Dr. Ephraim Williams built St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Park from 133 members to more than 3,500 people. During his 45 years at the church’s pulpit, he became the most senior tenured pastor in the region – and a major force in Sacramento civic and spiritual life.
This weekend, Williams celebrated 50 years of preaching, which includes stints in Chicago and other cities, and his role as the dean of Sacramento preachers.
Williams has performed approximately 900 marriages, 2,200 funerals, 2,160 baptisms and 6,160 sermons, including the eulogy for his wife of 56 years, Carrie Williams, who died six years ago, and his son Ephraim Butch Williams, who passed away from complications of diabetes in his 30s. A charter school named in the elder Williams’ honor opened in Oak Park in 2014.
At a packed Sunday worship ceremony filled with sermons and songs about putting painful memories behind you, Williams made it clear his career – and his mission to help society’s youngest, oldest and most disadvantaged citizens – is far from over.
“I have dealt with every aspect of life every one of you can name,” said the towering preacher, who stands close to 6-foot-2 and wore a navy blue suit with a blue pattern tie. “I used to drink, I used to go to the club. ... I was praying for something else, and God gave me an outline. I had one, two, four, six people say I wouldn’t live this long and they are dead. ... God will provide for you if you do what you are supposed to do.”
Mayor Kevin Johnson, who has attended St. Paul since he was 16, called Williams “a father figure to me” and referenced Williams’ unflagging leadership at a Friday night banquet in the preacher’s honor attended by 750 people, including pastors, school principals, elected officials and community activists. Williams has counseled every Sacramento mayor since Phil Isenberg in 1975.
“He’s got all of the movers and shakers at his church, that’s why this city’s on roll – we pray a lot,” Johnson said. “He says the prayers as only he can say, then you leave and things just change miraculously.”
When it comes to food, shelter and clothing for the homeless, Pastor Williams is leading the way.
Mayor Kevin Johnson
Johnson noted Williams’ ministry extends far beyond “the walls of the church.” St. Paul now includes the Family Life Center, which has provided classes, mentoring, job training and a forum for law enforcement, youths and community activists to discuss how to work together in the wake of the Aug. 9, 2014, police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.
“When it comes to food, shelter and clothing for the homeless, Pastor Williams is leading the way,” Johnson said. “After Ferguson, he got us into the Family Life Center and we in Sacramento got ahead of it.”
Williams was born to a mother who did domestic jobs and a father who worked at the railroad and saw mill in Summit, Miss. His great-grandmother Catherine was born into slavery in Mississippi.
“The Lord was calling me at 14 1/2 or 15, and I didn’t accept it,” he told The Bee last week.
It wasn’t until he became sick at age 27 and was paralyzed for several days that he prayed hard and “told the Lord I would accept my calling if he gave me the opportunity to leave this hospital,” he said.
He ended up attending seminary in Chicago and, in 1963, Williams and his wife and family came to Sacramento, where his sister-in-law lived. Williams became a Sunday school teacher before taking over St. Paul’s small congregation.
He called his parents his best teachers. “I’m so grateful they raised us to like people,” he said.
His mother taught him to refer to people always by their names, never by their race. “My mom said if you hate people you are damaging your health,” Williams said. “You can disagree with them, but you can’t hate them. I like the good ones, the bad ones, the in-between. I can’t make nobody like me but they can’t stop me from liking them.”
Johnson, who took Williams as his guest to a holiday dinner at the Obama White House, said for nearly 35 years, Williams called him Calvin, not Kevin. “Now I’m the mayor, I’ve had enough, so I said, ‘Pastor.’ He said, ‘Yes, Calvin’ and said, ‘There’s a scripture you need to memorize – Proverbs 18:12. Before destruction, the heart of man is haughty, and before honor is humility.’ Basically he was trying to keep me humble all these years.”
On Sunday, Williams addressed his own mortality while speaking to his congregation. He asked that his age be kept private.
“When I die, you’d better not burn me,” he said. “I’m just going to be buried so when Jesus comes, I’m going to get up and follow him.”
Williams told The Bee he still has a lot of work to do before then. That includes creating a program to help young men find jobs; weekend programs for kids concentrating on science, technology, engineering and math along with fitness and nutrition; a day care center; and a program to help ex-cons rebuild their lives.
His great-granddaughter Sophia Massie, 12, told the congregation, “He tells me, ‘Keep your mind on books,’ not boys. Instead of worrying about himself, he’s always there for everyone else.”
“E is for excellence, P is for prayerful, H is for hero, R is for righteous, A is for assured, I is for inspiring and M is for mindful,” she said, spelling out the pastor’s name.
Williams is also working on the St. Paul Senior Housing Project, a two-story affordable living complex across the street from the church with 32 one-bedroom suites, four studio apartments and a library, roof deck and garden. Lamont Harris, his administrative assistant for 35 years, said the $5 million project could be finished in seven to 10 years depending upon how fundraising goes.
“I hope it’s done faster,” Williams quipped. “I’m getting old, I might need to go there too.”