The church never had a better friend than Robert Stewart.
Baptists, either, for that matter.
Rev. Stewart, who succumbed to cancer on Jan. 20, began his life's journey in a town with the delightful name of Walhalla, South Carolina, and he proceeded to spread delight throughout his 77 years.
After graduating from Furman University, he married Jo Ellen Bradley and together they started a 55-year adventure that led through Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, a hitch in the army, and then to a position as Minister of Education at Central Baptist Church in Lawton, Oklahoma. Similar positions followed in Greenville, SC (Central Baptist) and Greensboro, NC (Friendly Avenue Baptist) before he was tapped to become state Sunday School Director for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in 1978.
In the glory days of the Baptist State Convention, Stewart supervised a staff of consultants that was second to none in providing assistance to churches who wanted to provide quality Christian education for preschoolers, children, youth, and adults. Stewart was such a proponent of the programs that some people called him "Mister Sunday School."
Prior to his retirement in 2003, Stewart's job titles changed, but he never ceased to press the importance of Christian education as a ministry of the church.
I was fortunate enough to be Robert and Jo Ellen's pastor for a time at Woodhaven Baptist Church in Apex/Cary, NC, and was particularly impressed that they, like others on the Convention's education staff, lived by the same advice the offered to the churches. Both Robert and Jo Ellen were faithful Sunday School teachers. Robert also served as Sunday School director, sang in the choir, and served on committees. He was the real deal.
One of the many things that impressed me most about Robert Stewart was not just that he was a terrific family man and a faithful Christian educator, but that he possessed a sweet spirit that enabled him to be deeply involved in church withhout ever becoming divisive. He could -- and would -- express his opinion about various matters, but always with a generosity of spirit toward others and a willingness to cooperate even if things didn't go the way he would have liked.
He wasn't just "Mister Sunday School." Robert could have been called "Mister Christian."
And I'm proud to have known him.