Franklin bishop a hero to many

Published 2:11 pm Friday, October 16, 2015

Family and friends of Bishop Stephen D. Willis of East End Church will celebrate his 80th birthday and his 50th pastoral anniversary year on Saturday at the church, 410 East St., Franklin, starting at noon. He is one of the oldest pastors in the regional area.

“He has made an impact on so many people and everyone kept telling me and the rest of the family we really needed to do something for him,” said his daughter Debbie Willis. “We thought we were going to lose him in 2013. He was home by himself and had a blood clot. Ever since then, we decided we really did need to do something special for him.”

Willis was born on Oct. 20, 1935, and graduated from Hayden High School in 1954.

At a young age he accepted Christ and worked his way up through the church, holding positions of youth leader, deacon, minister, elder and bishop.

Once Willis married and had children, he worked for the Union Camp Corporation, trying to support his family on minimum wages.

After realizing that these wages were not sufficient enough to support his family, he joined North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. After a period of success, he became self-employed.

He married Carolyn Willis née Williams ­— the two just celebrated their 60th anniversary on the Spirit of Norfolk. The pair has four children: Stephen Jr., Teresa, Deborah and Angela and four grandsons: Tavaris, Ronald Jr., Antuan and Stephen III. They also had one granddaughter, Shawnae, who died in 2007 because of a car accident.

“It really took a toll on him when she was killed. She was a youth leader at the church and her funeral was the biggest funeral the church has ever had. Everyone loved her,” Debbie added.

Willis not only had a strong influence on his biological children, he also had it on everyone involved in the community.

“He treated everyone like they were his own kid or his own family. He treated all of them just like he treated us,” she said.

East End Church was founded in 1908, and Willis took over after that first pastor died in 1967. Church members said he worked tirelessly to build the church both spiritually and structurally. The church grew from a corner lot to a block.

He was also known for helping others. In 1978, Willis helped a church in Rich Square, North Carolina, that was known as Old Pinners Church reconstruct and build additions. The church is now named New Community Church of God.

Unfortunately, East End Church was destroyed by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, but it reopened in 2003 with much help from Willis and the church members.

He accredits his success as a leader and businessman to God.

Many people from all over, including past church members that have moved away and pastors that studied under him, will be attending the celebration on Saturday. They will be giving speeches on how he has influenced their life, bringing gifts, etc.

“Just as my brother always says, he is our hero and I think he is a lot of other people’s hero too. That will shine through on Saturday,” Debbie said.