‘If there was a crisis or problem or need, he was there.’
It didn’t matter if you were awake or not: If Bishop Henry Barnwell graced you with one of his 5 a.m. phone calls, you answered it.
“He was the only one in the community who could do that and get away with it, because you knew it had to be about something imperative,” said former state legislator Leah Landrum Taylor, a longtime friend of the south Phoenix pastor.
“If it was a positive cause, he’d be right there to move it forward. If it was some sort of tiff, he’d be right there as a peacemaker,” she said. “He would bring together the most eclectic groups of individuals.”
Barnwell — known for both his civil-rights activism and religious service — worked behind the scenes in Phoenix for decades, pushing for equality and cooperation between politicians and faith leaders until the last months of his life.
The 83-year-old died of dementia-related complications at his home Sept. 9.
“If there was a crisis or problem or need, he was there,” said former U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, who met Barnwell in the late ’70s and collaborated with him on numerous causes.
“If he saw hunger, he would call and say, ‘Ed, we have families to feed and we’re having a drive.’ With politics, he would bring candidates to this church and say, ‘Where are you on these positions?’ ” Pastor said. “He was a true leader in our community.”
‘You were not a stranger’
Barnwell was born in 1934 in Blountstown, Florida, a town of about 1,500 near Tallahassee.
Two key childhood experiences shaped the man he would become.
The first was his parents’ separation, which made him “a strong advocate of marriage throughout his life,” according to his son, Aubrey Barnwell.
“Whenever he would talk to anyone, even elected officials, he would ask them about their relationships with their spouses and encourage them to make sure that they spent time together,” he said. “At our house, we had a family night that was sacred, and he continued that with my mom after we grew up.”
Landrum Taylor recalled the pastor catching her and her husband laughing and joking after a class at church. Pleased, he insisted they accept $50 for a dinner date to “keep that marriage tuned up.”
The second formative experience was a lynching that Henry Barnwell witnessed through his grandmother’s kitchen window in his early teens.
Rather than inspiring anger and animosity, it spurred a lifelong dedication to civil rights, social justice and community advancement, according to his son.
Barnwell joined the U.S. Air Force to serve his country before it ensured the right of all black Americans to vote, later completing a tour in Vietnam. During the struggle to make the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday in Arizona, Barnwell led non-violent protest marches, meetings and candlelight services despite threats to his life.
“It was remarkable to me that he was not bitter or jaded after what he’d seen,” Aubrey Barnwell said. “I’ve heard individuals say that he would, without fear, greet anyone, and greet them in a way that said you were not a stranger.”
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said Henry Barnwell “pushed the city in the right direction when it came to civil-rights issues (and) community development,” and was always ready with “words of wisdom and prayer before important meetings.”
“He leaves a great legacy here,” Stanton said at a policy meeting Tuesday.
‘Trusting in the Lord’
Barnwell’s friends and colleagues struggled to remember a time when the bishop wasn’t a fixture in the religious community.
But as a young man, he for years resisted following in the footsteps of his father, a Baptist deacon.
While Barnwell was stationed at Williams Air Force Base in the late 1950s, however, the Rev. H.Y. Stevenson of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church became a “spiritual father” to him. Barnwell began to reconsider religious service at Stevenson’s urging.
In 1966, Barnwell became pastor of First New Life Missionary Baptist Church, which at the time served about 30 members. The congregation grew to more than 1,000 before he turned the church over to his son in 2005.
“Everyone had a personal relationship with him,” said Brian Wright, pastor at Citadel of Praise in Phoenix. “I met him at a church service 20 years ago, and he became a true mentor to me.”
Wright was a young preacher at the time, and Barnwell “helped shape and mold what it meant for me to be a pastor,” Wright said. He constantly reminded Wright not to let the tendency of pastors to “pour ourselves out into the people” interfere with his family relationships or personal connection with God.
Barnwell, ordained a bishop in 1999, also shared his wisdom and faith with countless people outside of the church.
For more than 20 years, he worked as a chaplain and mentor at Adobe Mountain, a high-security school and detention facility for juveniles. During the holidays, he made sure students received modest gifts of socks, shampoo and baked goods.
“He counseled many young men there, some of whom will still come up and talk about him,” Aubrey Barnwell said. “He was an advocate to make sure they were cared for and not forgotten.”
Henry Barnwell and his wife also conducted religious workshops throughout the U.S., Canada and Trinidad. At home, he joined with other members of the clergy to fight gangs and drugs in south Phoenix, combat poverty and hunger, and provide scholarships to Phoenix youth.
“No matter what was going on, when you’d say, ‘How are you doing, Bishop?’ he’d answer, ‘Trusting in the Lord,’ ” said Pastor, the former congressman. “He will be sorely missed and greatly remembered.”
Barnwell is survived by his wife, Sheila; children Aubrey, Timothy, Cassandra and Darlene; and five grandchildren.
Wednesday, Sept. 20
Noon to 8 p.m.: Body to lie in state at First New Life Church, 1902 W. Roeser Road, Phoenix.
Thursday, Sept. 21
5 p.m. to 7 p.m.: Viewing at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, 1401 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix.
7 p.m. to 9 p.m.: Wake at Pilgrim Rest.
Friday, Sept. 22
9 a.m. to 10 a.m.: Viewing at Pilgrim Rest.
10 a.m.: Funeral at Pilgrim Rest, followed by interment at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona, 23029 N. Cave Creek Road, Phoenix.
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