Bishop George W. Ayers
1927 - 2015
Bishop George W. Ayers, presiding bishop of the international AOH Church of God denomination headquartered in Birmingham, helped spread Pentecostalism from his native Alabama to northern California and Africa.
Ayers was simultaneously senior pastor of Cathedral of the Cross AOH Church of God in Birmingham and Phillips Temple AOH Church of God in Mobile, where he had been pastor since 1987. He had homes in both Birmingham and Mobile and alternated preaching at each church every other Sunday.
"He was an awesome preacher and very well known for his teaching," said the Rev. Joseph Turnes, pastor of Tittusville AOH Church of God in Birmingham. "He was always able to give hope to the hopeless."
Ayers died March 4. He was 87.
"He was such a great orator," said the Rev. Dwight Kimbrough, pastor of Woodland Park AOH Church in Birmingham. "He was just an icon. You really wanted to walk in his footsteps. He showed us we needed to make a difference right where we were. A lot of us have tried to copy his style, his clarity, his ability to move people."
In 2011, the Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God bought the 5,100-seat Cathedral of the Cross in Center Point and made it the headquarters of the international Pentecostal denomination. The AOH was founded in Mobile in 1920 as the Ethiopian Overcoming Holy Church of God. The headquarters moved to Birmingham in 1973.
The AOH Church of God has about 24,000 U.S. members and 230 churches in America, mostly in the South. It has about that many members in Africa also, spread over 300 churches in nine countries.
Ayers was elected by the AOH board as presiding bishop of the denomination in 2000 after the late Bishop Jasper Roby of Birmingham became ill and was no longer able to serve. That set off a legal battle over control of the denomination, which ended when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Ayers' favor.
"He brought the church out of quite a nosedive and got everything stabilized," Kimbrough said. "He was a great motivator and leader. He got us back on track."
Roby was the longtime presiding bishop and pastor of the AOH Cathedral in downtown Birmingham, a campus that was sold to make room for future expansion of the BJCC complex. Roby had become senior bishop of the Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God in 1973, taking over the denomination after the death of the founder, Bishop W.T. Phillips. Roby died in 2006.
Ayers considered Roby to be his mentor in the faith, despite the schism that happened after Roby was removed from office. "I'm glad there is some healing behind that terrible chapter in our church's history," said his associate pastor and son-in-law, the Rev. Reginald Davis. "Time and prayer has begun the healing process."
Ayers moved the downtown Birmingham headquarters in 2004 to the former Center Point Church of Christ building, which became New Jerusalem AOH Church. The congregation then moved into the Cathedral of the Cross building after it was renovated. It has about 200 attending weekly Sunday services, Davis said.
The church runs New Jerusalem Christian Academy in Center Point, with about 45 children from daycare through third grade.
Ayers last preached Feb. 15 at Faith Tabernacle Church in Richmond, Calif., which he founded in 1956 in Marin City and where he was still considered the pastor. "We were celebrating 59 years since he started the work in California," Davis said.
Ayers also preached in Birmingham on Feb. 1 and in Mobile on Feb. 8, Davis said.
Ayers was born the son of a coal miner in the mining camp of Maben, outside Birmingham, on Nov. 24, 1927, and was ordained in 1950. He was pastor of the AOH churches in Tuskegee and Pratt City before he moved to California in 1956. Shortly after arriving in Marin City, he was elected to the city council there and served one term. He pushed for the hiring of the city's first black police officers. He also started a ministerial association that dealt with complaints of police brutality. "It helped the race relations in that community," Davis said.
Ayers also worked more than 20 years for Pacific Gas and Electric and helped recruit minority employees for the utility company, Davis said. Ayers earned theology degrees from several Bible colleges.
He graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1945 and after military service earned a bachelor's degree in 1953 from Booker T. Washington Business College.
Bishop George W. Ayers had led the AOH Church of God denomination, founded and based in Alabama, since 2000. (File/The Birmingham News)
Ayers served in the U.S. Army on the island of Guam. Although the Japanese had officially surrendered, the fighting continued. "They were still in combat," Davis said. "Some of the Japanese weren't aware the war had ended."
Ayers was seriously injured in a Jeep accident. "The Jeep flipped over and landed on him," Davis said. "They thought he was dead and took him to the morgue. Blood was coming out of his mouth. They had to dig his gun and duty belt out of the mud it was in so deep. They left him lying in the morgue for several hours, thinking he was dead. They noticed him moving his leg a little bit and saw that he was alive."
Doctors said he would likely never walk again. "He was paralyzed from the neck down for awhile," Davis said. "He slowly was able to regain strength in his legs. "
Ayers was awarded the Purple Heart. Though he was able to walk, the injuries gave him life-long problems that had worsened in the past year. "That injury that he suffered, as age came, and dealing with the stress of leading the national church, it just got worse," Davis said.
Ayers had initiated construction projects that were underway in both Birmingham and Mobile on "Saints' Homes" for the elderly, including retired AOH ministers.
"He was a very caring person," Davis said. "He did what he could to help the poor."
Davis said there will be a ceremony today at 2 p.m. in Mobile to rename a street in Ayers' honor near Phillips Temple, 2257 St. Stephen's Road. Dickens Street, which intersects St. Stephens Road, will be renamed Bishop G.W. Ayers Street, Davis said.
A memorial service for Ayers will be held at Phillips Temple in Mobile on March 19 at 7 p.m.
A memorial service will be held at Cathedral of the Cross in Birmingham on March 21 at noon.