For more than 55 years, and nearly 40 in Pittsburgh, Rev. Dr. J. Van Alfred Winsett has been preaching the Word. His powerful messages from on high have reached many locally, nationally and even internationally, making him a pillar of the Pittsburgh community.
|REV. DR. J. VAN ALFRED WINSETT
His local ministry has survived two church fires, the rebuild of a community after the Pittsburgh riots and much more. He continues to aide and minister to the Lord’s people. But now, after 39 years, Rev. Winsett has said goodbye to the congregation of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in the Hill District, a church where he served as pastor and witnessed the church grow structurally, but most importantly, spiritually.
“I just felt there were so many ministries that could be grown because of the new facility and I felt it could be done under new leadership,” Rev. Winsett said about his decision to retire. “Thirty-nine years was long enough to lead a congregation.” He added that his decision had nothing to do with his health.
On May 6, Rev. Winsett stood in the pulpit and preached his last sermon as senior pastor. “I stood there with mixed emotions. I preached a message that I hope will stay with the people,” said Rev. Winsett. “I had flashbacks of the memorial days, both good and bad. But I was able to get through it without a lot of tears.”
His retirement became official on May 20, after a celebration banquet that was held at Churchill Country Club in Penn Hills. During his tenure he helped grow the church from 1,000 to 2,000, making it one of the largest Black churches in the city.
While he will no longer be seen preaching the weekly sermons, Rev. Winsett said he would remain in the Pittsburgh area and at Ebenezer as the pastor emeritus.
As a Kentucky native, he always had a love for the Lord and heard his call to the ministry at an early age. He was known as a “boy preacher.” He preached his first sermon at the age of 17 and almost 60 years later continues.
His love for the Lord was not the only thing he found at an early age. He and his wife, then Jacqueline Owens, went to the same school and church and got married in 1955. Together they have four children.
Before becoming the pastor of Ebenezer Church, he served as pastor of Main Street Baptist Church in New Castle, Ky.; Center Street Baptist Church in Owensboro, Ky., and Emmanuel Baptist Church in Beloit, Wis. But it was in 1973 that he received the call to come and pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, after the previous pastor had died. He regards the time when he received the call that he was selected to be the church’s pastor as one of his fondest memories.
Under his leadership the church has seen the growth of its congregation; numerous ministries implemented; the establishment of an orphanage in Haiti; the building of Ebenezer Towers, a more than 100 unit senior citizens complex in the Hill District, and a senior citizens personal care home in Point Breeze and more.
Reverend Winsett said the idea for Ebenezer Towers came, “after the (Pittsburgh) riots and we saw a great need and a slow rebuilding of the Hill District.”
But one of his greatest accomplishments was the rebuilding of the church after a fire in 1975 and a tragic electrical fire in March 2004, that claimed the life of two, Battalion Chief Charles Brace and Firefighter Richard Stefanaki, and injured 30. For two years the church worshipped at another sanctuary, while the $7 million facility was being built. It was bigger and better than before.
“When we cut the ribbon and walked into the new facility after the fire, that was a grand and glorious day,” said Rev. Winsett.
While it is unknown who will take his place, when asked about the future of Ebenezer, Rev. Winsett said that he just hopes that the next pastor that comes will love the people as much as he has tried to and that he or she will be active in the Hill District because there is still a lot to be done.
“There are a lot of thing that can happen and the church needs to be intimate (involved) with that.” He adds that he will not dictate to the new pastor, but that he will let the new pastor move as he or she feels the Lord sees fit.
“The church still plays a major role in the lives of the people. I have high hopes and I know a lot of things can happen at Ebenezer, especially with the additional space (of the church).”
“I think the best way to describe my experience with Rev. Winsett is that he has been an inspiration. He’s been like a father figure. The things I’ve learned from him, I don’t think I could have learned anywhere else in the world,” said Brenda Tate, a member of Ebenezer since 1988. “It has just been one of the most rewarding experiences.”
When asked about the new leadership, Tate said, “Hopefully the new leadership will extend his (Rev. Winsett’s) ministries and that we’ll get someone that has that ability to touch everyone personally. Rev. Winsett was such a hands on minister it’s not like that anymore. When you had a death (in the family) or problems-he didn’t just send someone, he was there.”
While Rev. Winsett will have more time to spend with his family, friends and enjoy some of his favorite hobbies, he said he would continue to be active locally and nationally in the Baptist denomination and remain on many of the numerous boards he serves on.
He said that if there is one thing that people remember about his ministry is that, “I was very evangelistic minded and always ready and willing to preach the gospel at every opportunity.”
And that he has done.
(For more coverage of the pastoral anniversary and banquet, see the Religion page B2.)