Newark pastor leaves church with legacy of social justice, community outreach

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on January 01, 2016

Rev. M. William Howard Jr., pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, retired after 15 years. He leaves a legacy of social justice and community outreach.

 

The pictures that filled a wall in his office at Newark's Bethany Baptist Church were already gone by the time he delivered his last Sunday sermon.

Those who visited the Rev. M. William Howard Jr. there saw images of him with many famous figures, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Wyatt Tee Walker, chief of staff for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Howard worked with them all – in the kind of civically-minded life you read about in history books.

He was a civil rights activist, leading voter registration drives in 1961 in his home state of Georgia.  Years later, he went on to do humanitarian work all over the world – in Guatemala, Syria, Iran and South Africa, a country that denied his visas until Mandela was released from prison in 1990.

But on Sunday, congregants stopped by Howard's office to wish their 69-year-old leader well. Some lingered near the sanctuary. "I didn't want to leave the church,'' said Mildred Crump, Newark City Council president. "I just wanted to hang around.''

Howard's official pastoral duties with Bethany ended just hours ago, during the church's New Year's Eve Watch Night Service. The observance, in part, pays homage to slaves and free blacks, who gathered in churches and homes at midnight to celebrate the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Since his arrival in 2000, Howard and the congregation have enjoyed a spiritual and intimate fellowship, wrapped around social justice issues and community outreach.

"I feel I have given what I came to bring to Bethany,'' said Howard, who was the church's 12th pastor. "This is the hardest job that I ever had to lead. I couldn't achieve one thing without the commitment of the lay people who shared the vision.''

Together, Howard and the church's 700 members covered a lot of ground on a sojourn that reconnected Bethany to Newark. His ministry touched thousands from the circular-shaped church he led on Market Street.

Richard Roper, chairman of the deacon board, said Howard showed the congregation what it meant to be Christians, who have a responsibility to address social conditions in the community.

For instance, Bethany was involved in New Jersey drug and bail reform. The church also hosted the Fugitive Safe Surrender program, allowing more than 4,000 people facing arrest warrants for nonviolent crimes to turn themselves in. For young offenders, Bethany started Uth Turn, a program that helped them straighten out their lives.

"He had the ability to touch us spiritually and help us open our eyes in the areas of social justice,'' Roper said.

There's so much they did together. The church's University Heights Charter School is flourishing, so is its literacy program for adults. Howard, a former chairman of the Rutgers Board of Governors, also was chair of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission. His work in this area helped to lead to the abolition of the death penalty.

Inside the church, Bethany ordained women to the diaconate, a board of deaconesses. On the first Saturday of each month, Howard was responsible for the start of Jazz Vespers, a popular worship service that illustrates how the genre is connected to the black church. 

Howard and Bethany seemed destined to meet, even though their paths were different. He had a national and international profile of ecumenical service that included diplomacy missions to Syria and Iran in the 1970s and 1980s. He held Christmas services for American hostages in Tehran, Iran, in 1979 and traveled with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Syria in 1984 to negotiate the release of a captured U.S. Navy pilot.

A graduate of Morehouse College and the Princeton Theological Seminary, Howard was president of the New York Theological Seminary for eight years. He presided over the National Council of Churches and was executive director of the African-American Council in the Reformed Church of America for 20 years.

"He's been operating at the highest level over the course of his life,'' said Larry Hamm, chairman of the People's Organization for Progress, a grass-roots group in Newark.  "People don't know. They just think, Bill Howard, Bethany, nice guy.''

But something was missing for Howard before he came to Bethany.

"I had been at national organizations, I been at a theological seminary, but I had not been ingrained in the every day life of people and their struggle," Howard said.

Though he knew of the worldwide struggle for human rights, working with the World Council of Churches' program to Combat Racism, and he was also president of the board of directors for the American Committee on Africa, Howard said: "Getting into the weeds of human life is richer than all of that.''

He got his chance when Bethany had an opening. At the time, the church was doing missionary work overseas, which some members said caused them to lose touch with the Newark community.

Howard and Bethany were a natural fit. They needed each other.

With that, he came to Newark with his wife, Barbara. Married 45 years, they have three adult children – two sons and a daughter – and a 6-year-old granddaughter.

"He's been good spouse, a good father, a good community person. I'm blessed,'' Barbara Howard said.

The church will miss him for his spiritual stewardship and humility, his timely humor and the common-sense wisdom he learned from his grandmother, Minnie Howard, who raised him in Americus, Ga.

"Buy what you need before you buy what you want,'' Howard recalled her saying.

A dapper gentleman, known for his stylish bow ties, Howard used her philosophy to make points during sermons. Among his many attributes, including scholarship, church member Bill Lee said Howard had no problems relating to people.

You could be a world leader, a Newark parent struggling to keep the lights on, or 10-year-old Malcolm Hayes, who said goodbye to Howard on Sunday.

It's time for new leadership and Howard knows it. The church has narrowed its search to one candidate, who should be announced soon.

Until then, where did 15 years go?

"A voice came to me and said 'Bill Howard, you've done what you came to do,' '' Howard said.

He sure did. And now he can see what it's like to be just Bill.

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