Dear Beloved Members of The United Methodist Church in the West,

I join the country in mourning United Methodist pastor and civil rights leader Rev. James M.  Lawson Jr., who passed away on Sunday, June 9, at the age of 95.

Lawson was a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement and led the Nashville Sit-Ins, the Freedom Rides, and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in the 1960s. Lawson collaborated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during this work. King said that Lawson was the leading theorist and strategist of non-violence in the world.

In 1974, Lawson moved to Los Angeles and became pastor at Holman United Methodist Church, where he led until his retirement in 1999. He continued in community engagement after retiring, advocating for civil rights for all, teaching nonviolence workshops at Holman UMC, and even picketing at Los Angeles City Hall at the age of 93. In recognition of his lifetime of activism, Lawson was honored throughout his life, including receiving a UCLA Medal and induction into the California Hall of Fame. The city of Los Angeles celebrated both “Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. Day” on September 22, 2023, and the dedication of “Rev. James M. Lawson Mile” on a portion of Adams Boulevard in the city on January 11, 2024.

Rev. Sandra Olewine, who served as an Associate Pastor at Holman UMC under Rev. Lawson’s leadership, wrote, “When we consider the life force of James M. Lawson, Jr., someone who significantly altered the path of a nation and who, till his last breath, encouraged people to grow up into their best God-given selves and challenged us as people of faith to face the entrenched power of plantation politics and economics in America, awe can overtake us, causing us to believe we cannot do likewise. Yet, Rev. Lawson was not overly impressed with himself. He embodied the slogan developed for the sanitation strike in Memphis he coordinated, “I Am a Man.” Yes, he led from the front, holding a vision before us of the beloved community that was possible when dignity, compassion, justice, and peace are given space to grow. His prophetic witness and actions inspired again and again. But he never got lost in a sense of personal grandeur. He saw himself simply as a disciple, a Jesus-follower, offering what he had to the work we are all called to. Rev. Lawson always looked for the gifts others brought to the struggle, teaching and supporting those who walked the road with him as co-workers on the way. I will be forever grateful for being one of those whom he never stopped mentoring.”

In a joint letter to the Holman UMC community, Rev. Christian Washington, Interim Pastor at Holman UMC, and Rev. Victor Cyrus-Franklin Jr., Lead Pastor at Inglewood UMC and incoming Senior Pastor at Holman UMC, shared that “Reverend Lawson’s extraordinary life touched and inspired innumerable souls. Having led our congregation for more than 25 years, his guidance and unwavering dedication have deeply influenced our community and the world. His teachings on nonviolent resistance and his tireless advocacy for social justice will forever resonate within us.”

Cyrus-Franklin further said “He was a mentor to me as he was a mentor to many. He really saw it as a part of his calling and a part of his ministry to guide us in living our gifts and our call in the way of Jesus. In the many conversations I had with him, all he ever saw himself as, and all he ever wanted to be, was a pastor. Whether it was counseling a family, or leading a demonstration in the public square, all of that was ministry to him. It was about helping others to mature and grow in spirit so that we might all live life more abundantly.”

I join the community and Rev. Lawson’s family, Dorothy, John and Cima, Morris, their three grandchildren, and his brother, the Rev. Phil Lawson, in remembering this great man. We in the California-Pacific Annual Conference are so grateful that God sent him our way. I pray for all who loved him and were influenced by him.

I also find reassurance and joy that he is with God, whose love he shared throughout his life’s work.

Vaya con Díos Reverend Lawson.

Bishop Dottie Escobedo-Frank
President, Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops
Resident Bishop of the Los Angeles Area

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