2009 Talbert Award Recipient Dies Suddenly

July 30, 2009

The recipient of the 2009 Bishop Talbert Award, the Rev. Lee Williamson, died unexpectedly at his home, early yesterday morning (Wednesday, July 29, 2009). He was 70 years of age.


He is survived by his wife, Arlene Williamson, along with two adult children, son Roy and daughter V.J. and their spouses, along with other family and friends. A memorial service will be planned and announced at a later date.


A graduate of Pacific School of Religion, Rev. Williamson served at Alameda United Methodist Church, Pleasanton UMC, Park Presidio UMC in San Francisco, Melrose UMC in Oakland, South Hayward UMC in Hayward, Albany UMC, and Wesley UMC in Hayward before retiring on July 1, 2004.


In recent years, he served on the Retired Clergy Association Board of Directors (2006 to 2009) and at the time of his death was a member of the Commission on Religion and Race, which presented him with the Talbert Award for Racial Justice at this year's Annual Conference Session.


The award is given annually to a person within the California-Nevada Annual Conference who best exemplifies a proactive stance in addressing and working toward dismantling racism in the church and in society.


"He's one of those old warriors who found a way to stand up for what is right," said CORR Director Dr. Jeffrey Kuan. "He was not afraid to battle for LGBT issues and other [causes], as well as racial equality."


Williamson's involvement as an advocate for justice began in the early 1980s, according to the material prepared for the Talbert Award presentation. He served on the Conference Hunger Education and Action Committee, then on the Conference Missions Agency as Refugee and Immigration Committee Chair, then served as Chair of the Working Group on Central America Issues.


During the 1980s and 1990s his work included involvement with the Oakland Coalition for the Homeless, the peace movement, the Free South Africa Movement, and the faith-based Sanctuary Movement, seeking justice for refugees from Central America. He worked on behalf of Native American rights, and for freeing political prisoners. As president of the Ecumenical Peace Institute, he helped organize a National Council of Churches hearing on racism, held at Taylor Memorial UMC in Oakland.


In 1986, he traveled to El Salvador, and on his return began working with refugees who were seeking sanctuary in the United States. Many of those refugees were part of a collective that organized English as a Second Language and other classes at the Melrose UMC in Oakland, where he served as pastor. In 1989 he traveled to the Philippines as part of a delegation sponsored by the Northern California Ecumenical Council and the Council of Churches of the Philippines.    


Williamson was Peace and Justice Co-Coordinator of the Conference Board of Church and Society from 1988 to 1996. He was active in the leadership of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) at both the Conference and national levels, and served as president of the California-Nevada chapter.


A close friend, the Rev. John Chamberlin, said Williamson's social justice work reflected just one aspect of who he was, however.


"He was a loving husband and father, and a friend. He mentored all sorts of different people. He liked to joke around.


"He was a person of tremendous integrity. One of the ways I would sum it up is that he was someone who lived as though the truth of the Gospel were really true."


Throughout his years of ministry, Williamson himself said his work was guided by two things, learned from others: "To locate myself in venues and on issues that include folk with whom I might not immediately feel comfortable, [and] to listen and watch how folk are working for their rights and dignity - and, when possible, help to apply the Living Word of the Gospel in those situations."