Thank you, Mr. Speaker:
I rise to honor my constituent, Bishop Hezekiah Ross, who passed away on July 29, 2020, at the age of 91.
Dr. Ross was a man of faith and a man of action. His life was defined by service to others.
Dr. Ross served in the Army, deploying to Korea in 1950.
After returning home to Central Florida, he became assistant pastor and then senior pastor at the West Sanford Freewill Holiness Church, serving there for over six decades.
When I took office, I asked Dr. Ross—and he generously agreed—to serve on my faith leaders’ advisory board. Despite his advanced age, he never missed a session. In his quiet, dignified way, he helped me better understand, and address, the needs of the Sanford community.
Throughout his life, Dr. Ross ministered to his congregation, but he also led a street ministry and a prison ministry, counseling and mentoring men and women on the margins of society, those forgotten or forsaken by others.
He was the epitome of grace and compassion in a world that needs more of both.
Dr. Ross was also a trailblazer. In 1969, he became the first black firefighter in the city of Sanford. For 22 years, he was a firefighter and a pastor, a rare and wonderful combination, saving lives while saving souls.
Of course, it could not have been easy to integrate this institution. But Hezekiah Ross was never interested in doing easy things. He was a determined man. He wanted to serve his community, and he wouldn’t be deterred or discouraged.
At that time, in that place, the idea of a black firefighter could be hard to fathom—and Hezekiah faced his share of prejudice. But, over time, Hezekiah came to be accepted, admired, and—ultimately—beloved by his fellow firefighters.
A few asked him to forgive them for the way they had initially treated him, which of course he did.
Being a firefighter under any circumstances takes courage. Being a firefighter under these conditions takes courage and character, and Dr. Ross possessed both.
In 2004, more than a decade after he had retired from the force, Dr. Ross was invited to become the Sanford Fire Department’s first chaplain, ministering to firefighters and their families.
The man who was once tolerated was now treasured.
Bishop Ross is survived by his wife Lelia, who was kind enough to speak to my office about her late husband. “We were married for 68 years,” she told us. “We did everything together.”
If Bishop Ross was the rock of Goldsboro, Leila was his rock.
The Bishop’s funeral service was a sight to behold. The streets of Sanford were basically shut down for the procession. A soldier played “Taps” to honor his military service. His casket was transported on the back of a firetruck. Everybody was there. Black, white, young, and not-so-young, bound together by their affection for this extraordinary man.
He will be greatly missed, but he is now home. May God bless this incredible trailblazer and may God continue to bless his beloved community of family and friends.