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The Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery, beloved Presbyterian pastor, dies at 68

Congressman: ‘There was a lot of John Lewis in Steve Montgomery’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery, praised by his local newspaper as “a progressive conscience of Memphis,” died Friday at age 68 after being critically injured three days earlier during a bicycle ride.

According to his news obituary the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Montgomery was pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church from 2000 until his retirement in May 2019.

Montgomery earned his Master of Divinity from the Yale Divinity School and a Doctorate of Ministry from Columbia Theological Seminary. Ordained in 1980, he grew up in Richmond, Virginia. He remembered being shocked and feeling haunted when some of his classmates cheered the news of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and haunted in a different way by the words in King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“We tend to self-select those quotes made by Dr. King that keep us safely in our ideological cocoon,” Montgomery wrote in a Commercial Appeal column, “so that even a president who has the support of … white supremacist groups can say that we have achieved his dream of a ‘color-blind society,’ all the while being part of a system that has rolled back voting rights and other gains that Dr. King worked and died for.”

“There was a lot of John Lewis in Steve Montgomery,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee. Like Lewis, the famed civil rights leader who died July 17 after serving more than 30 years in Congress, Montgomery was “courageous, he was caring, he was forgiving, he was humble and he was smart,” Cohen told the Commercial Appeal.

The Rev. Margaret Burnett, associate pastor at Idlewild Presbyterian Church from 2003-19, told the Commercial Appeal Montgomery included children among the voiceless, which was one reason he was outraged by the federal government’s family separation policy for immigrants who enter the country illegally. “For the Bible I read and study daily is filled with passion for welcoming the alien, the sojourner, the fearful, and most especially the children,” Montgomery wrote in the Commercial Appeal.

“I never heard the man judge or speak ill of anybody,” Burnett said. “There aren’t many people you can say that about.”

According to the newspaper, Montgomery served churches in Atlanta and eastern Kentucky before settling in Memphis.

“I saw myself as anything but a ‘big steeple’ preacher, but rather a servant leader devoting my ministry to those on the margins of society,” Montgomery wrote in the foreword to his 2015 anthology, “Idlewild Sermons.” “But God had other plans.”

“The thing Steve said over and over was, ‘If I err, I want to err on the side of grace,’” Burnett told the newspaper. “He believed that’s who Christ was. Christ was always on the side of grace.”

Upon his retirement last year, Montgomery wrote “Twelve things I have learned in the ministry” for the Daily Memphian. Among them:

  • Jesus never used the word “tolerate.” Tolerate one another? Tolerate your neighbor? Tolerate your enemy? Nope. “Love one another.” “Love your neighbor.” “Love your enemy.” There is all the difference in the world.
  • I have always grown the most spiritually, intellectually and emotionally from those who are different from me: women, members of the LGBTQ community, Central Americans, Jews, Muslims, African Americans, and yes, evangelicals.
  • Children are not the future of the church. Enough of that nonsense. They are the church now. And they need the church’s nurture and advocacy.
  • Being Presbyterian, I am all for doctrines and creeds, but it is bad religion to deify them. They are only to be used as signposts and not hitching posts. Doctrines, you remember, supported slavery and apartheid. Some still support the marginalization of women and members of the LGBTQ community. Love alone is the hitching post. Faith can divide, but compassion can unite.
  • Whenever you engage with the Bible, make sure others are a part of the conversation, or else we ended up baptizing our own prejudices.
  • It really is a joy to be with irrepressible people who are so precisely because they follow the One who said, “I have come that your joy might be full.” Or to be with people of any faith who decide not to be members of the Bystanders Association, but rather embrace life fully. As Bishop Irenaeus said early on: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!” It is a joy to be loved. It is a joy to love others.

In addition to his children, Sumita and A.J., Montgomery leaves behind his wife of 43 years, Patti, a sister, Deedee Murphy of Atlanta, and two brothers, David Montgomery of Toledo, Ohio, and Jim Montgomery of Indiana.

Sumita Montgomery told the Commercial Appeal her father will be cremated. A plaque in his memory will be placed at a columbarium in the Idlewild Presbyterian Church courtyard.

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