Bishop Levi E. Willis Sr., an influential South Hampton Roads minister, radio station owner and national leader of the Church of God in Christ denomination, died Friday morning. He was 79.
The Rev. Kendrick Turner of Faith Deliverance Church of God in Christ in Hampton, one of Willisâ„¢ pastors, said Willis had been in and out of the hospital before he died.
The Rev. G. Wesley Hardy, one of Willisâ„¢ administrative assistants, said the bishop had diabetes and had been ill for four or five years.vWillis, a charismatic 6-footer, was powerful among blacks and a political force across South Hampton Roads in the 1980s.
He founded and led the Garden of Prayer, a large congregation now located on Church Street in Norfolk. He also was an emeritus member of the COGIC general board that oversaw a denomination of more than 6 million members.
Å“He believed in young preachers; he believed in giving them a chance in the ministry, Turner said. Å“Heâ„¢s a man of honor, a man of integrity.
In 1974, Willis became South Hampton Roadsâ„¢ first black radio station operator. With his distinctively resonant voice, he hosted Å“Crusade for Christ Hotline, a call-in show on his WOWI-FM and WPCE-AM stations he also used to promote his favorite causes.
His multimillion-dollar radio broadcasting business eventually faltered starting in the 1990s because of embezzlement, tax liens, debt and regulatory violations.
But Willisâ„¢ overall success was a testament to his extraordinary determination and vision, said Hardy, who leads Cathedral of Faith Church of God in Christ in Chesapeake.
Å“He just oozed leadership, Hardy said, and was Å“a person who looked out for the common man. ¦ He never forgot his humble beginnings.
State Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk, said Willis encouraged her to seek public office in the 1980s and contributed to her campaign.
Å“And he always said, ‘Iâ„¢m not interested in running. Iâ„¢m just interested in having good people in office,â„¢ Miller said from the General Assembly on Friday. Å“Bishop Willis was a giant of a human being.
Willisâ„¢ climb to local fame followed business and religious tracks. He was born in 1929 to North Carolina sharecropper parents who lived in a one-room shack.
The family, which included Willisâ„¢ six siblings, lived in unremitting poverty. Å“It brought us to a point where we did not know if we would survive, he said in a 1979 interview.
As he grew up, Å“I began to want everything the white man had denied the black man. I didnâ„¢t want to kneel at the table for crumbs, Willis said. Å“I wanted a seat at the table.
The family moved to Norfolk when Willis was 16. He sold household products door to door, then started a bus service. After a couple years of wild living in Philadelphia ” he was shot during a street fight ” Willis returned to Norfolk, where he was born again as a Christian in his motherâ„¢s church.
Willis was ordained in 1954. Starting in a one-room church, he saw his congregation grow, as well as his stature . In 1970, he became the youngest chairman ever elected to the COGIC national bishopsâ„¢ council. In 1982, he became national chairman of the denominationâ„¢s general assembly, which represented more than 6,000 congregations.
On the business side, Willis began buying homes in the 1950s, owning and renting as many as 100 at a time before selling most of them.
In the early 1970s, he became board chairman and majority stockholder of Atlantic National Bank, the areaâ„¢s first bank with a multiracial ownership.
Known as a shrewd businessman, Willis amassed holdings that included ownership interests in motels, a funeral home and , briefly, The Journal and Guide, a black-oriented newspaper.
By 1987, he owned 18 stations around the country; by 1989, there were 23 in the multimillion-dollar chain. Willis, known as Å“The Pope to close friends, became what some observers called the most influential black individual in Tidewater in the 1980s.
In 1975, he formedÃ‚ a citizens committee and raised $8,000Ã‚ in legal fees to successfully discourage renewed prosecution of a black murder suspect who had endured three trials with hung juries.