The Reverend Dr. Morris L. Shearin, Sr. was not a member of DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality. He did not conduct gay weddings in his sanctuary. So what brought me tears at news of his death at age 76 on November 18?
It is about a journey. Morris Shearin was pastor of Israel Baptist Church, founded in 1880. What brought me to his church in northeast DC in the spring of 1997 was an organizing meeting of the Police and Criminal Justice Review Task Force of the DC Branch of the NAACP. Shearin was the branch president. His political director, Mark Thompson, had invited me to join the task force, whose mission was to re-establish independent review of citizen complaints of police abuse.
The sticking point was that a few years earlier, Shearin had refused to accept a donation from the DC Coalition of Black LGBT Men and Women, which had held a fundraiser for the local NAACP branch as a bridge building effort. I had attended that fundraiser, and I remember the phone call from DC Coalition Co-Chair Carlene Cheatam relaying the sad news.
The rejection of their donation by Shearin was a bitter pill for DC Coalition to swallow. When Mark Thompson approached them in early 1997 about joining the Police Task Force, they declined. He then approached me in my capacity as president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. My GLAA colleagues were wary themselves. It took some convincing for me to persuade them that when a hand reached out to us across a divide, we had to reach back. If I could play a role in healing, I had to try.
The Police Task Force included the local ACLU and the National Black Police Association among others. A few years later, the DC Council established the Office of Police Complaints, which has done commendable work ever since. Shearin’s contribution was empowering a younger man to lead in new directions.
Over the years, trust and respect grew between Rev. Shearin and me. We both followed Mark Thompson’s career at SiriusXM Radio. Then Mark entered the ministry, and I attended his trial sermon and later his ordination at Israel Baptist, as I had attended his wedding. I was doing commentary in Mark’s studio on election night 2008 when Pastor Shearin dropped by, and I showed him a headline from Nairobi on my laptop heralding the news of Barack Obama’s victory.
It wasn’t that Shearin and I got together regularly to argue over doctrine or politics. But we held on, connecting at a personal level despite our differences. He embodied the concept of servant leadership. His vision extended beyond where he himself could go.
Without similar journeys by ministers and LGBT activists all over the country, the NAACP national board, of which Shearin was a member, would not have voted overwhelmingly to support civil marriage equality in May 2012. They were ready by then. That was the same month when black LGBT activists and faith leaders formed NoWedge 2012 to defeat right-wing efforts to divide the black vote over marriage equality.
The NAACP decision on marriage came ten days after President Obama endorsed marriage equality. It was after Obama’s announcement, and before the NAACP decision, that I got a voicemail from Pastor Shearin. “Now that you got what you want,” he teased, “you have no time for your old friend Morris Shearin.” Of course I was delighted to hear from him.
In 2013, I was in Shearin’s church again to celebrate his 25th anniversary as pastor. I visited many times over the years, often when Mark (who moved to Harlem in 2010) was in town to deliver a guest sermon. Sometimes I felt conspicuous (as when Mark introduced me from the pulpit in my connection with GLAA), but not once did I feel anything but warm welcome. In 2015, I was pleased to attend the opening of the Rev. Dr. Morris L. Shearin, Sr. Community Life Center, which houses Unity Health Care’s Brentwood Health Center.
As I write this, I am preparing to cross town once more to attend the funeral of this humble man who grew amid change. Rest in peace, my friend.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2017 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.