He was a young pitcher in the Negro Leagues when the New York Yankees came to his door to recruit him.
No way, his father, Bishop Enoch Stallings, of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in the Dwight neighborhood, told the scouts. “This boy is going to sing in the choir.”
The Yankees might have lost a star right-handed in that scouting encounter long ago, but the church and New Haven gained an inspirational leader whose gift for an embracing love of his fellow man and love of life were celebrated at a funeral service Sunday afternoon that drew more than 400 people to the Trinity Church of God in Christ on Dixwell Avenue.
Bishop Robert Henry Stallings Sr., was the pastoral leader of the Church of God and Saints of Christ for 39 years. He was also an accomplished self-taught composer and musical innovator at the church on Beers Street, as well as the former vice president of the New Haven Clergy Association. He died on Dec. 28 at the age of 90.
The day began as Stallings, in an open casket surrounded by flowers, was celebrated in song and personal recollection and in doxologies to a caring God, at his home church on Beers Street.
From there, he was borne in an an 1888 hearse pulled by two black-plumed horses to Trinity Temple Church of God on Dixwell, where the services continued into the late afternoon. He’s to be interred at Hamden Plains Cemetery on Monday morning.
The church — one of the oldest of what are described as “black Hebrew Israelite” congregations — was founded in Kansas in 1896 by William Saunders Crowdy.
In the United States alone, the Church of God and Saints of Christ has several thousand adherents. They believe that Jesus is the messiah. Because they trace their origins to the Hebrew tribe of Judah, the denomination retains many Jewish practices, including circumcision and celebration of Passover.
Elders, bishops, singers and choir leaders filled the pews Sunday along with everyday parishioners from congregations from as far away as Delaware, Georgia, and Bermuda. The women wore shining blue and white tunics. The men wore black sashes, on which were pinned florettes with a Star of David featuring an image of church’s founder Crowdy.
Melvin Williams, who leads the denomination’s church in Wheeling, West Virginia, said Stallings had an unrivaled gift for loving other human beings. “He loved hard. He was a world of love,” Williams said. “He knew how to bring people together. It was a gift. He was also a talented musician.”
As people assembled, wearing helmets, many traditional Jewish yarmulkae, and other stylish headgear, the chorus sang “We Give Thanks To Our God,” one of the many hymns that Stallings composed after he took over as leader of the chorus at the church. Until he stepped in and became what church Elder William Telemaque called the “minister of music,” the role of choir master or lead chorister had been been filled by women.
“He allowed singers to fit into different generations and appealed to a younger, more diverse crowd,” said Telemaque.
Stallings had the creds to execute his innovations. He sang with Sam Cooke and with Mahalia Jackson. He pursued a range of other interests, including being a businessman in New Haven and becoming a world-traveling speaker and evangelist.
Anybody you asked at the festive funeral service also had a personal story to tell about Stallings that went far deeper than his pitching, singing, and golfing.
Elder John Hammond, who joined the church in 1963, said that Stallings had a talent for personal counseling and, in his own case, “how to preserve a marriage and keep it fresh.”
Hammond was among the church officials who ushered Stallings’s body from the Beers Street church into the horse-drawn hearse bound for the larger space of Trinity Church on Dixwell. He recalled one piece of the bishop’s advice that worked for his marriage: “‘Keep the lines of communication open and don’t go to bed angry.”
“I took his advice,” Hammond recalled. “But there were a couple of times I sat up all night.”
William Telemaque recalled personal advice Stallings gave him that he has taken to heart: “Continue doing what you love, and you’ll never get old.”
Until his last months, Stallings exemplified that wisdom. Chief Evangelist Jehu Wade, who presided over Sunday’s proceedings, called Bishop Stallings’ 90 years “a great life and a heckuva run. He believed life was about seizing the moment, and when he died he was empty of all the purpose God had poured into him, because he had used it all.”
Stallings is survived by his wife Myrtle, five children and a host of grandchildren and great-grandhildren.
Among the many dignitaries who were also in attendance were Probate Judge Clifton Graves and Mayor Toni Harp. She read an official proclamation of appreciation from the city of New Haven. Living a life well-lived, he was, said the mayor, “a champion of racial harmony and civic responsibility.”