"She made an incalculable contribution to the city for people who needed it most before Mitch Snyder and others," is the way longtime D.C. resident Chuck Hicks remembered community activist Bishop Imagene B. Stewart, who died May 30 after a lengthy illness. She was 69.
Stewart, founder of the House of Imagene Shelter and Women's Center, the first shelter in the District for battered and abused African-American women, organized Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless and the destitute, through her church, which she called "The Church of What's Happening Now."
"We'd been best friends since 1973-74. She will always be remembered for her Thanksgiving dinners because she fed long lines of people. For the 47 years that I knew her, all of this was wrapped around nurturing of the spirit. And her strength and energy was wrapped up in her belief in God," Hicks said.
In 1972, Stewart opened a12-bed safe haven for black women. The shelter was a labor of love, since she had once been homeless herself.
In the hour or so before the wake began, friends, family and those Bishop Stewart helped filed into Bacon Funeral Home in Northwest, where they spoke with the Informer about her life and legacy.
Eighty-eight year-old Frank Smith stood outside lamenting the loss of his friend.
"I've known her since 2005. We were in the Senior Citizen Police Academy together," said Smith, a Northwest resident who is a descendant of Frederick Douglass. "She was an outgoing person and always wanted to help people in any way she could."
Prince George's County resident Diane Thompson did not know Stewart personally, but worked with Stewart's son Michael. She said she was well-aware of Stewart's decades of work in the community.
"She was certainly a pillar in this community," Thompson said. "This city is losing people like her everyday. If we don't embrace these things, we will lose an important part of our history. She helped the downtrodden and had no qualms about what she did."
Others, like Sammie Whiting-Ellis, said she'd known Stewart since their days in the Civil Rights movement, and was amazed by her desire to fight for those who needed the most help.
"She was part of the National Black Heritage Observance Council for 25 years," Whiting-Ellis recalled. "She was one of our most loyal members. She was instrumental in getting community people involved who would not usually be included. She always worked hard, always thought of other people and would help anyone in need."
"She was a fighter who never took a back seat," Whiting-Ellis added.
Stewart's fiancé Warren I. Johnson, Jr. said that in the 30 years and four months he and Stewart were involved, her days were filled with charity work at places like the Elks Home, Masonic lodges, at the American Legion, with the Police Chaplains' Association and elsewhere.
"I met her on Valentine's Day at the Elks Home. It was love at first sight," said Johnson. "She had been my fiancée for nearly two years. She was an energizer, a strong warrior who never quit. She never believed in failing. I was right by her side while she did the whole thing."
Any number of times, Hicks and others said Stewart would take to the airways soliciting help from individuals and businesses to buy turkeys and trimmings for her constituency. The response was always overwhelming.
"The amazing thing is that she could have had so much more; programs and cars, but what she had she gave. She marched with Martin Luther King in 1963, she had a beautiful voice and she used her radio show to urge people to come out and support her causes. I have been so absolutely blessed to have had her as a friend."