The Rev. Paul Washington, Voice of the Oppressed, Dies

By William R. Macklin and Mark Wagenveld
Inquirer Staff Writers

The Rev. Paul M. Washington, 81, the elegant, energetic Episcopal pastor who became a relentless champion of the oppressed and such a steadfast acolyte of Christian liberalism that one political leader dubbed him "the high priest of the progressive movement," died Monday of heart failure at Lankenau Hospital.

As rector of the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia from 1962 until he accepted emeritus status in 1987, Father Washington was to many the embodiment of that African American pastoral tradition in which the struggle for human rights and social justice is the highest form of ministry.

Mayor Street was one of his admirers. "The passing of Father Paul Washington is sad news for Philadelphia's faith-based community and for the entire community," the mayor said in a statement yesterday. "Father Paul was a devout man of God, a man of strong convictions and a defiant voice against injustice in all its forms. His abiding faith, compassion for his fellow men and women, and profound love for this city will be his lasting legacy."

he Rev. Isaac Miller, who succeeded Father Washington at the Church of the Advocate, said: "Paul, first and foremost, no matter what arena he was operating in, was a priest. He did not function in a way that his identity as a servant of God and a servant of the church was ever confused. Everything he did flowed out of that."

Father Washington once told a reporter that when he entered the ministry, he was "resolved that black people would become what God wanted them to be. So that was my message: 'Stand up! Become what God made you.' "
That message ultimately transcended the African American community and embraced anyone needing a voice, anyone needing a defender, anyone shut outside the halls of power.

With Philadelphia, the nation and the world as his pulpit, Father Washington conferred with Black Panthers in the 1960s and lobbied for domestic-partnership benefits for gay city workers in the 1990s.

He was jailed with homeless protesters and harshly criticized for demanding that Episcopalians pay reparations to the descendants of African American slaves.

He challenged canon law and ancient tradition when he opened the doors of his neo-Gothic, 1,500-seat church at 18th and Diamond Streets to the unprecedented, unauthorized ordination of the Episcopal Church's first women priests in 1974.

As a member of the panel that reviewed the city's 1985 bombing of MOVE headquarters that left 11 people dead and destroyed 61 homes, he was unflinching in his criticism of police tactics and of the conduct of his longtime friend, then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode.

And yet, even Goode remained so admiring of the priest that during a banquet later that year in Father Washington's honor, the former mayor remarked, "If I could be like anyone in the world... I would want to be like you."

Although in later life he endured repeated bouts of ill health, including chronic muscle pain, Father Washington did not rest in retirement. In 1994, he was sent to serve as interim pastor of the historically black Church of the Crucifixion in South Philadelphia, where he had been ordained and married. The church was on the verge of closing. He revitalized the congregation and continued to say Mass and give sermons there until November.

In April, he returned to the Church of the Advocate for the ground-breaking of the Paul and Christine Washington Family and Community Center, to be built adjacent to the church. The center, named for him and his wife, is scheduled to be completed next year. It will house a summer camp and after-school programs for children.

At the ground-breaking ceremony, Father Washington recalled that in 1962 he was asked by the bishop to become pastor of the church: "He said, 'If you decide you don't want to take your family to live in North Philadelphia, I'm going to close it down.' I told him, 'Bishop, we'll go.' "

Father Washington said that his 25 years living in the rectory and being pastor of the church had been "the greatest days that a minister could ever experience."

Lean and bespectacled, commanding but approachable, Father Washington was known as a compelling preacher with a deep, sonorous voice, whose highly refined speaking style encompassed both the thunderous expressions of the best African American preachers and the cool restraint of the Episcopal liturgical tradition.

This was no coincidence.

Paul Matthews Washington was born May 26, 1921, in Charleston, S.C., and was raised a Baptist.

Early on, the shy, raw-boned youth questioned whether he lacked the oratorical flair expected of a Baptist pastor. But he never questioned whether he should enter the ministry.

"I was predestined to be a minister," he once said. "My mother wanted a son very badly, so she got down on her knees and prayed that if she had a son, she would dedicate him to the ministry."

The Episcopal liturgy, with its becalmed pomp, seemed well-suited to the future minister's quiet but determined personality, he once said.
By the time he graduated from Lincoln University and Philadelphia Divinity School, his conversion was complete.

The young deacon became assistant rector of the Church of the Crucifixion at Eighth and Bainbridge Streets. It was 1945 and a measure of the times that an African American deacon in a denomination with only a smattering of black congregants would get his first pastoral experience at a historically black church. Like all African American clergy, he was denied a pastoral internship at Episcopal Hospital.

It was during this period that Father Washington met his future wife.

"I went to her home and said, 'I want you to be my wife,' " he once said, recalling his almost instant attraction. "We had never gone out together, we had never touched. But I thought she would make a good wife. And as I felt she would be a good wife, I think she felt I would be a good husband."

They were married for 54 years until his death. Father Washington was ordained a priest in 1947, continued at Crucifixion for a time, then spent six years teaching at Cuttington College in the West African nation of Liberia.

Familiar with tools for the hands as well as those of the spirit, he also served as head foreman for the construction of college buildings in the bush, and later made repairs and improvements in his church and rectory in North Philadelphia.

"He could do carpentry and plumbing," said his son Michael, who added that his father had learned the skills from his own father, a blacksmith.
Father Washington returned to Philadelphia in 1954 and became vicar of St. Cyprian in Elmwood, and then in 1962, rector of the Church of the Advocate.

From the start, Father Washington said he "wanted the Church of the Advocate to be known as a church of compassion, a church of love, a church that responded to human need."

He soon was absorbed in civil and human rights, serving for seven years on the city's Human Relations Commission, beginning in 1964.

He argued that it was not necessary for people to like one another to resolve racial conflicts.

"If we cannot change the heart, we can at least try to change the situation, and the situation often leads to a change of heart," he said.

During the same period, he developed ties to the national civil-rights movement, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But by the close of the decade, he had also found merit in the germinal "black power" movement, a militant counterpoint to the civil-rights movement.

In 1968, Father Washington and his church hosted the first national Black Power Convention. The gathering drew the leading black activists of the time, including Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, for a peaceful but incendiary meeting that attracted not only national media attention but also probes by the FBI.

It would not be the only time that federal officials would look at the priest's actions.

In 1980, Father Washington, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and eight others defied a U.S. travel ban and attended a conference in Iran. At the time, Iran was holding 53 Americans hostage. On his return, he said the hostages' release could be secured if the United States apologized for past interference in Iranian affairs.

"We had to go to say to the world that in this materialist, imperialist civilization, there is a culture who still cares about humanity," he said in a sermon after his return.

The criticism that followed did not faze him; he had become accustomed to taking heat.

In 1970, with the city awash in racial tension, he opened his doors to the National Convention of the Black Panther Party.

Fears were rife as thousands of activists gathered, all within a short time of a police raid on the local Panthers office that had included public strip searches of party members.

During the conference, Father Washington, ever the pastor, was credited with helping to maintain an overall atmosphere of peace and general goodwill.

He was again at the center of the cyclone in 1974.

That was when, bucking church rules, he agreed to allow the ordination of 11 women to the Episcopal priesthood at his church. The ordinations, carried out by three retired bishops, rocked the Episcopal church, eventually led to a 1977 rule permitting women priests, and helped set the stage for a rancorous conflict between church liberals and conservatives that persists to this day.

Ten years after the ordinations, at an anniversary ceremony held to mark the occasion, Father Washington said the acceptance of women to the ministry was an expression of the completeness of the Christian ideal.

"Today, with women laying their hands upon my head, I feel fully ordained," he said. "Today, it was as though I discovered something I didn't have but did not know I'd missed, and it made me whole."

In 1995, he joined the Million Man March in Washington. But he had little but scorn for another men's movement, the conservative, evangelical Promise Keepers. As a member of a clergy group set up to challenge the fundamentalist men's organization, Father Washington cracked: "Beware of those who adorn themselves in personal piety, because they may be seeking power."
His criticism of Promise Keepers placed him at odds with some other African American religious leaders who support the group's call for stronger male leadership in the home.
Father Washington also went head-to-head against the powerful Black Clergy of Philadelphia, decrying the group's opposition to domestic-partnership protection for gay city workers.
He was often criticized within his own denomination, but never faced formal censure.
And over the years, the city that once had seemed wary of his motives and fearful of his power honored him with numerous commendations, including the Philadelphia Award.

In 1995, he joined the Million Man March in Washington. But he had little but scorn for another men's movement, the conservative, evangelical Promise Keepers. As a member of a clergy group set up to challenge the fundamentalist men's organization, Father Washington cracked: "Beware of those who adorn themselves in personal piety, because they may be seeking power."

His criticism of Promise Keepers placed him at odds with some other African American religious leaders who support the group's call for stronger male leadership in the home

Father Washington also went head-to-head against the powerful Black Clergy of Philadelphia, decrying the group's opposition to domestic-partnership protection for gay city workers.

He was often criticized within his own denomination, but never faced formal censure.

And over the years, the city that once had seemed wary of his motives and fearful of his power honored him with numerous commendations, including the Philadelphia Award.

At a gathering in his honor of more than 1,000 people in 1985, a succession of civic, political and religious leaders spoke of his deeds, celebrated his character, and showered him with honorifics. But perhaps none of the descriptions of the North Philadelphia minister seemed to suit him better or satisfy him more than the one afforded him by then-U.S. Rep. William H. Gray 3d.

Gray called him "the high priest of the progressive movement in Philadelphia."

Father Washington had lived in Strawberry Mansion since moving from the Church of the Advocate rectory. He also had a vacation home in Cape May, N.J.

Father Washington is survived by, in addition to his wife and son, two other sons, Marc and Kemah; a daughter, Donyor; and seven grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Monday at the Church of the Advocate. Burial arrangements are private.

Memorial donations may be made to Church of the Advocate, 18th and Diamond Streets, Philadelphia 19121.

Inquirer staff writer Sally A. Downey contributed to this article.
Reprinted with permission from the Philadelphia Inquirer