by Soren Dayton
I am here to introduce you to another Holy Troublemaker: George W. Hill, pastor of Calvary from 1971 to 1986. Like Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, he often took the hard road to which he was called.
Hill came to prominence in Baptist life in 1964. He was the senior pastor of Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York. That year, Rochester was wracked by race riots. Recognizing that one of the root causes of the riots was a lack of African American political representation, he organized Baptist pastors to invite and support community organizers to work with the African-American community. They succeeded, but at a cost to many of the pastors. Hill later told the Los Angeles Times:
“All hell broke loose over our heads for the audacity of trying to organize the blacks. Eleven of our Baptist pastors were forced out of their churches…. If I had it to do over again, I’d do the same things. Blacks were able to enter the mainstream. They were elected to public office.”
Let me repeat: he led Baptist pastors to follow a path that led to the firing of 11 pastors. One can imagine that he was probably subject to some pressure himself. But he did it, was proud of it, and would do it again. This is a man who did what was right instead of what was easy.
He did this again in 1971 when he was called to Calvary. It is important to realize that in 1971, Calvary was widely seen to be in decline. At Calvary, the recent history of our church describes Hill as wanting to expand the mission of Calvary as beyond merely “maintaining membership.” The neighborhood around the church was in very bad shape. Many urban, primarily white churches, fled to the suburbs. Calvary did not. Hill saw Calvary not as a church in decline but an opportunity for mission. The year before he retired from Calvary, the city threatened to tax churches that spent “too much” of their resources on things other than worship, he told the Washington Post, “Ridiculous. … You’re really rewarding for coming together for nothing but songs and prayer. … We put 20 times as much effort and resources into our community programs as we do the worship services.”
What all did he do here? He hired Calvary’s first African-American pastor, Tyrone Pitts, in 1974 to lead up Missions. He lead and offered support to a number of Cooperative and interfaith initiatives to combat hunger in the city. Calvary fed Thanksgiving dinners to people in the neighborhood. In 1985, the 12th year that Calvary did this, Hill told the Post that Calvary’s example had led so many other churches to participate that Calvary served 100 fewer meals. Not for a lack of need, but for so many following Calvary’s model of service. He created the Calvary Women’s Shelter to serve homeless women. At the time, he explained the need simply to the Washington Afro-American as “men in the community can at least find shelter over their heads … many of the women are stranded in the street.” An activist for the homeless told the paper that churches had a “poor response” to the idea of opening shelters due to “ignorance and fear” about the homeless. Calvary, under Hill’s leadership, put these women in our Sunday School classrooms.
Hill retired from Calvary just before his 70th birthday, but he didn’t slow down. He led the National Peace Academy campaign that led to the creation of the US Institute for Peace in 1983, whose new building is almost complete on 23rd and Constitution across from the Lincoln Memorial. At the age of 72, he drove an 10-wheel, 11-ton, truck 4,000 miles to Nicaragua to deliver supplies to people dislocated by the civil war there and to deliver a political message to people in the United States. He was called to serve as interim pastor of the Riverside Church for a year to save it from “financial disaster”, as he described it to the New York Times. After one year, he left Riverside with sustainable finances so that it could continue its mission.
Throughout his long life, Hill took the hard path of serving others over easy paths that might have brought him a simpler, more prestigious and less controversial life. He life is a model for us all. And the values that he lived have been embodied in this church and embedded in our programs. We are thankful for having the opportunity to live the values of the Holy Troublemaker Rev. George Hill.
Next week (8/15): Laura Hughes