A strong voice for social justice

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Rev. Lewis Stewart, who died Oct. 27, wanted to be remembered as a man who tried to do his best under harsh circumstances while following God’s will. A champion for social justice, Stewart was president emeritus of United Christian Leadership Ministry.

A familiar sight at many a press conference, Stewart led UCLM’s charge to build a movement for justice and community transformation. He co-founded the ecumenical coalition of religious and civic institutions in 2013.

“Throughout his more than 40 years of ministry, community, and civil rights leadership, he believed strongly in the prophetic calling for social justice. His commitment to the eradication of social, economic, and racial inequities has made an everlasting impact,” said Mayor Malik Evans. “Rev. Stewart consistently expressed a strong ethical and spiritual commitment to strengthen the voices of the Black community and firmly stood up against injustices.”

Rev. Lewis Stewart (Photos by Jackie McGriff)

With Stewart as its voice, UCLM submitted proposals for law enforcement reform, suggested establishing a community public safety corps, and worked to address judicial bias on the bench. 

UCLM lists the following achievements under Stewart’s tutelage:

■ Implementation of body-worn cameras by the Rochester Police Department and later by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. (UCLM continues to work with both agencies to monitor and update these programs.)

■ Initiation of annual police community summits in 2016, aimed at bringing law enforcement and the community together for honest dialogue, relationship building, and mutual problem solving. (These summits continue today.)

■ An early driver of civilian review of police misconduct.

■ Helping to preserve threatened funding for the Office of Adult and Career Education Service, an adult education program.

■ Development of community programs to address gun violence and especially to support and educate those affected by gun violence, especially children.

■ Working cooperatively with the local court system to develop the Judicial Observation Project, training citizens to observe court proceedings and offer advice on addressing implicit bias and systemic racism.

■ Catalyzing the establishment of a civilian interview panel in both Rochester and Brighton, where citizens can participate in the screening of candidates for the local police force.

The spate of violence in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Daniel Prude in Rochester disturbed him greatly. 

“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 said in a 2021 interview with the Rochester Beacon. “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.”

Unafraid to speak his mind, Stewart had won both love and stoked anger. For instance, UCLM seeks a well-trained, culturally conscious, and diverse police force. It opposes abolishing or defunding the police, which doesn’t sit well with some members of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Stewart also took other controversial stances, which included support for former Mayor Lovely Warren during her troubles. When a 1988 photo of state Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran in blackface became public, Stewart reminded the community that Doran’s offensive act was not reflective of the person he was today. Doran had “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,” Stewart said.

He was born in 1946 to Bishop Lewis W. Stewart Sr., and Carrie Stultz Williams, now deceased. Accepting his call to ministry early on, Stewart came to Rochester to study at SUNY Brockport, where he became the first Black president of the student government and chairperson of the Black Student Liberation Front, a Black student group at the college. He earned a master of divinity degree at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

Stewart did not call himself an activist. Instead, as a lifelong student of Black liberation theology, he preferred the term liberationalist. A former prison chaplain at Groveland and Five Point correctional facilities, Stewart has been credited with reforming prisoners and giving them purpose.

Several years ago, Stewart was diagnosed with stage III cancer of the bile duct, or cholangiocarcinoma. He underwent treatment and remained active in spite of the effects of  illness. His brushes with death–he told the Beacon that there was a call for his assassination while he advocated to end gun violence–only solidified his commitment to community work and grounded his spirituality. 

Always ready with a dose of humor,Stewart had a youthful approach to life.

“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,” he said in 2021.

Services for Stewart will be held at First Church of God, 334 Clarissa St., under the direction of Bishop Dwight Fowler, UCLM’s current president. Details will be made available later.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “A strong voice for social justice

  1. I had the good fortune to meet the Rev Lewis Stewart thru a mutual friend in 1969. I was a freshman at Brockport State University and Lewis was then either finishing up for his bachelor’s degree and/or beginning post grad studies. We met in what was then called the Men’s High Rise. a new student dorm, and we met in the elevator so he couldn’t get away. My encounters with him were always friendly, uplifting, and often included smiles from his sense of humor. Some years ago, I was able, along with the late local AFL-CIO VP Bruce Popper (SEIU), to facilitate a meeting between Rev. Stewart and other leaders of the United Christian Leadership Ministry and the Police Locust Club. There were differences that would not be completely bridged, but as UCLM’s leader and chief spokesperson he led with mutual respect and empathy, while strongly advocating the position of many in our community. No one is indispensable and the strong leadership of UCLM, some mentored by Rev. Stewart, continues. Regardless, the loss of Rev. Stewart is a loss for our community and does not aid exploring thoughtful and just solutions.
    Rest in Peace and Power Rev. Stewart.

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