By Bishop Peggy Johnson
The gospel song lyrics “Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a weary land, a weary land. Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in the time of storm” is singing in my head as I ponder the life of Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, who passed away March 27 at the age of 98 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Like our Lord, Dr. Lowery was a rock. He was a rock in the weary land of racism and discrimination for decades in this country. Among his many rock-hard accomplishments was heading up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during a time of deep financial stress. He helped birth and lead that pioneering civil rights organization with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and later led it again, back from the brink.
Moreover, when The United Methodist Church was formed from merger and racial desegregation in 1968, Dr. Lowery served as a board member of the newly created General Commission on Religion and Race (1968-1972). He played a pivotal role in working with annual conference merger committees to establish new, racially inclusive conferences. I’m told he was a relentless, effective negotiator, tough as a rock perhaps. But for him, I suspect it always amounted to a labor of love—Christ’s love—for this new church and for all its people.
Anti-racism work—the work we are all called to do in Christ’s name—is difficult and unglamorous work. But Dr. Lowery succeeded because of his conviction about the importance of the mission.
He never wavered on his commitment to racial justice, be it in his church or in his country or worldwide, as he took even stands for those suffering under South Africa’s racist apartheid regime. He put himself in the path of criticism and harm for years, speaking out against bigotry, discrimination and racism. That is how rocks are! They are firm, and they stay the course.
As rock-solid were his convictions, Dr. Lowery had a down-to-earth humility that drew people to his message. Back in 2009, Tindley Temple UMC in Philadelphia hosted the first “Charles Albert Tindley Awards,” and Dr. Lowery was one of the honorees. Though unable to come in person, he received the honor by live-streamed video.
His gracious, approachable spirit was evident to all. That is the “secret sauce” for those who are “rocks in a weary land.” As we remember this giant of the civil rights era, may we commit ourselves to that same mixture of strength, endurance, and compassion.
May we be the fulfillment of Dr. Lowery’s benediction at President Obama’s inauguration, so that, in his colorful words, “Black will not be asked to get in the back, brown can stick around, yellow will be mellow, the red man can get ahead, man, and white will embrace what is right.”
Also, be sure to read Bishops mourn Rev. Lowery, beloved pastor and Dean of Civil Rights Movement, Bishop Woodie White’s fond remembrance of his “mentor, confidant and friend.” He particularly emphasizes Rev. Lowery’s first love: being a United Methodist church pastor.