That man in my life and the lives of many people in the Riverview community was Rev. William Stokely.
Of Central Baptist Church’s 100 years of existence in Kingsport, Rev. Stokely was in the pulpit for 36 of them, longer than any other minister at Central.
I don’t remember the first time I met Rev. Stokely, which is understandable. I was only 5 years old at the time and in the church nursery school. He was in my life from the first time I could remember life itself.
The nursery school was held weekdays in the old Central building’s basement, which was also divided into Sunday school classrooms. It was run by Rev. Stokely’s wife. My grandmother Betsy Sneed and I remember seeing Mrs. Marie (MomBrie) Thompson there a lot. As kids, we were too young to attend the Douglass Elementary School a block away or to be at home by ourselves while our parents worked all day. Rev. Stokely visited the nursery school frequently. I do remember hearing him talk about the community to the ladies and also Bible lessons he felt we kids should hear during the day.
In the church, Rev. Stokely was the preeminent expert on Christian life. His sermons began as wonderful strolls down the avenues of everyday Christian life, but ended in the fire and brimstone of disobedience to God. As a small child, I did not know Rev. Stokely to outwardly display a sense of humor, but it is known among the older folks that he did indeed have a funny bone. It was always amazing to me how the same person could talk to us kids with a voice of calm and peace because we learn differently, but that same voice rising to a crescendo in the pulpit (and he used every square inch of it) to remind our parents that our God “would have no other gods before Him.”
That was the Central message from Rev. William Stokely.
I remember how frequently he visited the sick and shut-in of the community. Some afternoons as I was delivering the Kingsport Times-News as a delivery boy in Riverview back in the ’60s, I would be putting the paper in a front door, just as Rev. Stokely would be coming out the same door. Once, I noticed one of the older boys in the neighborhood working for my father and grandfather at Sneed's Cleaning Service cleaning carpets, furniture and upholstery. It was rather odd, because I knew all of the workers the business employed. I then learned that the extra hired hand was there because Rev. Stokely had asked the local judge to release someone from the neighborhood into his custody, and he’d sent him to my grandfather to let him work at the business a few days to help his court case. It was pretty hard work, and while as a minister Rev. Stokely was never judgmental, it was obvious that he felt hard work would built a work ethic and keep people out of further trouble. It was never a free pass for the accused to avoid jail.
But that hard work came with love and compassion.
As we all grew older in the neighborhood and became more aware of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Rev. Stokely’s role in the community took a broader focus. He apparently knew the influence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and was always available to answer questions, especially from us young people, about racial equality. Ours were mostly general questions. Kingsport was not a hotbed of civil rights activity, like Knoxville and Atlanta and Nashville and Birmingham, cities less than a day distant.
Rev. Stokely was at his best taking care of the home fires. He was a strict disciplinarian when it came to the Bible. The Word of God was just that, and the mission of his congregation was to live that Word in everything they did or said. With no misinterpretation, sin would simply keep you out of heaven, and all of the sermons that I heard dealt with that specifically.
Rev. Stokely also had one major requirement of his congregation. There was a role in the church for every single person in the families who attended. For the older men, the office of deacon in the operation of the church was always available. As a result, Central had several. The younger men were encouraged to become trustees and there were several serving in that capacity too, overseeing the finances of the church. Older women who were “mothers of the neighborhood” were also “mothers of the church,” whose greatest talents were in the various choirs, usher boards, the church kitchen, and the church benevolence groups who held prayer meetings in various homes. It always amazed me how those ladies could come together at a moment’s notice to pray for someone. Younger, middle-aged men and women were asked to be Sunday school teachers. The children of the church were not left out. Teenagers were also in choirs and youth groups, and the younger children were grouped in the same categories geared to a child’s level.
This made perfect sense if you looked, for example, at the Sneed family. Horace Sneed Sr. (“Papa” Sneed) was a church deacon. His wife, Betsy, was a choir director and musician. She also ran the nursery school along with Rev. Stokely’s wife. Horace Sneed Jr. (also known as “Junie”) was a Sunday school teacher and at one point the Sunday school superintendent for several years. His wife, Alene, was also a Sunday school teacher. Their son Calvin was the vice president of the Youth Board, and their daughter Sonya was in the Children’s Choir.
That’s just one example. Many other families shared in the many church responsibilities. The church was almost like a modern-day corporation, where every member was a stockholder. Every single person had a job to do in Rev. Stokely’s church, and each Central church family were the branches of the corporation. They were perfect examples of the Lord’s Shepherd in the center of the Riverview community.
That Shepherd was Rev. William Stokely.
In looking back, it occurs to me that Rev. Stokely was very skillful at taking individual families within the church and making them one BIG spiritual family corporation. It’s easy to see that now. It never took him long, perhaps just a couple of conversations to discover the best in people, and he let them work in the church using the skills God gave them. He knew I loved public speaking, and he encouraged that. One of my friends could sing like an angel, so she was in the church choirs. Another worked as a groundskeeper in Kingsport, so he also kept the outside of the church tidy. Still another worked as a cook at Tennessee Eastman, and so whenever the church needed a holiday feast, it had a ready preparer. Although Rev. Stokely spent his life saving souls (me at the age of 10), he was at his best helping people make spiritual decisions to the best of their abilities that would shape the rest of their lives.
Just as the nearby Douglass School had its students of opportunity, the Central Baptist Church could boast of singers, dancers, accountants, cooks, teachers, public speakers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, skilled construction workers, seasoned domestics and business leaders, all successful, and all with Christian perspectives on life.
There have been many men of God along the road of life, many gifted preachers who have historically rained fire and brimstone from the pulpit over the years, yet cared deeply for their congregations. We may not know them all, but God does.
Occasionally, there walks a man in the very footsteps of God, who reminds us through his actions that the celebration of Black history cannot be contained in just one month. Through ministry, that man believes that a working church congregation, is a reverent church congregation.
That man in my eyes was Rev. William Stokely.
Calvin Sneed, a Chattanooga broadcast journalist, grew up in Kingsport and remains an active part of the South Central community.