I recently took a wonderful walk down Memory Lane for me, though it was also poignant at times.
On a Saturday, the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina sponsored a remembrance of Lex Mathews. Lex was the first Christian Social Ministries Director for the Diocese, serving from 1975 until his untimely death in 1985. Just about anybody who was engaged in social justice in North Carolina during that time, whether with the Council or not, knew Lex.
The conference was organized by the Diocese’s historian and archivist. They had prepared a two-sided, 8½ x 14 page highlighting 19 programs or organizations that Lex was instrumental in creating. In addition to the Diocese’s Christian Social Ministries office, they (or their successor organizations) include Hospice of NC, the Women’s Center of Wake County, Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry, the Land Stewardship Council of NC, soup kitchens, food banking statewide including the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC, Filling in the Gaps/FIGS, and Carolina Dispute Settlement Services.
In my earlier life with the Baptist State Convention, I worked most closely with Lex on the Land Stewardship Council, food banking (where we had to get enabling legislation passed in a short session of the General Assembly before food banks could go operational), and the Council’s ERA Committee. As one conference participant noted, “When two or three were gathered with Lex, something was going to happen.”
Regarding the ERA Committee, Lex convinced Bett Hargrave, a fellow Episcopalian, to become the Committee’s staff person. It was hard work, unpopular with many in NC, including many church folks, and ultimately unsuccessful, at least in terms of the passage of the ERA. But Bett came out committed to the role of progressive people of faith in public service and later became a county commissioner and then chair of the Davidson County Board of Commissioners. She was at the celebration of Lex’s ministry, along with several other Council friends and leaders from those earlier days.
Then on that Sunday afternoon, many people from the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church gathered at Raleigh’s Edenton Street UMC to celebrate the life of Rufus Stark, who had passed away earlier in the week. Rufus pastored several UMC congregations before becoming the head of the Methodist Home for Children during the crucial time when it was transitioning from being an orphanage. Rufus was a great friend of the NC Council of Churches.
I first met Rufus, again in my earlier life, when he chaired the Council’s Tobacco Study Committee in 1984, and I represented Baptists there. (Bishop Hope Morgan Ward noted this important role for Rufus in her eulogy last week.) He never let us forget that his family roots were in the sandy tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina. But he led the committee to issue a report which acknowledged the negative health consequences of smoking. As far as I can tell, it was the first time a permanent, statewide, non-medical organization in this state had said “Gee, smoking might be bad for your health.” It became national news, and Rufus talked to reporters from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times. But, at the same time, the statement also noted the hardships coming for rural NC families, especially small farmers, with the decline of the tobacco industry here, and it called on churches to do all they could to be supportive of those families. That was Rufus – bringing people of differing viewpoints together, being prophetic and pastoral at the same time.
My Memory-Lane weekend ended at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, which was saying goodbye to pastor Peter Carman, who is going to an urban church in Schenectady, NY. It was Peter who called me last fall to say that he needed a place to do community service because of his Moral Monday arrest. He ended up working with us on our efforts to make people of faith aware of the crucial changes coming in voting. He updated the Council’s longstanding policy supporting voting rights for all, with special attention that vulnerable people not be excluded. In that regard he discovered a 1961 Council statement, drafted, ironically, by Robert Seymour, founding pastor of Binkley, that called out our state for the “artful barriers” it had created to make it nearly impossible for African-Americans to vote. Sadly, we find our state returning to those days of artful barriers. Now they are photo IDs, restricted times for early voting, no same-day registration, etc. (To read Peter’s statement on “suffrage,” later adopted by the Council’s Governing Board, click here. To download a bulletin insert about why voting is important for people of faith, click here.)
Council leaders and friends at the Binkley send-off were too numerous for me to name them all, but they included Bob Seymour, Mel Williams, Verla Insko, David Price, Maria Teresa Palmer and Connie Gates. Roy Medley, “bishop” for American Baptists nationally, was also there.
All three events served to remind me of the Council’s rich history of work for peace and justice and of the many saints who have been and continue to be central to that work.
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