Rev. Lewis Stewart still hears the call

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Rev. Lewis Stewart has been the voice of the United Christian Leadership Ministry since its inception in 2013.
(Photos by Jackie McGriff, Jackie Photography)

If not for the Rev. Lewis Stewart, Darryl Epps believes he would still be incarcerated. Epps, a former inmate of Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, credits Stewart for guiding him toward a compassionate, brighter future.

Epps was sent to prison for second-degree murder in 2000 along with his brother, Darnell, who was with him at the time of the crime. The Epps brothers faced 17 and a half years to life behind bars. They never expected to get out of prison. For the young men, getting assigned to Five Points—a double-bunk, maximum-security facility where most inmates wanted a transfer out—was a terrifying prospect.

Stewart, president of the United Christian Leadership Ministry of Western New York, was Five Points chaplain at the time. He worked with the Epps brothers, encouraging them to focus on academics and build a foundation in spirituality. The brothers applied to the Cornell Prison Education Program, and Darryl Epps eventually graduated from CUNY’s College of Staten Island with his son, who was born while he was in prison. Darnell Epps is currently enrolled at Yale University’s School of Law.

“At that time, less than 1 percent of individuals convicted with a violent felony were released on parole, let alone their first parole board,” says Epps, who was paroled in 2017. “But Rev. Stewart was a beacon of light and a man of integrity. And that’s what he always spoke about, the importance of having integrity, doing what is right, even when other people don’t see, because God is always watching, and he made sure that our faith was our foundation. He began to work with us in ways that addressed childhood trauma and situations that led to our incarceration.”

He adds: “I call him my father. He saw something in us.”

Epps’ story is not uncommon. Many people of all races in Rochester and beyond have been touched by Stewart’s work. In recent years, Stewart, 75, has been the voice of UCLM, an ecumenical coalition of religious and civic institutions formed in 2013 to build a movement for justice and community transformation. A nonprofit, UCLM has more than 150 members that fund its initiatives. It operates on a small, undisclosed budget.

The group has been on the go since its inception. It has submitted proposals for law enforcement reform, suggested establishing a community public safety corps, and worked to address judicial bias on the bench. These causes have won Stewart friends and foes, love and anger, over the years. His position on policing, for example, has not earned him stripes with the local Black Lives Matter movement. UCLM opposes abolishing or defunding the police. Instead, it proposes a well-trained, culturally conscious, and diverse police force. 

A sense of justice grounded in spirituality guides Stewart, who has faced racism and other trials and tribulations himself. Those events, which may have turned many away, push him forward.

“I often wonder, well, here I am. I’m 75 years old, 75,” Stewart says with a chuckle. “And yet, it’s like I’m still that person of 17 or 18 years old in my mind, still fighting for justice, still fighting for liberation, still believing that God is with me … not willing to give up and let go, because I’m not willing to do that. I’m not going anywhere, you see, until the Lord calls me to go home.”

A life of service

Stewart comes from a family of ministers—roughly a dozen. Born in 1946, Stewart graduated from Newburgh Free Academy and lived in a city where riots and violence were commonplace. Though he was a shy as a child—a far cry from the outspoken man he is today—he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and participated in protests for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. Like countless others, he was fearful when he registered for the draft, but a student deferment kept him from serving overseas.

He worked his way through college washing dishes and remained an active student at Orange County Community College. He ran for student senate and won. Though he wasn’t outgoing, Stewart says his neighborhood—where fistfights broke out often—taught him to stand up for himself. Stewart majored in political science and history—the ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians captivated his interest. 

“There were no Black history courses. They had Asian history, other types of history, but not Black history,” he says. “And so, we started advocating for Black history and we got a course in Black history.”

Stewart accepted his call to ministry as a young man. However, he was looking for a marriage between ministry and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the civil rights movement. He felt heard and seen in theologian’s James Cone’s work. The author of “Black Theology and Black Power,” Cone proposed that Black Power was liberation, Blacks asserting their humanity. Cone suggested that theology is tied to historical context, arguing that in its best form religion offers communities, amid humiliation and suffering, a better understanding of God. Cone’s seminal work resonated with Stewart, who also saw liberation as the essence of divine activity, where God is the God of all peoples.

“When you look at the civil rights movement from my perspective, it was a very small percentage of churches that were involved,” Stewart says. “The rest were people from the community who were sick and tired of being oppressed.”

By then, Stewart had transferred to SUNY College of Brockport, where he served as the first Black president of the student government and chairperson of the Black Student Liberation Front, a Black student group at the college. He was among those pushing for a Black studies curriculum. He followed his undergraduate degree by earning a master of divinity degree at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School—an experience that would continue to illuminate his path and understanding of social justice and religion.

“For the first time in my life, I see all these Black professors,” Stewart recalls. “It began to shape my perspective, my ideology of the world in which I live.”

Viewing the Bible as God’s story of deliverance and redemption has kept him going, he says, giving him the fortitude to carry on. After his time at Colgate, Stewart worked at the Catholic Family Center as a caseworker, helping clients with quality-of-life issues and counseling. He balanced family life and pursued studies in social work at Syracuse University.

Given his interests and background, Stewart is often labeled as a community activist. He is quick to say he is a liberationist.

“This is based upon my theological and philosophical worldview; my study of the Bible, Black liberation theology, Latin American liberation theology, the spiritual development and reflection on world systems of oppression and ‘praxis,’” Stewart says.

Offering freedom behind bars

He stepped into a world of oppression and racism when he accepted a role as the Protestant chaplain at the Groveland Correctional Facility, a medium security site. A full-time job, he held three services every Sunday, counseling inmates and offering them solace. Before he got there, the prison had only a white state trooper who prayed with mostly white inmates.

“You had all these white folks (at services), but Black people began to come in because they saw a Black pastor there,” Stewart recalls. “But at the same time, the white attendance began to diminish. And as the white attendance diminished, the Black attendance increased.”

Racism was so pervasive, a number of white Protestant inmates who normally stayed away from Catholic churches began to flock at Catholic masses to avoid Stewart’s service. It gave Stewart a glimpse of the existence of institutional racism within religion. He stayed on, however, for roughly five years until his mother’s death left him despondent.

Stewart, who commuted to Groveland in Mt. Morris, then found a job in Rochester at Main Quest Treatment Center, where he assisted the inpatient alcoholism rehab unit with individual and group counseling for several years. He also tried his hand at politics, running for state Senate against Rick Dollinger. In the middle of his campaign, Stewart was hit with another family loss. This time it was his father. After that, Stewart worked for Monroe County and was known for his efforts in the 1990s with vigils to bring attention to gun violence.

Prison work beckoned again, however. This time it would be a decade-long tenure at Five Points—a chapter of learning.

“People don’t understand that inmates in prison, they suffer,” says Stewart. “They suffer psychologically and also the guards can be very nasty, hateful and racist.”

“I think the messages of hope are about to make a bigger comeback in this darkness that we’re living in, and truly times are dark, times are dark. … People are looking for inspiration,” Rev. Lewis Stewart says.

When he first arrived, the prison guards assumed he was an inmate. 

“You’re walking on the campus, and a guard will stop you and ask you for your ID, and you have to tell them, ‘I don’t need an ID man, I work here,’” Stewart says.

Epps says Stewart dealt with many racist acts like being thrown against the wall, searched, and questioned if he was an inmate even though Stewart was dressed in a suit and tie. Yet, he says, Stewart dealt with these incidents with grace and forgiveness, which spoke volumes to the inmates who witnessed at least one such event.

“That act of grace and forgiveness was something that also made an indelible imprint in our lives, because you all see this injustice,” Epps says. “And it also helped us understand that he did not consider himself any different from us just because he went home at the end of the day after 9 to 5, (that) he identified with us and whether it was white, Black or Hispanic. Everybody felt that (incident). Everybody was shocked by that, and a lot of people were angered. But his leadership helped us deal with this situation in a more understanding and forgiving way … as opposed to acting out.”

Inmates of various races and religious denominations joined Stewart’s congregation at Five Points. 

“I think people loved my message and the message was what I got from Jesse Jackson: ‘You are somebody … you maybe poor, but you are somebody. You are God’s child, don’t let anyone take that from you,’” says Stewart, adding that he grew with his congregation. “I preached that and that brought more and more men.”

Holidays were celebrated with “real mashed potato and chicken,” Epps says, bought through contributions by congregants. Stewart’s unprejudiced approach enabled inmates, whom Stewart calls brothers, to belong to a unified, biblically centered community. 

“For me it was, it was really doing ministry. Like Jesus said, to open the eyes of the blind, to heal those who are sick, to release the captives,” Stewart says. “And the releasing of the captives may not necessarily be something where they are released from the actual prison but released from the prison of their mind, their thinking of fear, their thinking of darkness, their evil, and that really stuck with me indelibly for a long time because those were my brothers in pain.”

For some like Epps, who were open to change, it meant liberation. Stewart counseled them to move forward toward a life with integrity. (Stewart continues to receive around 30 letters a month from his brothers in prison and those on the outside.)

“It was pivotal for me. For the first couple of years or so, I really beat myself up because of the crime I committed,” Epps says. “He pulled me into his office, he told me, ‘God has forgiven you. Now you need to forgive yourself.’ And I never forget these words. Because he said, ‘As long as you don’t forgive yourself, then you’re saying what Jesus did on the cross, it’s not good enough to forgive.’ It stuck with me. And I learned to forgive myself and then I was able to start the healing process.”

A near-terminal diagnosis

Stewart was feeling poorly when he decided to retire from Five Points. His eyes were jaundiced, and he felt physically ill. Stewart was diagnosed with stage III cancer of the bile duct, or cholangiocarcinoma. The diagnosis felt like a death sentence.

“You automatically see your mortality come into play here,” Stewart says. “The doctor told me ‘You have cancer.’ He told me twice or three times because I wasn’t listening. Maybe I put up some defense mechanism or something, but it felt like somebody hit you right in your solar plexus and just knocked the wind out.”

He endured surgery, chemotherapy (which affected him neurologically), and a long hospital stay. Stewart didn’t take too well to radiation, and his physician suggested the Whipple procedure, a complex surgical process to remove the head of the pancreas, with a small chance of survival. Stewart was given five years to live. That was in 2010.

“It’s 2021, now,” Stewart says, wryly. “For me, the major factor of being diagnosed with cancer, and going through that crucible, is the fear and that’s when your faith is really tested. … Because nothing else that you’ve ever faced before comes glaring into your face (like) when you are diagnosed with cancer. It’s a lonely experience.”

He continues to suffer residual effects of his treatment. Stewart can’t keep a steady weight, for example, on his wiry frame.

“Coming out of that experience was the fact that, No. 1, I know that God is with me,” he says. “No. 2, God is real to me, just as real as you are sitting here next to me. No. 3, that I fear nothing. I don’t fear death. I don’t care what people think of me, or what they say of me, because what they think of me, and what they say about me is not important. It’s really what I think of myself and what God thinks of me. And I just want to do His will.”

Building community

Cancer, a few other close brushes with death and even a call for his assassination while he advocated to end gun violence—none of these have deterred Stewart from community work. Starting with a few ministers, UCLM’s work began by supporting Brenda Hardaway, a young, pregnant Black woman who, Stewart says, received a harsh sentence after resisting arrest in Rochester. After that, UCLM began to advocate for several others, establishing its legacy. UCLM’s offices are at the Downtown Presbyterian Church on Fitzhugh Street.

“UCLM came up and began to do the things that were necessary in order to raise consciousness on race issues in the city,” Stewart says, adding that the organization isn’t paid to champion these efforts. “We have a good team of people that really work hard, that have really done some significant and unique things here in the city.”

The nonprofit has attracted members like Rebecca Johnson and Relton Roland, who were both struck by UCLM’s plans to bring about change and by Stewart’s ability to speak truth to power.

“Rev. Stewart can breathe fire at you and love at the same time,” observes Johnson. “That is an extraordinarily rare and precious capacity.”

Says Roland: “He understands the theology to bring poor people to the understanding that they should also be engaged in their own transformation.”

A retired employee from the Department of Social Services, and one of Rochester’s well-known Latino leaders, Roland signed on to help UCLM after an MLK event. Johnson, wife of former Rochester Institute of Technology president Bill Destler, came on board when she learned that UCLM was planning a Community Police Summit. She joined the planning team, which had community members, including those who endured personal trauma from police interactions, and law enforcement leaders. 

“I was impressed and moved at everyone’s commitment to stay at the table even when the conversation turned to highly charged areas of disagreement,” Johnson says. “Rev. Stewart led the way in modeling that it was possible to disagree openly and passionately and yet treat each other as fellow human beings.”

She adds: “This is a leader who wants sound input, not blind obedience.”

UCLM’s first summit, in 2016, was based on President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It’s fifth summit, held in May, examined the reforms that resulted from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203 and its implementation. State Attorney General Letitia James was a keynote speaker, and representatives of municipalities in Monroe County and the county sheriff’s office shared their thoughts on reform.

UCLM has been a staunch supporter of body-worn cameras on Rochester Police Department officers. Each quarter, UCLM meets with RPD to review and monitor use and policies of body-worn cameras, including disciplinary measures taken for officers who don’t use them, based on an agreement with the city of Rochester. The sheriff’s office has agreed to do the same, says Stewart, who meets with the chiefs of the Brighton and Greece police departments on a regular basis.

ULCM has proposed a Community Public Safety Corps, an effort that would reallocate some $2 million from the RPD. The group has suggested a pilot project for the city’s Northeast quadrant, where roughly 30 people, as members of the Safety Corps, would work in three shifts, with a director and a deputy director. It is now raising funds to survey the community to better understand perceptions of the police, and whether residents want more police or would like to defund or abolish police presence. UCLM is unequivocal in its position: end qualified immunity for police officers; reallocate funds to mental health services; improve training, including racial justice and de-escalation education; and recruit more people of color as officers.

Since Daniel Prude’s 2020 death after being placed in police custody, clergy have spoken to protestors and worked with city officials to bring peace to the streets. Stewart believes after the chaos of the last few summers—including the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and others—people are looking for hope and some form of order.

“I think we are looking for some type of order, some type of hope, some type of rope of reality to grasp on to,” he says. “We’re looking to people that have a message of hope and a message of stability. I think the messages of hope are about to make a bigger comeback in this darkness that we’re living in, and truly times are dark, times are dark. And we need that light to gleam through the dark clouds to inspire us. People are looking for inspiration.”

After battling cancer, Rev. Lewis Stewart says he fears nothing.

Not everyone sees it that way, however. Young activists here and in other parts of the country want to lead the way to justice and would like elders to pass the baton.

“Young people, they (don’t look) at what happened before,” says Stewart, noting that he grew up before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in a time when segregation was legal and Blacks wouldn’t be waited on at a white restaurant. “What they (think) is this has all happened to them. And they are the revolutionaries, and they’re the ones in charge, and they’re the ones that are doing this. That’s not so. I think every generation has to build on the preceding generation for generations to move forward, for us to have justice.”

Stewart has taken unpopular stances—for example, supporting Mayor Lovely Warren amid her troubles—and Johnson notes he is friendly with conservative talk show host Bob Lonsberry and she has heard him be sympathetic to Locust Club President Michael Mazzeo’s challenges, even though both men vehemently disagree with Stewart.

“Rev. (Stewart) is willing to value and lift up the good he sees in people while working to change what he sees as wrong,” Johnson says. “He understands that none of us is perfect. He does not do cancel culture.”

When state Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran decided to step down as the Seventh Judicial District’s chief administrative judge, after a 1988 photo of him in blackface surfaced, Stewart issued a statement of support. In part, it read: “I told Judge Doran that his behavior 33 years ago was highly offensive and racist but does not reflect who he is today. Judge Doran has matured in his thinking, attitude, sensitivity and conduct since that time, about race and racism in America. In fact, Craig has advocated for systemic change when it comes to implicit bias in the courts and criminal justice system.”

Lasting legacy

Through UCLM and in his own life, Stewart has embraced struggles that are not for the faint of heart.

“It takes a lot of energy out of you,” Roland says. “In a term used in the Baptist community, you have to be prayed up to deal with some of the issues you confront out there. People that will probably discourage you from this kind of work.”

Stewart is humble enough, Roland adds, that whenever he is working on issues that are challenging with extreme points of view, he asks for Roland’s opinion. 

“I admire him for his commitment,” Roland says. “At the same time, he also expects commitment from those who work with him.”

ULCM has drafted a succession plan, Stewart says, and is working to strengthen infrastructure for the next president. He hopes youth will play a bigger role in UCLM’s efforts in policy change. The organization’s roots lie in religious institutions that can play a monumental role in dissemination of information, education and mobilization, Stewart says, and it has been challenging for ULCM to get evangelical and Pentecostal organizations to see the “social justice mandate of the prophets and the gospels.” 

“The Black church is a sleeping giant, but once it wakes up and reclaims its liberation and social justice heritage, then we will truly have a spiritual liberation movement,” Stewart says. “There are other community institutions which can foster a movement for social change such as Black religious institutions. They just need to wake up, overcome their spiritual identity crisis, unify, and move onward.”

When he considers his legacy, Stewart is quiet and contemplative. He would like to be remembered as a man who tried to do his best under harsh circumstances while following God’s will. Stewart recognizes that nobody has an easy life, but says “what matters is what we do with the time we are given.” 

For Darryl Epps, that approach has been his lodestar. He now works at the Fortune Society in Harlem as a housing program supervisor, where he assists the formerly incarcerated with housing and other services.

“(Stewart) is the most amazing man of God that I’ve ever, ever, ever met,” Epps says. “And Rochester is blessed to have him.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

4 thoughts on “Rev. Lewis Stewart still hears the call

  1. The article lacked information about the victim of these two murderer’s. This is needed to get a full prospective.

  2. Loved this article. What a wonderful way to focus the light on some positive elements in Rochester. Reverend Stewart is an amazing being and we are indeed fortunate to have him. Rev – thanks for all your service to our community!

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