God’s word found Bishop Matthew Williams at the dinner table, the mall, while watching a movie. He didn’t have to work on his message for the message to work on him.
“That’ll preach,” he’d say.
It happened once while with his family in a Tampa theater watching Black Panther. In one dreamlike scene, the lead character visited with his recently deceased father.
“I am not ready to live without you,” T’Challa said.
“A man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father,” his father replied. “Have I ever failed you?”
Bishop Williams started chattering with excitement.
“At that point, we had to say shhhhh,” said his wife, Gayle Williams.
After the movie, Bishop Williams worked on that message and preached on it for his church, Tampa’s Brown Memorial Church of God in Christ.
That’s how he did things with his congregation of more than 2,000 — not up from the pulpit but out from his own life.
Bishop Williams died Nov. 27 from a series of health problems, including previously undetected liver and kidney failure. He was 64.
Bishop Williams found God at 17, but he found his future wife years before that.
They had grown up together, visiting each other’s churches as kids. In middle school, Bishop Williams planned to fight a boy who wouldn’t leave Gayle alone. After that, the boy did. After integration in high school, the two, both African American, stopped attending the same school, but they’d see each other as teenagers when their grandmas, both pastors’ wives, got together for visits. At Hillsborough County Community College, where they both attended, she asked him for help in music and history.
They married at 20.
Bishop Williams performed as a musician at Brown, where his father and grandfather had both preached, and started a career at Busch Gardens, beginning in the zoo, then working his way up to food supervisor. Once, when a white co-worker spit tobacco into his face, others urged him to report it. Bishop Williams did not. He knew that man had a family and prayed for him instead. They later became good friends.
He became a deacon and stayed with the theme park, but the church itself was in bad shape.
For years, members asked Bishop Williams to take over. In 1980, he listened. By 1982, he had become a licensed minister. Three years later, at 29, he took over leading the church.
By then, membership at Brown had declined to fewer than 25 adults. The church was about to lose the building. Bishop Williams talked with the church’s finance department, trustees and members and asked for tithes and offerings when people could afford it.
He became made sure every bill got paid, and in five years, the mortgage was paid off. In 10 years, he built a new church across the street to hold the growing congregation.
Emma Ford started attending Brown shortly after Bishop Williams took over. After bad experiences with previous pastors, she didn’t have much regard for the position. But Bishop Williams was different, she said.
“He actually lived what he preached.”
Bishop Williams was a “girl dad” from the beginning. Every day around the same time, Deniece Williams toddled to a front window and watched for his car, then crawled over to sit in front of the door. Her father would scoop her up on his way in, sprinkling her with kisses.
Growing up, she saw the same person at the dinner table that she saw behind the pulpit, a man who always listened and looked for ways to help people without being asked. In her life, that often meant he’d stop by her home, see what she was out of and then stock the pantry.
Bishop Williams was, as Deniece Williams puts it, “a dressin’ man,” who’d save for custom suits and fuss over the tie, the pouf and the socks to get each look just right.
“You look your best,” he said, “because you represent Christ.”
And he did that, at home and at church, even after the pandemic, holding virtual services, Bible studies and Friday night prayers.
In June, after a week of protests in Tampa and around the country following the death of George Floyd, he joined a group of pastors gathered for prayer and called for the demonstrations to remain peaceful.
“The purpose today was to come together, all denominations, all religious backgrounds,” Bishop Williams told a TV crew, “To come together and do what our God has asked us to do. Pray for our leadership. Pray for our nation. Pray for our world.”
Brown has started looking for a new leader.
“There’s not gonna be anyone that can replace him,” said longtime member Ford. “But we’re just praying that God sends someone that’s able to carry on the ministry.”
That ministry was pretty simple, said Deniece Williams.
“Christ and love.”
It offers a powerful reminder still.
“When you live with those principles,” she said, “you can’t help but treat someone with kindness.”