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Pennsylvania pastor, Detroit elder take PHEWA honors

Bill Thomas, Daniel Stoepker receive biennial awards

by Jerry Van Marter

Daniel Stoepker

Rodney T. Martin Award winner Daniel Stoepker

TUCSON — A pastor adept at keeping churches alive while steel towns die in the Monongahela River valley near Pittsburgh and a Detroit elder who continues to fight for better HIV/AIDS care, treatment and research despite the ravages of the disease in his own body were honored Jan. 15 by the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) with its two top awards.

The Rev. Bill Thomas, who has served small churches his entire 35-year career — most of them in struggling steel mill towns outside Pittsburgh — received PHEWA’s John Park Lee Award during the social welfare ministry coalition’s biennial conference here.

“Whether it was in Stamford, Connecticut, the Appalachians of Eastern Kentucky or the steel-making strip along the Monongahela River outside of Pittsburgh,” the PHEWA citation read, “Bill pastored and organized, never separating the church from the community or faith from action.”

Thomas called his lifelong ministry in small, struggling communities “a blessed pilgrimage.”

“These congregations were all small, but they weren’t failures and they never thought of themselves as failures,” he said. “They were loving communities that respected all. Their love and fellowship was never predicated on agreeing with each other and they were committed to fairness, justice and meeting the needs of their communities.”

Stoepker, a longtime elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Detroit, is a leader of the Presbyterian AIDS Network , one of PHEWA’s 10 constituent ministry organizations . In receiving PHEWA’s Rodney T. Martin Award he was hailed as “the heart and soul of the Presbyterian Church’s commitment to rid the world of the scourge of AIDS and to strengthen the church’s witness and ministry with persons living with HIV/AIDS and their families and loved ones.”

Stoepker, who is renowned for the colorful Hawaiian shirts he always wears, blinked back tears as he told the crowd gathered for the awards luncheon that “all I ever wanted was to bring color and joy, love and commitment to everything I could do to make our church care more and do more for people living with AIDS and for those who love them.”

Two men with a plaque

PHEWA President Bob Brashear (left) presents the John Park Lee Award to the Rev. Bill Thomas.

The John Park Lee Award is named for the Philadelphia native, born in 1903, who in the 1950s coordinated the health and welfare efforts of the Presbyterian Church through his work with the Board of Pensions and the Board of National Missions. He guided the National Presbyterian Health and Welfare Association (now PHEWA) through its organizational 

The award was established in 1969 “to recognize and perpetuate the qualities of concern, sensitivity and involvement singularly exemplified in John Park Lee.”

The Rodney T. Martin Award, established in 1993, honors the man who served as PHEWA’s executive director from 1972 to1990. It’s awarded biennially to recognize “a significant long-term contribution to the ministry of PHEWA.”