Bridge builder

Stressing friendship across denominations, Rev. Elroy Lewis cuts a different path for Fisher Memorial

Staff WriterMarch 5, 2009 

— At prayer services held every Wednesday during Lent, the crowd in downtown Durham consists of the usual suspects: Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics.

But this gathering includes some surprise arrivals: a smattering of Pentecostals, who don't normally participate in observances surrounding Lent, the 40-day period preceding Easter. Among a cordial group of downtown establishment churches, members of Fisher Memorial United Holy Church take their seats with pride.

While other Pentecostal churches rarely mix with those outside their tradition, Fisher Memorial has cut a different path. Its leader for the past three decades, Bishop Elroy Lewis, has befriended mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy. In addition, one of his best friends is a local rabbi, and the minister sings in a biracial choir with Protestants from a Chapel Hill United Church of Christ congregation.

"Elroy has been as important a bridge builder in Durham as any other clergy we've had," said Rabbi John Friedman of Judea Reform Congregation. "He knows how to say things in such a way that respects your point of view and your humanity."

This past week as the church celebrated its 125th anniversary, a milestone replete with exuberant worship and healings, it also celebrated a unique heritage as a beacon of interfaith understanding and multiracial goodwill. Lewis, 72, who has a modest, soft-spoken demeanor, is an old-fashion kind of minister. As many up-and-coming Pentecostal preachers seek more lucrative radio, TV and publishing deals -- a la Dallas megachurch Pastor T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen, the Houston megachurch star -- Lewis assumes a traditional role: He visits the sick; he comforts the bereaved; he counsels the wayward. Or as he likes to say, "I'm a moving pastor." He doesn't hold regular office hours.

"He's a person you can call anytime," said Maebell Worley, a member of Fisher Memorial for nearly 60 years. "He's always there to give you comforting words."

But in many ways, Lewis' ministry has been radically different from that of most rural Pentecostal ministers. The ninth of 12 children of a Bladenboro couple, Lewis rose from poverty to earn two graduate degrees from Duke Divinity School and a doctorate in ministry at Richmond's Virginia Union University.

Faith leader

He is a leader in his denomination -- the United Holy Church of America, where Fisher Memorial is considered the mother church -- and oversees the work of 39 pastors in the church's Western North Carolina district.

Then there's his role as a champion of interfaith understanding. He didn't set out to be, he says; it evolved.

In 1980, the year he became the church's full-time pastor, Lewis heard that the Ku Klux Klan was planning a rally in downtown Durham. He and two other clergymen -- the Rev. Joseph Harvard of First Presbyterian Church and Rabbi Friedman of Judea Reform -- decided to do something about it.

They held a service on the courthouse steps, encouraging people to avoid the rally. From that experience a friendship was born. All three were new in town and untested in their congregations. Over the years, they supported one another with various programs. Friedman and Lewis started an African American-Jewish dialogue group. Harvard and Lewis set up "truth-telling" sessions on race. The three congregations studied common biblical texts: the story of Abraham and of the Exodus from Egypt.

In 2000, the three clergymen took their congregations on a joint trip to Israel. Lewis called it the trip of the three "P's: Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Pentateuch-keepers," referring to the first five books of the Bible, which for Jews constitutes the Torah.

Friedman and Harvard said they'll never forget the moment Lewis rolled up his trousers, dipped his toes into the Dead Sea and bellowed out the Negro spiritual "Wade in the Water."

Members of the three congregations have stayed in touch over the years, talking on the phone, exchanging e-mail and getting together for dinner.

'Be a good neighbor'

To Lewis, interfaith understanding has become a deeply felt mission.

"Jesus taught that servant ministry is the highest form of ministry," Lewis said. "To me, the height of servanthood is to be a good neighbor."

More recently, members of Fisher Memorial have formed a gospel choir with the mostly white United Church of Chapel Hill. The "United Voices of Praise" has traveled six times to Germany, France and England to sing. Lewis has joined each of these trips, lending his bass voice to the choir.

"You develop a sense of trust with him very quickly," said the Rev. Richard Edens, the co-pastor of the United Church. "People have a sense of a spiritual center in him."

Lewis has two daughters and has been divorced for many years; he said he has no plans to retire. Twenty years ago on one of his first trips to Jerusalem, he said he looked out over the Mount of Olives and noticed thousands of graves covering the hillside -- the ancient Hebrew cemetery, the tomb of the Virgin Mary, far off in the distance, the Al-Aksa mosque.

Then, it occurred to him: "the common ground was the graveyard."

If people could be buried together, he reasoned, surely they can try to live together.

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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