Union Valley Baptist Church, long the pastoral home of the late Rev. Herbert O. Kneeland, will be the venue for two upcoming celebrations of his life.
Rev. Kneeland died at his home on Sunday (Nov. 28) after an extended illness. He was 90.
A memorial celebration will be held at the church at 1051 E. McLemore on Dec. 12 at 3 p.m. The next morning at 11, a homegoing celebration will take place there also.
Linda Kneeland Holland said her father had just left the hospital on Saturday, the day before his death.
“I will miss my father,” said Holland. “But I know he was ready to go home and be with the Lord. I heard him saying over and over, ‘Mercy, Lord, please come and take me.’ And quickly, the Lord did just that. I guess it was around noon when Daddy took his last breath.”
Among the expressions of grief and condolences to the family is a statement released on Monday by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, who said:
“Pastor Kneeland shepherded and served his community in all its needs and was an inspiration to us all. He was the Dean of the clergy pastoring thousands and mentoring dozens and dozens. His life of good deeds will be felt in Memphis for years to come.”
Kneeland cut his teeth in the pastorate at Woodstock Baptist Church, a small congregation in Frayser, at a time when Frayser was still the country, Kneeland often said.
“I was pastor at Woodstock for two years before the Lord brought me over to Union Valley,” Kneeland told The New Tri-State Defender in 2018.
“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 members as I was to my own family.”
A young and zealous Kneeland took a small but faithful congregation from a few members to more than 2,000 over the years. His energetic preaching and passion for ministry swept over South Memphis.
In 1968, Kneeland joined other ministers who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in support of the striking sanitation workers.
Kneeland’s first order of business was to create a building fund drive for the church. His vision for growth and effective outreach would call for more expansive grounds and a larger sanctuary. In less than a year, the church had raised enough to purchase the present site at the corner of Cummings Street and McLemore Avenue.
During a Sunday service in the summer of 2018, Kneeland collapsed in the pulpit, leaving members and loved ones concerned for his health.
Retirement was discussed, but Kneeland continued as pastor until a progressively debilitating illness prevented him.
Kneeland was working with community activist Johnnie Mosley and others to establish social services outreach in the church.
“Pastor Kneeland was concerned about the decay and blight in the community where Union Valley was,” said Mosley.
“We were all working to secure grant money to help impoverished families still living there. Many had moved out of the area, but those left were faced with high violent youth crime, teen pregnancy and school drop-outs. He felt he could not retire because of the needs.”
Kneeland felt strongly about the need for fathers in households and lamented the absence of them in many South Memphis households.
“Back in those days when Union Valley first moved here, most households had two parents,” Kneeland said in an interview with The New Tri-State Defender. “Now, many Black families consist of a mother raising children without the presence of a father in the home. Strong, caring fathers are no longer the head of the household. This is the big problem in our community.”
Sunday-only church is not enough, Kneeland said.
“People need emotional support, spiritual guidance and practical help because the needs have grown so wide and diverse,” he said.
“Wholistic ministry, addressing the whole needs of a person, is required. New leadership, effective leadership, must be put into place to come behind me. The work must continue.”
Holland said at that time that her father needed a stint in his heart, and the family hoped he would retire.
“Daddy was still concerned for the people living around the church,” Holland said. “He never really stopped working until illness forced him to. He loved his church, and he loved the community.”
Final arrangements were still pending at the time of publication.