Congregants were preparing to hear the Sunday morning sermon at Union Valley Baptist Church, an iconic landmark in the heart of South Memphis. Pastor H.O. Kneeland was reminding the church to pray for those on the “Sick and Shut-In List.”
Before the Rev. Kneeland could finish the thought, he collapsed on the pulpit.
“(E)verything just went black,” Kneeland recalled. “I don’t remember anything else.”
Members and loved ones were, understandably, concerned.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the 86-year-old Kneeland at Union Valley. Back in 2015, he began thinking about retirement. But the succession process took a back burner as the day-to-day matters of running a church had to take front-and-center. The time got pushed back further and further, and soon, it was no longer such a great priority.
Now, three years later, the issue of retirement rushes back into the picture.
“It’s one thing to decide you’re going to retire,” Kneeland said. “You try to figure out the perfect time to walk away from the work you’ve done. And you want to feel confident you are leaving the church in capable hands. It’s one thing for you to decide, but it’s quite another thing when God is speaking.
“I’ll be 87 in August, if the Lord lets me live. So I’ve been here a long time. I believe the Lord is telling me it’s time.”
Kneeland got his start at Woodstock Baptist Church in Frayser “back when Frayser was the country.”
“I was pastor at Woodstock for two years before the Lord brought me over to Union Valley,” he said. “I guess you could say the church and I have grown up together. For 60 years, it has been my life. I have been as close to some as I was to my own family.”
When he came to the church in the early ’60s, Kneeland created the building fund drive. Less than a year later, there was enough to purchase the church’s present site at the corner of Cummings St. and McLemore Ave.
“Back in those days, most households had two parents. Now, many black families consist of a mother raising children without the presence of a father in the home,” said Kneeland reflecting on environment changes familiar to many pastors.
“The absence of the father has led to a host of other trends that are troubling – increase in poverty, homelessness, violent youth crime, teen pregnancy and high drop-out rates.”
The days of Sunday-only church activity are long gone, he said.
“People need emotional support, spiritual guidance and practical help because the needs have grown so wide and diverse. Wholistic ministry, addressing the whole needs of a person, is needed. New leadership, effective leadership must be put into place to come behind me.”
According to his daughter, Linda Holland, retirement seems to be the next chapter for her father.
“My dad needs a stint in his heart, but his kidneys may be too weak to stand such a serious operation,” she said. “He has worked so hard for so many years for Union Valley. We feel it’s time to retire, and I’m just happy he feels that this may be the time, also.
“We want to keep him here as long as we can, and we want him feeling good. It’s time for him to enjoy the fruits of his labor all these years. So, an official retirement announcement is coming soon, I hope.”