Religion

Faith and activism go hand in hand

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CORRECTION

Sunday's Tar Heel of the Week gave the incorrect name of the church the Rev. Tom Law attends. It is St. Paul's Christian Church in Raleigh, where he was named minister emeritus in May.

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Tom Law was always a hands-on kind of minister. In the 1970s, he had a hand in launching a wide range of social aid programs to provide shelter to Wake County's homeless, food for its hungry and warmth for its residents in winter.

Long retired from St. Paul's Christian Church, he still has his fingers in the pastoral pie. And in the day-old cake, and yesterday's bake-shop brownies, all of which he preps and serves every Friday at the Shepherd's Table Soup Kitchen downtown.

"To have faith is to do something," Law said. "Not to sit but to do things with others you would never be able to do alone."

It takes 15 to 20 volunteers to cook, serve and clean up after the 300 people who come to Shepherd's Table on Fridays for the only complete, hot meal some of them will have all day. Law is one of the first volunteers to arrive in the morning.

"He's the rock of the whole group," said Lura Stoner, team leader for the Friday crew.

Stoner met Law before he volunteered at the soup kitchen. Back then, his favorite volunteer activity was driving a delivery truck for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, picking up donations from grocery stores and coffee shops and redistributing the food to people who could use it.

Law loved the work, which he shared with a friend, the late Dick Hanley. He remembers one day when the shuttle became the beneficiary of a huge mistake at Krispy Kreme: 500 extra boxes of glazed doughnuts.

Law and Hanley drove around all day in distressed neighborhoods, stopping and giving the sweets away.

"It was wild and good, and God, I miss it," Law said of his days behind the wheel. He quit only because his left knee could no longer stand climbing in and out of the truck 50 times a day.

Law came to Raleigh when his knees were strong. He was a young preacher with a family and a new job at a growing church.

A native of Rocky Mount, Va., Law went to college at William & Mary, where he studied political science. His initial plans were to teach or go into politics.

But after he graduated in 1959, he got a Rockefeller Brothers Theological Fellowship, one of many programs launched in the 1950s to draw promising college students into seminary. It took him and his new wife, Gay, also a William & Mary grad, to Yale Divinity School.

He stayed three years, then pastored churches in Indianapolis and Greenville, N.C., before coming to St. Luke's 42 years ago.

He was a gifted preacher, says Cheryl Fairchild, a charter member of the church. He's a voracious reader, so his sermons were current, but he could also recite from memory a library of poems, from the classic to the obscure.

"He could preach as if he were talking to you, not above you," she said. "He was always very caring and he believed that everyone was given certain gifts from God and it was our privilege to share the gifts. One of his gifts was to be able to declare his faith."

Fairchild spent time with Law when he wasn't in the pulpit, playing tennis doubles with him and others, and working in St. Luke's restaurant at the N.C. State Fair each year. Law always got to the temporary diner at dawn and stayed through the afternoon, Fairchild said, working the kitchen and the crowd with equal enthusiasm.

"The people who came into the booth -- we didn't just focus on feeding their bodies, we tried to make them feel welcome," Fairchild said. "We also tried to minister to some of the workers at the fair. Some people would come in and maybe they didn't really have a friend to talk to. There are some lonely people amidst the crowds on the midway, and there's some hungry people. Tom would always talk to them, and he'd provide a way for them to have a meal."

Across Wake County are programs that evolved from ones that Law, fellow clergymen and social-minded friends started in the 1970s in response to basic needs they saw at the time. They helped get coal to the poor, set up a medical clinic for those who couldn't otherwise afford a doctor, organized the local Crop Walk for hunger relief, helped with the food bank and established shelters for the homeless.

"It was a heady time," Law recalls.

Law had chances to move to bigger churches within the Disciples of Christ denomination but says he figured he'd never have it any better than he did at St. Luke's.

"They finally had to shove me out," he says of his 1997 retirement.

He's now a member of the congregation and the leader of a weekly Bible study that he teaches with no notes, just decades of experience.

Hands-on experience.

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