Reverend Edson “Bill” Taft Lewis, Jr, age 89, passed peacefully into Glory, family at his side, on Jan 25, 2017. He was preceded in death by his parents, Edson Taft Lewis Sr. and Edra (Hough), and 5 brothers: Donald, Dewey, Richard, Robert and Hank. Bill is survived by his wife Joanne (Yff), children Joan, Mark & wife Denise, Todd & wife Linda, Jill, Rachel & husband Jason, 15 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, siblings Mary (Ellens) & Clyde, & many nieces/nephews. Handel’s Messiah Hallelujah Chorus was playing at the time of Bill’s passing, almost as if choirs of angels were joyfully welcoming Bill into heaven. He had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in September 2017 and had courageously fought it until his time came to leave us at 8:10 that morning. He will be missed dearly by all who knew him, but will always live on in those he touched throughout his life.
1945 Graduation from Central High School, Kirkland, NM
1945-47 U.S. Navy, Ensign 2nd Class. Graduated first in class in electronics
(EE+RM), and electronics instructor for the Navy until his discharge.
1947-48 Engineering program at New Mexico University, Albuquerque, NM
1949-53 Pre-Seminary Bachelor of Arts from Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI
1953-56 Bachelor of Divinity from Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI
1956-64 Minister: Monsey Christian Reformed Church,Monsey, NY
1964-76 Minister: Hoboken Christian Reformed Church, Hoboken, NJ
1971-72 Attended Instituto De Lengua Espanol, San Jose, Costa Rica
1973 Masters in Urban Ministry from New York Theological College, NY
1981- Doctor of Ministry from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, OH
Edson “Bill” Taft Lewis Jr. was born July 28th, 1927 in Lewis, CO. Lewis, CO was founded by his grandfather, Rufus Lewis, who moved there from Des Moines, Iowa in the early 1900’s. (For the record, Edson was never called Edson, even as a child. He was always “Bill.”) He was the oldest of eight children: 7 boys and 1 girl. When Bill was a young child, his family moved to Shiprock, New Mexico. Bill grew up with Navajo playmates, spending time swimming in the San Juan River and exploring the delights of the desert that surrounded them. The desert had its beauty and danger, most notably rattlesnakes. Bill told of finding rattlesnakes in all kinds of places, including the family food pantry. Even later in life he never reached into a drawer of his desk without first looking!
The family grew their own crops and raised rabbits, honeybees and goats in order to survive in the desert environment during the Great Depression. Everyone in the family did their part. Bill, being the oldest, was in charge most of the time while his father worked as a mechanic for the U.S. Forest Service. His father’s work required that he leave home at times to help work on the roads. Bill would help his father in the garage - tearing down engines, doing car maintenance, and learning to how to put things back together. He learned to make parts if the ones they needed didn’t exist.
His mother, Edra, was one-sixteenth Cherokee and very much an advocate of human rights for Native Americans. She spoke about this often with her children, making sure they did not forget about the profound injustice Native Americans continued to experience. (The Navajos speaking at Bill’s mother’s funeral in 1981 spoke of her as being “one of us”.) Her insistence on these rights had a profound influence on Bill and his ministry.
She would tell her children how her own grandfather, Thomas J. Head, performed the first baptism in the Oklahoma Territory in 1889, as a minister of the Disciples of Christ Church. Thomas, like his great-grandson who would come after him, was a man with a tenacious spirit and a heart to save people and bring them to Christ. Oklahoma City was a rough and tumble city with a number of rowdy individuals. For one particular baptismal service, Rev. Head was concerned that these rowdies might try to disrupt the service he was planning. So, he approached the commanding officer of the local Calvary regiment for help. On June 2, 1889, 200 troops on horseback in full parade uniform, took up positions on both sides of the river so that the baptismal service could proceed without disruption. A number of years ago, Bill was able to travel to Enid, OK to see the stained glass window in a church there that commemorates this great pioneer who in his day also had the dream to make the world a better place.
In 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, Bill joined the Navy. He had such high scores on his test that he qualified for electronics training. Graduating first in his class, he was chosen as an instructor to teach at a naval base in Washington DC. He was discharged in 1948 and returned home to Shiprock to work for a year. He then entered the University of New Mexico to study engineering. However, Bill’s involvement in a local church in Albuquerque, NM and his friendship with its pastor, was to significantly alter the course of his life. His faith in Christ deepened and after one year of engineering, Bill tells of a transformative experience that caused him to transfer to Calvin College’s Pre-Seminary Program in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His decision to attend Calvin was very much last minute and required some major strings to be pulled by their family pastor in Shiprock.
He left for Michigan on what would be a several days long bus ride, with only the college address in his hip pocket. He had no idea where Calvin College was located in Grand Rapids, MI or what to expect once he got there. During his senior year at Calvin College, Bill met Joanne (Yff) on an "almost" blind date. By coincidence or divine providence, Joanne also grew up in New Mexico, just 90 miles from Shiprock, in Zuni and Rehoboth, NM. She too, came from a family of eight: 7 girls and 1 boy! (Coincidentally - or perhaps not! - Joanne’s father was also a Christian Reformed minister.) They fell in love and were married in the summer of 1954. Out of that union came five children – Joan, Mark, Todd, Jill and Rachel. To date, the family has grown to include 15 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Bill spent 7 years at Calvin and received a BA in Pre-Seminary and then a BS in Divinity Studies. His first call to pastor was at the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Monsey, NY.
Bill served as pastor in Monsey for eight years. While there, he often went to monthly seminars at nearby Stony Brook. It was through one of these seminars that Bill had another life-changing experience. On one particular weekend, in 1963, a black woman from Mississippi talked about the racial injustice going on in the South. She explained how black people of the South were coming “out of the Egypt” of social injustice. She explained that the Exodus was happening in present time, not 2000 years ago. This had a profound impact on Bill. Perhaps it brought to life the words of his mother and her passion for the human rights of Native Americans when he was a young man. He couldn't shake the words spoken by this woman from Mississippi, and that same evening, in the newspaper, he saw an ad for a bus headed to Washington D.C. There was only one seat left on the bus and as you would guess, Bill ended up in that seat. He was there in Washington D.C., with Martin Luther King Jr. for the famous "I Have A Dream” speech and march. When he would tell this story to his children and grandchildren many years later, it never failed to bring tears to his eyes. He wanted to be a part of the New Exodus, to help the country leave hatred, prejudiced, and injustice behind. His passion for the New Exodus spilled over into his sermons once he returned home from Washington, D.C. Monsey, NY was a small, comfortable, mostly white middle class town and his sermons began to cause quite a stir. This civil rights controversy didn't affect them, or so they wished to believe, but it affected Bill’s heart. The congregation and the elders were very upset, and a full-fledged investigation ensued. Three senior pastors from the home church were called in to evaluate Bill’s new message. After listening to several recorded sermons, they made their judgment. They said these were the best sermons that they ever heard! They could also see how the Monsey congregation was no longer the place for Bill. So, after eight years of service in Monsey his next assignment was to pastor an inner city church in Hoboken, New Jersey.
When Bill arrived in Hoboken, the Christian Reformed Church there was composed mostly of an older Dutch congregation. When he left Hoboken 12 years later, the church was filled with people who spoke Spanish as their first language. Bill and the family lived in Costa Rica for nine months in the early 70’s, where both he and Joanne attended the Instituto De Lengua Espanol in San Jose, so he could become fluent enough to preach in Spanish.
While in Hoboken, Bill became very active in several community organizations serving the poor. He was outspoken when it came to their civil, legal, and economic rights. He never stopped fighting for civil rights, and he and Joanne both participated in the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march in 1965 – all this with 4 young children at home!
Once in the late 1960’s, when city riots were spreading across the country, strong rumors started that Hoboken was set to have a riot one weekend. There were more than enough reasons for people to riot in Hoboken. There was high unemployment; discrimination against minorities and police brutality were a regular occurrence. On top of this, it had been a very long, very hot summer. Bill and a friend tried to get help from the Mayor and the Fire Chief to open the fire hydrant sprinklers so people could cool off. The thought was that this might temporarily quell the rising discontent and prevent rioting. The mayor and the fire chief had no real interest in helping, but gave Bill just one very old fire hydrant sprinkler for a city of 50,000 people! They told them if they wanted to do something, they would have to do it themselves. Bill and his friend stayed up for 36 straight hours going block to block, an hour at a time, setting up the fire hydrant sprinkler for people to cool off. In the end Hoboken was spared any of the riots that every other city in the area had that summer! It was always the people he thought of first.
One year, Bill ran for Hoboken’s Board of Education. He did not win, but he did succeed in getting the attention of the Mafia. The Mafia was in charge of everything in Hoboken. No one could run for any political office without their approval. As you can imagine, Bill was not on their approved list! Bill proceeded to get several death threats during that campaign but he continued to run anyway. On election day, by coincidence, he ran into the head Mafia boss on the street. Bill was on his pedal bike and the Mafia boss was in his brand new limousine. They just smiled at each other, noting the obvious differences in their modes of transportation!
Bill was also known for having an artistic flair. One year he got first place for his photograph of a city winter scene in a photo contest sponsored by the local county newspaper. He was number one out of several hundred entries! He had his own dark room for a time and taught both his own, and neighborhood children, how to develop and print their own film. Another artistic talent was painting. The city of Hoboken once sponsored an art contest , trying to beautify the city by having residents paint 8’x4’ pieces of plywood that surrounded an entire city block that was unsafe. Bill also got first place in that contest, painting a dark cityscape scene with the words “Pueden Revir Estes Calles?” (Can these streets live again?).
Somehow, with everything else he was up to in Hoboken, Bill found time to complete a master’s degree in Urban Ministry at New York Theological Seminary. In 1976, the CRC Home Mission Board decided to close the Hoboken church. Many of the members had moved to the suburbs by then and numbers were dwindling. Bill accepted the call to become an associate pastor at Olentangy CRC and head up the new campus ministry program at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
Bill moved to Columbus, OH in 1976 to become an associate pastor at the Olentangy Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and head up their new campus ministry at the Ohio State University (OSU). He was known for his organizational skills and his effectiveness as a pastor and communicator of the Word. He once again served on numerous community and social organizations in the OSU campus area including work at the OSU College of Medicine as a resource person in the area of bio-medical ethics. He developed many life-long friendships with the OSU students that entered his office at the United Christian Center on campus. He became quite the backpacker and was the leader of several memorable college student backpacking trips for the United Christian Center into Hocking Hills, OH, and the Shining Rock Wilderness, N.C. One of the Shining Rock trips included getting stranded in over a foot of snow in the higher elevations of the Smoky Mountains. Everyone escaped without a single case of frostbite! On June 7, 1981, Bill received his doctorate of ministry degree from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. His thesis was on “The Stories of Medicine and Theology; A Context for Ministry. "
Bill retired (if you can call it that) in 1992, after almost 40 years of service in the denomination of the Christian Reformed Church. He remained active throughout his retirement in several community and university organizations including: the Marion Prison Ministry, Pastors for Peace, Campus Ministry, Neighborhood Services Association, the OSU Faculty Club Theological Seminar/Discussion Group, CRC Lake Erie Classis, CRC program for mentoring pastors, and many others.
Bill always lived a full life and had many interests. He loved building and flying model airplanes (and when the kids were younger, model rockets). That was something all the kids and grandkids would eagerly look forward to, especially if they got to “help” fly them. He enjoyed repairing and building things of all kinds, and nothing was impossible in his mind. If the part didn’t exist, he’d make it. He repaired washing machines, TV’s, computers, cars, plumbing and electrical problems, roofs and floors. He became his children’s go-to person whenever something in their homes needed fixed or there was a new project on their minds. He helped his daughter, Rachel, train a horse (even though he’d never had formal training) with amazing success. If he’d put his mind to it, he was sure it could be done, and he instilled this same kind of confidence in his children. One of his greatest joys was spending time with his family. His love for nature and family often turned vacations into camping trips. He took his kids hunting (the boys, anyway!), fishing and canoeing.
Bill has meant so much to so many. He worked diligently to change the world for the better. He had a compassionate heart, and really saw people as people, not black, white, brown - just people. He actually lived this out in his life, not just by words but by his actions. What a legacy he has left for future generations! We will all miss Bill’s presence in our lives more than words can say. He will be remembered as a man who had a passion for bringing people together from all walks of life to make the world a better place. He loved mercy, sought justice and walked humbly with God. Amen, and Well Done! Shalom.
The family would like to thank the multitude of friends and colleagues who stayed in touch with Bill, and us, throughout his life. You have blessed us more than we can say. We would also like to thank the dear people at the Forum at Knightsbridge, who cared for Bill so well these past five months. They became part of our family. They gave us strength, comfort and encouragement. We are very grateful to Pastor Glenn and his staff at Maple Grove United Methodist Church who graciously afforded us their building for Bill’s memorial service, and all those who will help in the days ahead in bringing that service together.
Lastly, when Bill received his diagnosis and I (Jill) began sending out notices and updates, they were originally for the sake of Bill and those who knew him. Very soon though, they became instead, a balm to sustain ME (and Joanne). Your responses were warm and loving and touching. I cannot thank all of you enough for that. I will always remember and treasure the opportunity you gave me to get a glimpse into your relationships with my father. Your friendships blessed him so much, and that in turned blessed me. Many thanks also, to the many friends of mine, though they’d never met Bill, who sent kind and caring words that warmed my heart.
Dear Ones All, Jill
There's still time to send flowers to the Memorial Service at the Maple Grove United Methodist Church at 4:00 PM on March 11, 2017.
Directly place your order here and save on wire service fees. Our system automatically takes care of scheduling the delivery with our local florist to meet the upcoming service.