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Civil rights leader: Focus on ‘what really matters’

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery poses with the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, pastor of Munger Place United Methodist Church in Dallas. The civil rights leader preached to the congregation on April 20. UMNS photos by Judy Howard.

By Denise Johnson Stovall*
April 26, 2008 | DALLAS, Texas (UMNS)

Lowery is greeted by Elizabeth Blessing, a longtime member of Munger Place United Methodist Church.

"Too many of us major in the minors."

That’s what the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery told an April 20 Sunday morning congregation at Munger Place United Methodist Church.

He said United Methodists should not be focusing on homosexuality or abortion while thousands are being killed in a war and people are going hungry.

Lowery was in Dallas to accept the Robert O. Cooper Peace and Justice Award from the Human Rights Center at Southern Methodist University. A key leader in the civil rights movement, he cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

His sermon at Munger Place preceded by a few days the opening of the 2008 General Conference in nearby Fort Worth. General Conference, meeting April 23-May 2, is the top legislative gathering of The United Methodist Church. Lowery mentioned the assembly and some of its recurring issues, such as disagreements around sexuality.

"I think General Conference has not focused on the watchwords of our founder, John Wesley, who said, ‘The world is my parish’," said the Atlanta pastor. "I don’t know the answer why people become homosexual. I suspect people were born that way. But we are to love everybody.

"We have lost too many Americans (in the Iraq war)," he continued. "There are too many Americans who have been injured ... millions of Iraqis have been killed, (and) you are worried about someone’s sexuality?

"We have to find out what really matters," said the former president and chief executive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Too many of our people believe that propaganda of looking for weapons of mass destruction. Creating weapons of mass destruction keeps us from focusing on major issues like feeding the hungry and poverty.

"We need to be discerning about the major issues. Abortion -- that’s a minor issue. I’m all for life, but I’m also for freedom of choice. We can’t be the judge of what a woman does with her body. We have too many distractions."

Defends Obama’s pastor

Turning to the 2008 election, Lowery said Americans have too many distractions, such as presidential candidate Sen. Barrack Obama and his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Lowery contends the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago was not being unpatriotic in comments he made about the United States.

"That’s got nothing to do with the election," said Lowery. "It’s got nothing to do with Obama’s vision for the country.

"What’s wrong with Jeremiah Wright’s preaching? He has been preaching like that for years.

Eva McMillan gets a kiss from Lowery before the morning service.

"Prophetic preaching has been around in the black church for years. That’s all I do. The only reason why no one says anything about me is because I don’t have a member who is a presidential candidate.

"I suspect that there wouldn’t be anybody in the church if every member who disagreed with the pastor left the church," said Lowery. People should let love be the "hallmark of their lives," he said.

"We have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that we love this country," Lowery contends. "We are patriotic because we have challenged this nation to be the best it can be. A true patriot is not someone who’ll say, ‘Love it or leave it.’ They will love it and won’t leave it alone," he said with a laugh.

"If we are to assure America’s survival we have to get engaged," he said. "You can’t sit back and watch other folks take up the mantle and not be engaged. We have too few people involved in embracing the moral imperative."

Early desegregation efforts

In the 1950s, Lowery led efforts to desegregate buses and public places in Mobile, Ala., and in 1957, he and King formed the SCLC; Lowery was named vice president.

In 1965, Lowery was serving as pastor of St. Paul Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala., when the SCLC asked him to head a committee to take a list of demands to then-Gov. George Wallace during the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.

"The movement that freed black people freed America," Lowery said. "I am grateful that the civil rights movement grew out of the church. The movement didn’t seek to defeat white people. It was seeking to defeat Satan."

In the 1960s, he moved to Nashville to be the administrative assistant of Methodist Bishop Charles F. Golden. It was a time of lunch counter sit-ins.

Lowery, now 86, said some of the black faculty members of Nashville colleges were critical of the students who protested the whites-only policy of local restaurants. However, after the restaurants were desegregated, the same faculty members were the first to go to them, said Lowery. “They had not been engaged, but they were the first to take advantage of the fruits of (the students’) labor.”

Polluted waters

"African Americans fought the good fight to get us out of the darkness into the light. We thought all we had to do was work hard to get in the mainstream. But once we got there we didn’t realize that the mainstream was polluted."

Lowery became SCLC president in 1977. In addition to serving as pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta, he negotiated covenants with major corporations for employment advances, opportunities and business contracts with minority companies.

He has led peace delegations to the Middle East and Central America, and his efforts to combat injustice and promote equal opportunities led to the 2007 extension of provisions to the Voting Rights Act.

Lowery is the co-founder and former president of the Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of advocacy groups. The forum protested apartheid in South Africa in the mid-1970s and continued until the election of Nelson Mandela.

After serving his community for more than 45 years, Lowery retired as a United Methodist clergyman in 1997. In 1998, he also retired as president and chief executive officer of SCLC.


Lowery has received numerous awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Martin Luther King Center Peace Award and the National Urban League’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award. Ebony Magazine has twice named him one of the 15 greatest Black Preachers.

The Rev. L. Charles Stovall, senior pastor of Munger Place United Methodist Church, said when he learned Lowery was to receive the award at SMU, he immediately invited him to preach at his church. He said the civil and human rights veteran has been a vital part of his development as a socially conscious pastor.

* Stovall is a free-lance writer in Dallas.

News media contact: Linda Green or Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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