Russell’s legacy remembered

Published 10:54 pm Friday, July 14, 2017

Bishop Clarence Vernie Russell Sr. was equally devoted to his family, to his church and to a life of service to the Lord.

It is that legacy that will be celebrated Saturday at a service at Union Baptist Missionary Church on Nansemond Parkway, which Russell led for 54 years before naming his son as his successor about five years ago. Russell, 83, passed away on July 8.

Ministry leaders, family and parishioners remembered him fondly this week.

Email newsletter signup

“He was a very meticulous preacher,” said Dr. Leo Whitaker. “His preaching was heartfelt and transformative in terms of encouraging people to live the gospel.”

Russell, a U.S. Army veteran, served at New Light Full Gospel Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, his home church. for four years before coming to Union Baptist. He led the now 152-year-old church through a building project to move down the street from the former site near Shoulders Hill Road. The project began in 2008 and was completed in 2010.

“He was a true friend, he was a great servant, he was a man of God, loved his church family and cared for others outside of the church,” said Harriett Hurdle, who has attended Union Baptist Missionary Church as long as she can remember.

Although he will be remembered as a preacher, he is likely to be remembered more for what he did outside of church, said his grandson, Clarence V. Russell III.

The younger Russell remembered riding in the back of his grandfather’s truck and making dozens of stops on the way to some destination, dropping off food and visiting the sick. Since his grandfather’s death, he has heard even more stories, some from people he didn’t even realize knew his grandfather. One former Pizza Hut employee told of how the elder Russell would come in and pick up pizzas to give to the homeless.

“You never know how you will affect people’s lives in your daily comings and goings,” Clarence Russell III said. “To hear people’s stories of how he touched their lives outside of the pulpit.”

Russell said many of the people he knows from church, he first encountered when his grandfather took them in and gave them a meal or a job to do. He never judged or pointed fingers, he said.

“A lot of people stay away from church because of that,” he said. But his grandfather would “refrain from pointing the finger and instead extend the hand and say, ‘Let me help you.’ He was trying to help them and influence them, and he was sowing that seed into us.”

Russell raised up his family to be servants of God. His son, Clarence V. Russell Jr., is pastor of Union Baptist as well as Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Clarence V. Russell III is pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church.

“The family members we have that are not pastors are still service-oriented,” Clarence Russell III said. “I think we have just as many or more teachers than preachers.”

Whitaker said the elder Russell ran his ministry very business-like.

“He would call you and remind you of your assignment, so there was no dropping the ball,” Whitaker said.

He ensured that the church offered something for men and women as well as all ages. Young people could be found serving at church events, and the church had a praise dance team — usually the domain of youth — for senior citizens.

He also used his influence to help young pastors throughout Hampton Roads get their ministries started.

“Granddad was a firecracker,” Russell said. “The Bible says a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and I’m grateful to have his name.”

Russell, predeceased by his first wife, Leonia Russell, is survived by his second wife, Gladys Russell, as well as many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and three brothers, one of whom is also a pastor.

The funeral will begin Saturday at 11 a.m., with entombment at Meadowbrook Memorial Gardens.