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PHOENIX — Pastor Warren Stewart may retire. He may give up preaching on Sundays at the First Institutional Baptist Church. He may even give up his seat in the front pew and the post he’s held for 45 years.
But not yet.
“It’s a privilege,” he said, sitting in the first seat in the pew, “and an honor.”
Stewart, 71, has spent almost his entire ecclesiastical life leading this church. He started in 1977 when Phoenix was very different.
The area around FIBC was one of the “black neighborhoods”, Stewart says. It was all residential homes and businesses, with the church in the middle.
“This was a residential area inhabited primarily by black people, homeowners, black businesses,” he said. “There were laws here during segregation that blacks could not live north of Thomas Road.”
Today, the church still stands, but the surrounding area has changed. Most, if not all, of the houses have been demolished. The businesses have changed from family-owned to more industrial and corporate. It’s become gentrified, he says. There’s a construction fence across the street from the church waiting for new construction to start.
And that leaves the First Institutional Baptist Church as the last remaining beacon of those old days. And Stewart as its leader.
“By virtue of being pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church, the oldest Black Baptist Church in the valley, I was thrust into leadership,” he said.
He may have been thrust into leadership, but had been flirting with the responsibilities that come with being a civil rights pastor for some time.
Stewart remembers his first civil rights battle. He was 19 and in community college in Kansas. The high school there had a tradition. The captain of the football team would escort the queen to a school function.
“And it happened to be that that year, the captain of the football team was black,” Stewart said.
The queen… was not.
It was up to Stewart to negotiate a truce. A few years later, he would be pastor at FIBC in Phoenix and given the civil rights responsibilities his parishioners expected of their leader.
He marched against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, campaigned for civil rights and his community, and fought back when state leaders decided to repeal the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“It took us six and a half years to finally win it and we won it,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s office is large in size, but small in actual real estate. It’s covered with photos and mementos of 45 years of preaching and leading.
There are books on the shelves, both his and those of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. There are awards, trophies, plaques and signs.
And in the middle of one wall, a framed crayon drawing from his son. It reads, “Thank you Dad for telling us about Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights.”
And now, Stewart’s name will be included with the man he taught his son about many years ago.
There are only a handful of honorary street names in Phoenix. Among them are Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, and now Warren Stewart, Sr.
The City of Phoenix voted to rename the street in front of Stewart’s Church after him at the city council’s August meeting.
The honorary blue sign will be hung at the intersection of Jefferson and 12th Street, right next to the church.
Some day, Warren Stewart will retire and give up the pulpit and when he does, his name will not fade away as just a former pastor of the church, or a man who helped the community years ago. His name will remain outside the church he loves.
“To have a street in the shadow of FIBC named after Warren H. Stewart, Sr?” he said. “My goodness…”
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