Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr., the senior pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church, is a well-respected man in the Phoenix community due to his spiritual leadership and rich activism. Over the years he has been committed to defending civil rights and paving the way for social justice in Arizona.
Stewart, who says he is seeing a resurgence of the Black Church now more than ever, spoke with Arizona PBS about how he is leading a generation of people to fight for a common cause.
AZPBS: As the senior pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church, how would you describe yourself and your role in our community?
Stewart: God has placed me in a position as a servant leader and has allowed me not just to be the pastor of First Institutional, but in many ways to be one of the key pastors in our community. I tell people, you can boil my entire ministry down to three words: Jesus and Justice; that’s what I’m about.
AZPBS: This past year has unearthed many challenges in the face of health and social equality. How are you making a difference?
Stewart: We have been called by leaders in the past as the ‘mother church for civil rights’ in Phoenix. The church has been a leader. Its pastors, even those who preceded me, have been leaders in the community dealing with civil rights, human rights, equal rights and fighting against systemic racism. We have two nonprofits. One is called the Broadway House Corporation that provides low-income housing in South Phoenix. And we have another nonprofit called FIBCO Family Services Inc. where we provide food, clothing and assistance to the homeless and the needy as well as several residential homes around the Valley where we provide residences for seriously mentally ill people. We also engage in African refugee support and assistance.
AZPBS: Why is “the Black Church” important?
Stewart: It is the freest voice for justice in the community. We can speak truth and power without fear of retaliation.
AZPBS: How are you celebrating Black History Month?
Stewart: Black History Month is nothing new for us. I’ve been doing it all my life as a child. In our music ministry that we do in February, we try to sing various genres of music that have come out of the Black Church experience such as Negro spirituals. Like this past Sunday, we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is the national anthem.
AZPBS: What inspires you to continue to fight for our community?
Stewart: God has called me to a pastoral, prophetic ministry. Pastor of course, as a shepherd, taking care of people. But prophetic is speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, speaking on behalf of the downtrodden; the disadvantaged. I look at Jesus as my perfect role model. I look at people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer and others as my historical models. These people gave their lives for the benefit of others.
AZPBS: Thinking about the various movements for social change such as the Black Lives Matter movement, what piece of advice would you give to the younger generation?
Stewart: Those movements have given me hope that the younger generations are picking up the mantle. I would offer one bit of advice: make sure they know about the history and the history of the Black Church. The Black Church gave birth to the modern-day abolitionist movement, to the civil rights movement, to emancipation. It’s important that the younger generation in the Black Church have a dialogue so that we can know one another intimately and then work together for the common cause. I’m trying to pass the baton on to other people to continue to fight.
*Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.