Frederick B. Williams, 66, Bold Moral Voice in Harlem, Dies
By Douglas Martin, New York Times, April 8, 2006
Canon Frederick B. Williams, whose ministry of a historic Episcopal church extended to the pressing needs of its Harlem neighborhood, and who spoke eloquently to national and international issues, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 66.
A statement from his church, the Church of the Intercession at Broadway and 155th Street, said he died of a heart attack.
Canon Williams was born and educated in the South, then found his way to one of New York City's most celebrated churches, a superb example of neo-Gothic architecture that until 1976 was a chapel of Trinity Church on Wall Street. It occupies a central place in Harlem life. Among its members are former Mayor David N. Dinkins and his wife, Joyce.From his arrival in 1971, Canon Williams whose preaching ranged from proper Episcopalian to old-fashioned Gospel, but whose wisecracks were pure New York faced stark challenges. Notwithstanding its sturdy 850-pound English-cast bell, the church was eroding right along with its neighborhood.
Starting with roof gutters, he struggled for decades to keep the place physically together and seemed, finally, to be winning the battle. Membership doubled to more than 1,000, and some 6,000 now pass through the church each week, many for services he instituted, like an AIDS ministry.
He was a founder and chairman of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, an interfaith consortium of more than 90 congregations that has developed more than 1,900 housing units and 40 commercial spaces, including one of Harlem's first large supermarkets.
Dr. Williams made Intercession the first home of the Boys Choir of Harlem, and led the renovation of Jackie Robinson Park at 145th Street and Bradhurst Avenue. When St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center planned to move its 42 maternity beds in Harlem downtown in 1990, he led a successful campaign to keep them.
"He enjoyed a good fight," Kathryn Clinkscales, the church's office manager, said in an interview yesterday. "Don't tell him though, because he didn't believe in it."
He demonstrated his early eagerness to address AIDS in 1985 when he invited 50 black religious leaders to a conference on the subject and only 15 came.
"It was a time when nobody wanted to talk about AIDS," Canon Williams said in a 1991 interview. "People didn't want to be identified with the crisis. It was seen as God's retribution for bad behavior on the part of drug abusers. And it was seen primarily as a white problem, a white gay men's problem."
By 1993, he observed that black clergy members were stepping up to the challenge.
"What has changed is that all of us know, or will know in the next 12 months, someone who has died of AIDS," he said.
Canon Williams was never shy about offering his opinion. When Mayor Dinkins marched with gays and lesbians in the 1991 St. Patrick's Day Parade, he said that as his pastor he applauded him. When blacks were outraged in 1994 that a black youth, Lemrick Nelson Jr., was being tried in federal court for violating the civil rights of Yankel Rosenbaum by killing him, Canon Williams set up a legal defense fund for Mr. Nelson. The pastor pointed out that he had already been found not guilty of murder in state court.
"There is almost a blood lust in the air," he said to The Times. "This is a legal lynching."
The minister even became a booster of having the Olympics in New York, likening them to the festive visit of Nelson Mandela. William C. Rhoden, a Times sports columnist who is on the church's board of vestry, asked who would foot the considerable bill.
"Without blinking, he answered: 'Jesus said that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,'" Mr. Rhoden wrote.
Frederick Boyd Williams was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., on April 23, 1939, and entered Morehouse College at 15. After graduating, he earned another bachelor's degree from the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church. He received a doctorate from Colgate Rochester Divinity School. He was a parish priest in Washington, D.C., and Inkster, Mich., before coming to New York.
Canon Williams, who is survived by a godson and several cousins, served on the Rockefeller Foundation's board and was named by Queen Elizabeth II to the Most Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem, a knightly order that does not confer the title "sir."
Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was a close friend and sometimes officiated at Intercession. Canon Williams was named honorary canon of the cathedral in Gaborone, Botswana, for his support of African liberation movements.
During Christmas seasons, he presided over a candlelight carol service honoring Clement Clarke Moore, who is buried in the cemetery across Broadway and, as recent scholarship attests, may or may not have written "A Visit from St. Nicholas."
When Canon Williams read the story aloud, there was a twinkle in his eye.