by T. LaShaun Wallace, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
After 25 years of leading the congregation at New Sardis Baptist Church, Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray, Jr., will retire next month, culminating an illustrious run at the historic church.
“You followed and supported me in civic, political and international issues that affected the last, least and the lost,” said Gray in a farewell letter to his congregation.
“Together, we fought and won against the ‘unbeatable.’ Together we accomplished the ‘unexpected,’ and with God’s grace and mercy, we did what many thought was ‘impossible.’”
Gray has been instrumental in growing New Sardis, increasing its membership by 2,000 since his start as the pastor. He was called to the ministry in 1966 while attending Lane College in Jackson and accepted his calling to preach eight years later at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Jago, Miss. His ministerial career has also included St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Millington.
He’s been a civil rights force in Memphis and Tennessee, previously serving as the president of the Memphis satellite of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, as the health coordinator of the Memphis affiliate of the Conference of National Black Churches, and serving on the Tennessee Human Rights Commission under three governors.
Perhaps that is what Memphians will recall most of Gray: his activism.
In 1990, Gray led a group of civil rights activists to file a federal lawsuit challenging the run-off provision in Memphis elections. Judge Jerome Turner ruled the provision violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act and that led to the historic election of 1991, when Dr. Willie W. Herenton became the first African American elected to serve as mayor.
Not all church congregations are supported of their spiritual leaders extending into political and civic arenas and Gray alluded to that in his farewell letter.
“You have given me your strong and exceptional support as we worked in priestly and prophetic ministry,” Gray wrote. “You never tied me (preaching only) to our pulpit.”
Gray’s accomplishments over 43 years of pastoral ministry have not gone unnoticed in Memphis.
In 1999, a 2.5-mile stretch of Holmes Road was renamed the Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray, Jr. Road by the Shelby County Commission. In February, the University of Memphis honored Gray with its Authur S. Holmon Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize his efforts as a Memphis civil rights activist.
“On one hand, it saddens me to say, ‘goodbye,’” said Gray in his letter. “On the other hand, I am so happy and excited to see what God will do with me in my ‘golden years.’”
Gray will preach his final sermon Jan. 7. The Rev. Darrell Harrington will succeed Gray as pastor of New Sardis, a church formed in 1874 by former slaves.
Local and national officials are expected to attend the service, including Dr. Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. According to a media release about the service, Steele will make “a major announcement that might impact the direction of Dr. Gray’s future.”