George Stewart always thought he'd spend his life as an engineer, or managing engineers, or teaching engineering.
But building a Baptist church almost from scratch? And designing its growth from 20 members to 1,600 over nearly 40 years?
That, he says, is just proof that God has a plan for us, whether we recognize it at first or not.
Stewart — a recent addition to the RCMA Board of Directors — has been pastor of Zion Chapel Baptist Church in Cleveland since June 1969. He was ordained at a sister church in January of that year and sent forth to minister his own flock just six months later.
Those were dicey times, financially and spiritually, for the 3-year-old institution. With only 20 members, Stewart kept his day job at Republic Steel.
“I really wanted to be an industrial education teacher,” he recalls. “I matriculated at Savannah State College in Georgia. I was inducted into the service in 1953. I studied diesel-engine repair and became a mechanic and mastered four engines. I wanted to carry that back to the classroom with me.”
He followed three of his brothers to Cleveland after two years in the Army Corps of Engineers and took a job at Republic Steel. “There's no schoolteacher making that kind of money!” he says, laughing. “I stayed with it until they laid me off. Then I got a job at Swiss Labs and managed that plant for 20 years.”
In the early days, when he preached on certain Sundays, the converted TV sales storefront that served as Zion's house of worship was frequently half-empty, but not because the congregation was spiritually bereft.
They were selling hot dogs in the stands at Cleveland Browns games, earning money for church operations.
As Zion grew, it steadily began filling its 86 seats. By 1978, the congregation built a new, 565-seat church next door and converted its former facilities to classrooms and offices. (A year later, Stewart finally became a full-time pastor.) It bought a neighboring restaurant in 1988 and converted it into a 350-seat fellowship hall.
In all these years, Stewart says that while the world outside has changed, the message found in his sermons remained constant.
“My subjects are the same,” he says, “but relative to our body now — they being more numerous now than then — it takes time for a parent to encourage young people to become a part of something that doesn't seem to make sense. The challenge is preparation to try to meet the needs and give the answers to situations in life that are out of our control. We're not in control of anything; regardless of your power, you are not in charge of anything.
“When God sends his storm, you have to be ready for it. We have attracted people who know the best is yet to come. They can help others to know that things will get better; they can't get worse. I've tried to channel my sermons to younger people because our elders understand our driving need is those behind us. The next generation always has to be addressed. We have to have the kind of sermons that will encourage them.”
Stewart is a member of the Baptist Pastors Council of Cleveland and Vicinity; he is also a member and treasurer of the Missionary Baptist Association of Ohio. He shares his meeting-planning expertise with both organizations.
His first attendance at the annual RCMA convention was in 1986 at the invitation of a fellow pastor from Cleveland, “and I never stopped coming. I've always enjoyed RCMA — the camaraderie and fellowship of people trying to do the same things I am, building character and becoming one in purpose.”
Being invited to join the board was a pleasant surprise.
“I felt real honored to be even asked,” he says. “I'm honored and appreciative for the honor to serve.”
Even with the vast expansion of Zion's rolls during his 39 years of stewardship, Stewart thinks he could have done better.
“It's not enough,” he says. “If I could have encouraged my people to each one, reach one, each year, WHOO! But I'm happy with the increase. I am most proud of followship, the people who were with me and understood my vision. That's what I'm the most appreciative of.”
Born and raised: Jessup, Ga.
Education: Savannah State College graduate
Family: married to Lorraine Stewart; father of three girls; grandfather of two boys and two girls
Hobbies: fishing, bowling, golf