Rev. Dr. J. Van Alfred Winsett called home at 87

‘A loss for the city. A loss for the Kingdom of God.’


Celebrated minister, mentor was pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church for 39 years

No matter how long the homegoing service for Rev. Dr. Joseph Van Alfred Winsett is on Saturday, Dec. 18, according to those who knew and admired him, the service won’t be long enough to detail his list of accomplishments, milestones and teachings.

Reverend Winsett, pastor emeritus of Ebenzer Baptist Church in the Hill District, died on Dec. 8. He was 87.

Reverend Winsett, born in 1934 in Louisville, Ky., was the pastor of a church in Beloit, Wis., when he came to Pittsburgh to attend the 1971 funeral of Rev. James Benjamin Cayce, the former pastor of Ebenezer. During the national search for Rev. Cayce’s successor, the powers-that-be soon learned that the right man for the position would be Rev. Winsett.

He did not disappoint. Rev. Winsett.

He did not disappoint.

“An unselfish, sacrificial man,” is how Rev. Barbara Gunn, pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, in North Versailles, described Rev. Winsett to the New Pittsburgh Courier. “Just a wonderful preacher and a mentor. He knew how to teach and train preachers to love God and love people. He always said, you make sure that whatever you do, you love God first, and to love people” even if they, at times, didn’t show the love back. “We weren’t lovable sometimes and Jesus loved us,” she said Rev. Winsett would remind his understudies.

Reverend Winsett led the Ebenezer Baptist congregation through a fire in 1976 that caused $300,000 worth of damage. He led the way in the construction of Ebenezer Towers, an 11-story high rise for senior citizens, which still stands today in the Hill District.


Ebenezer Baptist featured a prominent health ministry and scholarship program under Rev. Winsett’s tutelage. And Rev. Winslett loved to mentor aspiring preachers—Rev. Gunn being one of many who were taught by him.

“He exposed me and so many of his preachers to foreign missions, especially Haiti and Africa,” Rev. Gunn told the Courier.

Upwards of 50 ministers were mentored by Rev. Winsett, including Rev. Dr. Sheila Johnson-Hunt, president of the Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Pittsburgh and Vicinity, and her husband, Rev. James Hunt, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, in Penn Hills.

Reverend Alonzo Murphy, pastor of Carrone Baptist Church, in Homewood, was also mentored by Rev. Winsett.

Reverend Gunn recalled how, in the early 1980s, Rev. Winsett was the first Baptist minister in Pittsburgh to license a woman to become a fellow minister. She said that at the time, “so many of his fellow pastors distanced themselves” from him, as it was unheard of for there to be women in ministry in the Baptist church. But Rev. Gunn said that eventually, the pastors reunited with Rev. Winsett, whom she called a trailblazer for embracing women in the ministry. Rev. Gunn became a licensed minister in 1985 under Rev. Winsett.

“All the things that God blessed him with, he used them to glorify God, period,” Rev. Gunn told the Courier.

Brenda Tate became a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1988. She joined the church because of Rev. Winsett.

“I was drawn to Ebenezer because he (Rev. Winsett) had a radio show on WAMO and I would hear his voice, and I think the calming effect of his voice drew me to Ebenezer,” she told the Courier.

She said Rev. Winsett showed her how to “take the church outside of the walls of Ebenezer.” She traveled with him on missionary trips to Israel, Africa and Germany; he even baptized her in the Jordan River.

When he was in the pulpit, Tate said Rev. Winsett could be best described as a “quiet storm. He was a teacher. He brought the word in a way that was compelling, profound and it resonated with everyone.”

On March 13, 2004, a devastating fire engulfed the entire church. It was a Saturday morning, around 8:30, and Rev. Winsett was inside the church with others when he was alerted to the fire. Everyone got out, but two Pittsburgh firefighters, Charles Brace and Richard Stefanakis, were killed fighting the blaze. Dozens more were injured.

Tate was outside on that fateful day, too.

“Reverend (Winsett) knew how to manage crises,” she told the Courier. “Even that day, he was aware that the congregation was out there with him and he always took control…he made people feel as though it would be OK. And he kept the congregation that day all together.”

It took two years before the current church building at 2001 Wylie Avenue was ready to be the new home of Ebenzer Baptist, but Tate recalled how Rev. Winsett didn’t miss a beat in between. The pastor of Hillcrest Seventh-day Adventist Church offered Rev. Winsett to use its building for Sunday services, and each Sunday for the next two years after the fire, Ebenezer’s members worshipped there. “You would have thought he was preaching at Ebenezer,” Tate remembered about their time at Hillcrest, the passion so palpable that Rev. Winsett brought to the pulpit.

“You never saw him falter,” she added. “He knew his people.”

Rev Dr. J. Van Alfred Winsett (PHOTO BY J.L MARTELLO)

Reverend Winsett, the internationally-known preacher and teacher, mentor and motivator, retired as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2012. His last sermon from the pulpit was on May 6 of that year, the sermon entitled, “It Ain’t Over, Till It’s Over,” (Ephesians 6: 9-10).

Two weeks later, on May 20, there was a retirement celebration for the famed pastor, “A Man Named Winsett,” at the Churchill Valley Country Club.

Though he had retired as the day-to-day pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, you could still find him at church services, mentoring others, showing young people (and adults) the right way to live, and having a heart for those less fortunate. Reverend Winsett had served as Dean of Students for the American Baptist College, Liaison for the National and German Conventions, Assistant Director of the Department of Theology, National Baptist Congress of Christian Education, and President of the Pennsylvania Baptist State Convention. He is listed in Who’s Who Among Professionals and Executives and was cited for outstanding service by former President Jimmy Carter.

But he wasn’t one to brag about any accolades or achievements that were on paper. For Rev. Winsett, it was always about putting God first, and uplifting others in His name.

“He’s loved, respected and highly regarded,” Rev. Gunn told the Courier of Rev. Winsett. “A great family man. A loss for the city. A loss for the Kingdom of God.”

Reverend Winsett is survived by his wife, Jacqueline, and four children: Marie Winsett Ruple, John Andrew Winsett, Lisa Jo Winsett, and Delicha Lattaker.

(Editor’s Note: The visitation for Rev. Dr. J. Van Alfred Winsett will be held, Friday, Dec. 17, from 4 to 8 p.m. at St. Paul Baptist Church, 6701 Penn Avenue, East Liberty. The homegoing service will be held, Saturday, Dec. 18, at 11 a.m., also at St. Paul Baptist Church.)






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