“Thinking About Lee Williamson”

When Lee Williamson died suddenly early on the morning of July 29, our local church, the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the city of Hayward, and the larger world community lost a profoundly human being.  When asked what he did for a living, Lee would typically identify himself simply as a preacher, but of course he was much more than that. 
He was a pastor, prophet, protester, and peacemaker extraordinaire, a loving husband and father, and a wise, deeply trusted friend, ally, and confidant.  By living as though the truth of the gospel were really true, Lee gave us the greatest gift imaginable.  His words and witness urged many of us off the beaten path, inspiring us to act our conscience and en-couraging us to be willing to pay the consequences for loving in an often hostile world.  How can we be anything but grateful?

Lee was involved in so many social justice and peacemaking causes with so many different, sometimes overlapping, organizations and memberships that it is impossible to recount them all.  Below find some of those that stand out in my mind.

The anti-nuclear movement and protests at Livermore National Nuclear Weapons Laboratory were formative in setting Lee on his Christian peacemaking journey.  Lee was affiliated with the Livermore Action Group, Mustard Seed Affinity Group, Ecumenical Peace Institute (President from 1990-1997), and the Livermore Conversion Project.

The Central America peace movement also played a big part in Lee’s life, which included participation in the Pledge of Resistance, Nuremberg Actions at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, and the sanctuary movement.  He made a solidarity visit to El Salvador with a labor delegation in 1986, and continued working to close the School of Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, until the time of his death.

Lee was part of the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, traveled with the Haiti Action Committee on a fact-finding mission to Haiti, and in 1989 was a member of a Northern California Ecumenical Council delegation sent to the Philippines to do work related to getting U.S. military bases removed from that country.

Lee was an early member of East Timor Religious Outreach, which was part of an international movement to free the tiny, little known territory now called Timor-Leste from Indonesia’s brutal and illegal military occupation.

In actively protesting the first Persian Gulf War, Lee worked with Interfaith Witness for Peace in the Middle East, and the clergy-based Bay Area Religious Peace Action.  He also did support work for G.I. Resisters.

Lee did advocacy for political prisoners such as Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Puerto Rican prisoners of conscience.

He was a mainstay of the Oakland Homeless Union, and active with Interfaith Witness with Homeless People in San Francisco

Lee was a longtime supporter of the campaign for Affirmative Action.

An advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered liberation movement, in 1999 Lee was one of the Sacramento 68 co-officiants blessing the union of two lesbian leaders in the California-Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church. 
The Conference Reconciling Committee later presented Lee with their Turtle Award (his second), given to people who have stuck their neck out on issues of sexual inclusion.  He was a strong supporter of the lgbt community in Hayward, speaking out for Marriage Equality, working with the Lavender Seniors, and serving as the “token straight member” of the Board of Directors of Gays and Lesbians Organized for Betterment and Equality (GLOBE), receiving their Pryor Conrad Service Award for outstanding service to the lgbt community in 2008.

Lee served the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in several capacities, including being the Board of Church and Society Peace With Justice Coordinator (1988-1996), Refugee and Immigration Concerns Committee Chairperson, Hunger Education and Action Coordinator for the Bay View District, on the Board of Directors of the Retired Clergy Association (2006-2009), and at the time of his death as a member of the Commission on Religion and Race.

Lee received the Methodist Federation for Social Action Bishop Leontine Kelly Peace and Justice Award over a decade ago, and continued to provide leadership for this organization at both the Annual Conference and national levels.

For his numerous efforts on behalf of the marginalized and disenfranchised, Lee was given the City of Hayward Lifetime Award at their Volunteer Recognition dinner in 2004.

Meeting this past June the 2009 California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church honored Lee by presenting him with the Bishop Melvin G. Talbert Award for Racial Justice.  Lee was involved in a lot of controversial issues over the course of his ministry, but this wasn’t one of them.  No one doubted that anyone deserved the award more than Lee.

After his ordination Lee was arrested between 75 - 100 times for engaging in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.  It was a point of honor with Lee not to make too much of the count, as he knew himself saved by God’s grace through faith, rather than by works.  Nevertheless, Lee would have been quick to agree with the biblical author of this week’s lectionary reading from James that “faith without works is dead”.  It was important to watch what Lee did in the street, not just in the pulpit.  Truth be told, the stands Lee took were not always appreciated by the Annual Conference.

Still, Lee’s peace with justice seeking efforts (and I didn’t attempt to list them all) only hint at the depth of his heart and soul.  Lee was loved for who he was, not just for what he did.  His struggles to be faithful to the divine Spirit of God as it is known in Jesus were at the center of his being.  His life and witness were a rare, spiritually invaluable gift offered to us all.  Thank you, Lee.  To echo the man himself, “You done good.  Real good.”

It will be the privilege of Hayward First United Methodist Church to host the Memorial Service for Rev. Lee Williamson on Saturday, September 12, beginning at 11:00 p.m. in the sanctuary.  This service of celebration and thanksgiving for Lee’s life will be informal (Lee didn’t like fancy) and short (Lee didn’t like long).  A potluck reception with open-mike will follow immediately in the backyard of the church.  Carmencita Marks has volunteered to coordinate food (remember Lee’s wife Arlene is a vegetarian), and I have asked our Tongan members to organize the setting up of awnings and the sound system.  Everyone who feels called to do so will have an opportunity to share memories of Lee in the form of stories, reflections, or songs in his honor at the reception.  I’ll see you there.


Blessings and peace,
John Chamberlin