverly Ellis (with their two daughters, Pamela and Rolanda) to become the Pastor of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church at 3033 Semple Ave. This was a young man willing to suffer with the congregation through its financial burdens and spiritual upheavals.
On August 10, 1975, Rev. Ellis and the New Northside congregation of some 300 members moved to 8645 Goodfellow Blvd. in a gala march and ribbon-cutting ceremony culminating with a spirit-filled service. They marched into the new edifice singing, “We’ve Come This Far By Faith, Leaning On the Lord.”
Rev. Ellis was very involved in the community as a leader for civil rights, public schools, the Urban League, St. Louis County Housing Authority and Missouri State Public Defender’s Office. He was 2002 Chair of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education Pre-Musical 1,000 Voice Choir, and recently had been appointed to Missouri Kid’s First Program.
Many have described him as “a man with a vision.” His belief in the institution of the family and being a father himself caused him to envision a child development center. In November 1990, the New Northside Child Development Center was opened.
In February 1995, members of the congregation were introduced to the “Jesus First Program,” a multi-million-dollar program for the development of the New Northside Baptist Church Family Life Center – Bishop Willie J. Ellis Complex. This complex was to house a sports complex for youth, activities for senior citizens, a chapel, banquet center and the child development center. He was Founder and served as President and CEO for the past 10 years.
In June 2001, Rev. Ellis became the first consecrated Bishop of the Philadelphia Assemblies of Full Gospel Churches in the Midwest, serving as Regional Bishop for five states.