In Memory of Elder Walter L. Pearson, Jr. (1945-2020): A Tribute
God used the preaching ministry of Elder Walter L. Pearson, Jr. to further clarify and sensitize me to His call on my life. For several years, I admired him from a distance, hearing him speak on television and in person. Later, after I’d completed seminary, I would have the opportunity to get to know Elder Pearson better as we both pastored in the Allegheny East Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Once, he and I sat alone in the pastor’s study at Emmanuel-Brinklow SDA Church. Health challenges had impacted his body so that his movements were not what many were familiar with, but his mind was still sharp. You guessed it. We talked preaching. He reflected on his preaching inspirations. D.B. Reid, Edwin Humphrey, E.E. Cleveland, H.L. Cleveland, Samuel Myers, C.D. Brooks, C. Bradford, W.A. Jones, Gardner Taylor, and others. I laughed, but noted his words of wisdom, when he said, “It’s alright to be a copycat if you copy the right cat. Studying one preacher is imitation. Studying 9 or 10 is research.” Then, he grinned! In my quest to fight in my own armor, I felt reassured that my years of “studying" him, Henry Wright, CD Brooks, Barry Black, James Doggette, Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles E. Booth, (and trust I could go on) were actually an informal exercise in a kind of education. I came to discover that some of my favorite young, voices (Knight, Edmonds, Snell, Jacobs, Esmond) all held Elder Pearson in high esteem too! What was it that made him both a people’s and a preacher’s preacher? Why could we all locate something worthy of discovery and emulation in one man? Perhaps it was the dynamic demonstration of truth through personality. Elder Pearson was one of the first preachers I remember smiling and laughing regularly while he preached. He’d found a way to have fun with the most serious of tasks and enjoy what preachers know is often a burdensome responsibility. Elder Pearson would tell me that God does not simply want to use the preacher’s personality, but He wants to consecrate the preacher’s personality as well. Perhaps it was the masterful storytelling or expansive vocabulary, both indispensable ingredients of African-American preaching. Whether it was Moses and the children of Israel, Samson and Delilah, Peter walking on water, Jesus standing still in a Storm, Jacob wrestling with God, or Balaam striking a donkey, Elder Pearson brought the Bible to life. Artfully animating Biblical characters in conversation, thousands of listeners can testify that they were seated next to Daniel in the lions den or stood on Calvary’s hill watching Jesus struggle to exhale while suspended on the cross.
Elder Pearson was a student of the times as well. While pastoring the Atlanta Berean SDA Church, he would select a day a few times a quarter to ride the city bus for hours and listen to the “word on the street.” This kept him connected with the joys, pains, hopes, and strivings of real people that God wanted to save. He applied Biblical principles to contemporary times throughout his messages. Many congregants know the pain of leaving church having visited Egypt, Palestine, and Rome, but never making it back to Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Brooklyn, or Hampton. Not so with Elder Pearson. From his opening line, “The Bible says, Peter is in trouble…” he would quickly connect the personality in the passage with the personalities in the pews, “We all know something about being in trouble, don’t we. You know I’m telling the truth!” Back and forth like an effortless dance: truth, illustration, application, and repeat. 1, 2, 3...1, 2, 3. Yet, it was not the man. His opening prayers often included confession of his awareness that only the Holy Spirit could make spiritual things clear, captivating, compelling, and Christ-centered. Once, Elder Pearson came to Orlando, FL to preach for a Southeastern Conference youth federation. Seated in that convention center hall, I watched him transition into his appeal. “I’m going to ask the musicians to just play a little softer…in fact, just pause the music. I used to think these moments were purely emotional. I could have someone sing a song, and you’d find yourself at the altar wondering how you got there. But, God’s Word draws. You’ve heard God speaking to you. You need to come.” Young person after young person after young person began walking down the aisles. No music, just footsteps, and a preacher saying, “Come to Jesus.” After the service ended, I saw him walking hastily toward the parking lot. “Dad, that’s Pearson! Think I can get his autograph?” Don’t laugh at me. Preachers are to future preachers what NBA players are to little league kids. Somehow you see your future in their present. No, you don’t know the complete content of their lives or context of their stories, but you know God used them to reach people, and that is undeniable. My Dad called out to him, and he graciously engaged us in brief pleasantries. He kindly signed the day’s program and offered parting words of blessing. I keep this memory close as I interact with children and teens especially. Moments do not have to be long to be meaningful and memorable. Fast forward several years to a table in Olive Garden. Elder Pearson and I are about to throw down on some food. His dear wife had entrusted me with his care for a few hours. We talked, ate, and joked. Sometimes, when you’re in these moments, the wisdom is not always given in an organized, systematic manner. You have to listen between the lines, catching the nuggets between the words. However, there are times when you get the sense that one who’s seen more of the road than you is intentionally telling you something. You put your fork down, wipe your mouth, listen, and learn. I have more that I could share. But, I’ll end with this one. It was the night of my ordination into the Gospel Ministry. Despite the rain, the service went very well. Elder Calvin Preston preached up a storm. My professor Jesse Wilson came through. One of my big brothers in ministry Wes Knight flew up. My parents and hosts of friends and family members were there. After it was all said and done, my wife, Kylah Allers Martin, handed me a gift. She’d contacted several significant men in my life asking them to write words of counsel, encouragement, and admonition for me. I read each of them word-for-word that night. The final one was typed in blue ink and signed in black ink. Elder Walter Pearson had taken time to share a two-page message on the occasion of my ordination. I wept!! No lie, no shame. I cried!! It was a full circle moment loaded with emotion. You know they won’t live forever, but you still hope. Just knowing they are alive somewhere keeps your conversation in present tense. Elder Pearson IS….you never want to say WAS…so, even though he sleeps in Jesus, I’ll keep the tense of the sentiment the same. He IS my favorite preacher. I’m praying for a double portion of God’s Spirit, the same that rested upon him. In his autobiography, "Angels Watching Over Me," former President of Oakwood University, the late Dr. Frank Hale, Jr. reserves an entire chapter to chronicle his journey as President of the school of the prophets. In one section, he summarizes the highlights of his leadership post, saying: “It was a fortunate experience each day as I observed young women and young men move about the campus full of ambition and hope, and full of expectancy as they seized the opportunities available to them for personal growth and advancement. Walter Pearson, the president of the United Student Movement, was a young man divinely endowed and superbly equipped with talents that would carry him far. One could predict his future fortune because of his eagerness, his sense of purpose, his ability to articulate his goals, and because of his dynamic personality that was always bubbling over with a spirit of enthusiasm.” -Frank Hale, Jr. Angels Watching Over Me, 220. Indeed, he did go far, becoming a pastor, preacher, husband, father, grandfather, friend, mentor, and example. All our love and prayers to the entire Pearson family.