At 90, Bishop Bonner still writing his ‘wonderful story’
By Erika Wurst firstname.lastname@example.org September 29, 2011 12:14PM
Bishop William Bonner preaches at Greater Mt. Olive Church in Aurora.| Sun-Times Media File
Updated: October 19, 2012 5:24PM
He could have been a sports sensation, a doctor or a teacher.
As a smart, athletic and respectful Arkansas teen, Billy Bonner could have done it all. But none of that mattered.
At 13 years old, William Haven Bonner was called to serve the Lord, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“God laid his hands on me and gave me a calling,” said Bonner, sporting striped pants, suspenders, and a loose tie. “Thank God for the mind to pray and to serve God in fullness.”
Earlier this month, Bonner celebrated his 90th birthday with hundreds of members at Mount Olive Church of God in Christ, the Aurora church he built in 1948.
“My story in Aurora has been a wonderful story,” Bonner said. “To build up the people and build a building for the people and for God has been a blessing.”
A birthday banner still hanging above the church’s altar sums up the congregation’s feelings well.
“This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes,” it read.
If you build it ...
As a 21-year-old newlywed, Bonner was called to Aurora to start Mount Olive Church of God in Christ. It was 1944, and with no church to call his own, the young preacher hopped around town sharing God’s word.
“There was no church,” Bonner’s daughter, Willie Etta Wright, recalled. “He just went from home to home.”
In 1948, Bonner finally found the church its own home at 1039 Pond Ave. on the city’s East Side. It was a blessing, he said.
To Bonner’s daughter, the place was no more than a “snake-infested dump.”
Today, the church building sits proudly on what is now named Bonner Avenue, surrounded by a beautifully manicured lawn and filled with a dedicated congregation.
“The first day I came here God began drawing people to the church,” Bonner said. “And they’re still coming.”
A helping hand
Since his humble beginnings, Bonner has built a legacy throughout Aurora. He and the late Dorothy Mae Bonner, his wife of 62 years, have been credited with donating clothes to the needy, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and providing spiritual counseling for the depressed and forsaken.
George Walker was one of the depressed and forsaken when he came to Mount Olive in 1988. Partying and going out were his main hobbies, Walker said — until he met Bishop William H. Bonner.
“Bishop Bonner told me to just follow him as he follows Christ,” Walker said. “Each day I have a test, and I know to look to the Lord for help because Bishop Bonner shows us daily how to do that.”
It is Bonner’s passion for helping people that seems to attract so many people to Mount Olive.
“He sees a need before we even know there is a need,” said church member Sherri Penson. “Where they say he couldn’t do things, he has. In 67 years there has been one pastor at Greater Mount Olive Church.”
Bonner said God has blessed him with the strength to continue on despite his nine decades.
“I want the word of God to be fulfilled in my life. I want to bring men and women out of the darkness,” he said.
Bonner’s efforts throughout the city and the state have not gone unnoticed. In 1982, Rev. William Bonner became Bishop William Bonner of the Sixth Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of Illinois.
Two years later, then-Aurora Mayor Jack Hill changed Pond Avenue to Bonner Avenue as a way to recognize the bishop’s efforts.
And on the corner of Kane and Loucks Streets in Aurora sits Bishop William H. Bonner Park, yet another dedication to the church and family man.
“He has been a mentor, and a model of endurance,” Willie Etta said of her father. “He has had losses (his wife and two of their four children have passed away). But he has taught us to persevere despite our losses and our tragedy.”
A spiritual path
Sherri Penson has been a “spiritual daughter” of the bishop for more than 30 years. It’s because of Bonner that she continues to weather life’s storms with hope.
“It’s like a family. We all gain something through (Bonner’s) life and service,” Penson said. “Bishop Bonner leads by perfect example to give us hope daily.”
Bonner continues to lead by example and through his sermons. Frankie Looney, four years Bonner’s elder, has also paved the way for the younger generation. Looney has been a member of the Mount Olive congregation for more than 50 years.
“The mentors and the people before us, like Mother Looney and Bishop Bonner, who have weathered the storm already, give me an example how to live,” Penson said.
Bonner says his church members help him in life as much as he helps them.
“I may be walking alone now,” Bonner said of his wife’s 2004 passing. “But I’m not really walking alone, because the members are walking with me. ... God has blessed me with a lovely, faithful group of people that are very supportive.
“Had it not been for them, I would not have been able to do this.”
Celebration of life
Bonner’s support was tangible earlier this month as people from across the country gathered to celebrate his 90 years of life. There were special services with guest speakers, a reunion of past members, and celebrations throughout the weekend to honor the bishop.
“This is a great celebration because of his age, and he’s still allowing God to work through him,” Penson said.
As he addressed a small prayer group at the church one fall afternoon, Bonner spoke candidly about his love for prayer and the Lord.
“It’s such a blessing to be able to pray. I thank God for prayer. It has brought me to where I am today,” he said.
For Willie Etta, her father’s continued presence at the church comes as no surprise.
“He’s following his passion, and his passion is the ministry,” Willie Etta said. “The doors of Mount Olive Church have never been closed in 67 years.
“He’s like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going and going.”