This past year brought many challenges, including a global pandemic and the fight for social equality. But through these hardships, leaders have emerged to help their community continue to move forward and rise stronger than before.
Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr. is the Senior Pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church and a prominent civil-rights advocate. He was instrumental in campaigning for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to be recognized as an Arizona holiday, thanks to a historic vote of the people in the 1992 general election.
The Phoenix Suns recently honored Stewart for his work in the Phoenix community as their second Golden Standard Award recipient of 2021. The Golden Standard Award recognizes Black philanthropists throughout the Valley who are promoting equality and excellence during Black History Month.
While receiving this award, Stewart was surprised with a personalized video from Suns guard Cameron Payne recognizing him for his longtime, outstanding contributions to our city and state. Payne wanted to thank Stewart by gifting him with his autographed, game-worn jersey from the NBA Bubble that reads “EQUALITY” across the top.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WORK AND ROLE IN OUR COMMUNITY?
Stewart: “I’m an advocate of Jesus and justice. I am unapologetically Christian, and I unapologetically advocate for justice, which I define as right relationships with God, oneself and all others. I was blessed as a young man to come to one of the leading churches — not just African-American churches, but one of the leading historic churches in the Valley of the Sun and the state of Arizona. So, when I came here at 25 years of age, this was my first and only church that I’ve ever had. It propelled me into leadership in the community, because First Institutional is the oldest Black Baptist church in the Valley, so I had no other choice. The fact that I was pastor for First Institutional, people look to me and this church for leadership. I do remember one of the older pastors, the late Dr. George Benjamin Brooks, Sr., he spoke at my installation back in August of 1977 and he said, ‘Young man, you have no choice but to be a leader in our community, because this church has been a leader. Whenever we have civil rights issues, we gather at First Institutional Baptist Church.’ So, he let me know that I was in a church that had been a leader for all the time that it had been in existence.”
THIS HAS BEEN SUCH A CHALLENGING YEAR FOR SO MANY PEOPLE. WHAT HAS YOUR MESSAGE BEEN DURING THESE TIMES OF COVID-19 AND THE CONTINUED FIGHT FOR EQUALITY?
“That God is trying to get our attention. We need to see each other — everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, nationality, ethnicity — we need to see everybody is created in the image and likeness of God. And when we see every other human being with that same image we have, regardless of what’s on the outside or regardless of one’s past or strengths or weaknesses, we are all family. The way we are going to get through systemic racism, get through COVID-19, get through the bitter, divisive, partisan politics is to realize we’re a family. We’re not enemies. We’re all in this together. So, God wants us to work together.”
WHO OR WHAT CONTINUES TO INSPIRE YOU TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN OUR COMMUNITY?
“I don’t want to sound redundant, but two of my most significant mentors would be Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr. They both were young men in their respective eras who saw the wrongs being done against people that were unjust and unfair, and they both stood up, spoke out and they gave their lives for the welfare of others. I’m in my 44th year as pastor here, but I’m just as excited every day getting up, coming to church and doing the church work as I was 44 years ago. That excitement, that enthusiasm, has never left me.”
IT’S BEEN ABOUT 30 YEARS SINCE YOU CAMPAIGNED FOR MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DAY IN ARIZONA. WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO REMEMBER ABOUT THAT TIME?
“During that whole process of fighting for the King holiday — and eventually winning it by a vote of the people, which no other state in the union had ever done — what we had to do was educate, enlighten and inspire. Back in the ‘80s when we were fighting for the King holiday and the Arizona State Legislature kept defeating it, they perceived the King holiday as a Black holiday, not as an American holiday. When we started, 70 percent of Arizonans were against the King holiday. When we finally won on Nov. 3, 1992, we took another poll, and 70 percent of Arizonans supported it. We had to move 100 points in our direction in 6 1/2 years, and we did that by educating them, by enlightening them and by inspiring them. That’s what we had to do for them to see that what George Washington was to the United States in the 18th century, what Abraham Lincoln was to the United States in the 19th century, Martin Luther King, Jr. was that same kind of revolutionary — though he was nonviolent and he was for peace and love and justice — in the 20th century. Once we got that over the people, they passed it overwhelmingly by a vote of the people. It was a million-dollar-plus campaign. We had to raise the money for the campaign. We thank God for the Phoenix Suns and then-owner Jerry Colangelo, they were 100 percent in support. We had to campaign like you campaign for a referendum. We campaigned from 1990 until 1992. Thank God we won, but it was an outright political campaign.”
YOU HAVE ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH — AND IMPACTED SO MANY — THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER AND LIFE. IS THERE ONE THING THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
“There’s a sentence that I end my bio with, and it was a statement written by the executive for the Maricopa Community College District. She said something about being a ‘’soldier for justice.’ I use it as the last line in my bio, and she wrote that what had to be 25 or 30 years ago. She summed me up while introducing me to the college with that statement. The fact that she could identify me as being a soldier for justice, for me, she hit the nail on the head. That’s who I am. The fact that she was able to see that in me. She summed up in her words, rather than talking about degrees and all that other stuff, she said, ‘This is who Warren Stewart, Sr. is.’”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO RECEIVE THE GOLDEN STANDARD AWARD FROM THE PHOENIX SUNS DURING BLACK HISTORY MONTH?
“I feel totally unworthy. I was caught by surprise. I mean, the Golden Standard, you can’t get much higher. The jersey, when the young lady brought it, it caught me by surprise. I had no idea that was coming. Then to see the recording from Cameron Payne, the Phoenix Suns player, congratulating me. I said, ‘That’s a long way from Coffeyville, Kan.’ That’s where I’m from. I said, ‘I’ve come a long way from Coffeyville, Kan. for that to happen to me.’”
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ALSO FEEL INSPIRED TO CREATE CHANGE WITHIN THEIR COMMUNITY?
“Thank you for accepting the baton that my generation and the generation after me has handed to you. Run the race with perseverance and faith, because we will win in the end.”
For more information about the Phoenix Suns’ 2021 Golden Standard Award winners and other Black History Month initiatives, visit Suns.com/BHM.