The Rev. Edwin R. (Doc) Edmonds with his granddaughter, Kaji Spellman, in his New Haven, Conn., home. Ron Buford photo.
A feature about models of faith in the United Church of Christ
The Rev. Edwin R. (Doc) Edmonds speaks of the early civil rights work of the United Church of Christ with the passionate energy of a long distance runner. While his hands tremble due to Parkinson's disease, his grasp of details remains firm. Though visually impaired, his eyes remain fixed on winning the race. At 86, Doc Edmonds is the picture of regal agility in Christ.
Edmonds' grandfather was emancipated from slavery at age 6 and ran away at 12 to be a cowboy. A son of his white slave owner, his grandfather taught himself to read, write and became a Methodist minister.
"My grandfather cultivated a great respect for humanity," says Edmonds. "Even though he could not vote, he believed in the strength of political expression in a democracy."
Edmonds continued his grandfather's legacy of striving for education and working to make a difference in society.
"My grandfather did it to me," says Edmonds. "He was an activist social justice Methodist preacher, a real spitfire."
Despite visual impairment since age 19, Edmonds got through Morehouse College and Boston University School of Theology, while raising a growing family with his wife, the late Maye Bailey Edmonds. They passed the family educational legacy on to their four daughters: Lynette Johnson, Ph.D., a physics professor; Karen Spellman, a university events planner; Cheryl Edmonds MD, a pediatrician; and Toni Walker, a Connecticut state legislator and educator. Their granddaughter, Kaji Spellman, recently was accepted at Yale Divinity School.
Seminary changed his life
His Boston University studies with the Revs. Walter George Muelder and L. Harold De Wolf, among others, would change Edmonds' life. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., studying with the same professors three years later, credited the experience with giving him "grounding for the idea of a personal God ... for the dignity and worth of all human personality." Edmonds says: "It gave expression to my radicalism."
Also at Boston University, Edmonds and Charles Cobb would meet. There they began a friendship that would last a lifetime. They would be partners in many social justice causes.
God's call to social justice can require courage and make it difficult to keep your job. The president of Delaware State, for example, fired Edmonds as Dean of Students when he sided with a student protest against dumping chickens with Newcastle's Disease into the school's food service. When Edmonds called for help, Cobb and the Rev. William Edge responded. Together they uncovered corruption in the administration. Delaware State's board dismissed the president and re-hired Edmonds, as part of a troika of professors serving as interim president.
Later, Edmonds served at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. When he became president of the local NAACP chapter, the Klan targeted his family with cross burnings, nasty letters and telephone harassment. His civil rights work caused him to lose a part-time job funded by the Wesley Foundation at another university.
Increasing financial hardship and unrelenting persecution prompted his wife to telephone Charles Cobb for help. A pastoral search committee from the historic Dixwell Avenue Church in New Haven, Conn., was meeting at Cobb's home at that very moment. Cobb yelled to the committee in the other room, "I've got the man you want on the phone, but I don't think you can talk him into it."
God's call became clear
Becoming a pastor was not part of Edmonds' plan. "The Lord gets you from strange angles," says Edmonds. God's call became clear, however, and Edmonds became pastor of the Dixwell Avenue Church on Feb. 1, 1959 and remained there until 1995. Under his leadership, the church worked to make a difference in New Haven, developing several non-profit corporation models, among them Dixwell Preschool and Day Care Center, Dixwell Children's Creative Arts Center, Dixwell Housing Development Corporation, and Ecumenical Minority Empowerment Corporation.
Edmonds also worked on national issues. In 1963, he stood behind King at the Lincoln Memorial as King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He worked with King on the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1969, Edmonds, Cobb and the Rev. Al Clague were key strategists, bringing civil rights demands into the UCC's General Synod.
The Rev. Robert Moss, UCC president, and the delegates listened intently to demands that a black person run for president of the denomination. "Bob Moss was such a great guy," says Edmonds. "We fell in love with him right away. We realized that we could work with him to address our core concerns and withdrew our demand."
Together they worked to make the UCC "the first denomination to establish a non-paternal relationship with its African-American members," says Edmonds. "The UCC was the first predominantly white, mainline denomination to set aside a significant budget, empowering its African-American members with the financial and institutional power to bring about meaningful denominational change on matters of race."
Looking back, Edmonds says, "I am proud of the impact of the church on social order in the name of Jesus Christ. I never cease to be amazed at the opportunities to make a difference."
Lifelong scholar and teacher
Upon retirement, Edmonds joined Church of the Redeemer UCC in New Haven. His new pastor, the Rev. Lillian F. Daniel, remembers one of her first encounters with Edmonds in 1996 at Yale.
"We got arrested together for civil disobedience in support of Yale workers," said Daniel. "The police did not want to arrest him because of his age. Dr. Edmonds became furious and demanded that he be arrested like everyone else."
"Doc is a lifelong scholar and teacher. He's always reading to learn," says Daniel. "He also picks things he thinks will also be of interest to those who volunteer to read for him. He interrupts and interjects his opinions. Reading with Dr. Edmonds is a conversation."
He is currently reading "W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868- 1919" by David Levering Lewis, "American Colonies (A Penguin History of the United States)" by Alan Taylor, and "A People's History of the United States: 1492-present" by Howard Zinn.
According to Edmonds, worshiping at Church of the Redeemer, an Open and Affirming congregation that welcomes persons of all sexual orientations into membership and leadership, also is a conversation.
"God reaches out to all people and has the capacity to love that transcends divisive forces that make us different," says Edmonds. "It is wrong to exclude and to deny full participation to anyone on the basis of sexual expression. Church of the Redeemer treats everyone as a precious gift of God. I've learned that such richness can flow from acceptance."
Ron Buford is Public Relations and Marketing Manager for the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry.