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George Hill, 86; Baptist Minister Fought War, Racism and Poverty

Obituaries

March 10, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. George W. Hill, a Baptist minister and advocate for peace and social justice who headed churches from Pasadena to Washington, D.C., and New York City, has died. He was 86.

Hill died March 3 at the church-sponsored retirement community of Pilgrim Place in Claremont of natural causes.

Throughout his 62-year ministry, Hill was known for his efforts to combat racial problems, poverty and war. He traveled to 84 countries and in his 70s drove trucks filled with relief supplies to Nicaragua and accompanied other Pastors for Peace mercy missions to Cuba.

A renowned public speaker, Hill delivered eloquent sermons and moderated such television and radio programs as "Talk Back," "Sunday," "Interaction" and "What's Your Answer?" He also spoke widely to political and citizens groups beginning in the years of World War II.

"There are at least three conspicuous weaknesses presented by the home front," Hill boldly told a convention of women's organizations at Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel in 1944 when he was the young minister of the First Baptist Church of Pasadena. "Namely, racial tension, religious tension evidenced in many quarters, and a cultural tension as shown by the growth of anti-Semitism in many parts of the country."

In the 1940s, Hill also spoke out against the placement of Japanese Americans in internment camps and the budding postwar anti-Communist movement that developed into McCarthyism.

"During those years I was really involved in trying to keep people sane and rational," Hill told The Times in 1989. "I love my country. But my love does not mean I bless everything it does. I want it to conform to its best traditions ... to be a full participant in citizenship in the world."

Working for those "best traditions" in both church and country became a mission for Hill throughout his life.

Born in Los Angeles, Hill earned a degree in business administration at USC and planned to go to law school. But after some soul-searching, he decided to enter the ministry and earned a divinity degree from Colgate Rochester Divinity School.

Ordained in 1940, Hill began as pastor of Atwater Park Baptist Church in Pasadena and then served at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena from 1944 until 1954. He left California to head the 2,000-member Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, N.Y.

In Rochester, Hill had ample opportunity to work for race relations after a race riot engulfed the city in 1964. As president of the city's Council of Churches, he helped blacks organize politically, and he pressured businesses to hire African Americans.

"All hell broke loose over our heads," the minister told The Times years later, "for the audacity of trying to organize the blacks. Eleven of our Baptist pastors were forced out of their churches.... If I had it to do over again, I'd do the same things. Blacks were able to enter the mainstream. They were elected to public office."

Hill moved to the nation's capital in 1971 as pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church eight blocks from the White House. His vast new congregation included several members of Congress.

During his 15 years in Washington, Hill led efforts to create the U.S. Institute for Peace, established by Congress in 1984, and made his church a haven for the poor. Under his direction, Calvary housed 35 homeless women in its basement each night, provided daily free lunches and each Thanksgiving hosted a family-style dinner party for up to 800 needy people.

The minister's work for peace earned him the Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award from the American Baptist Churches in 1985. Other recipients have included Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter.

Hill tried to retire in 1986, returning to his native California and the Claremont retirement facility. But, in addition to his Pastors for Peace missions and other projects, he was asked in 1988 to serve as interim minister of Riverside Church in New York City.

Riverside Church, the Gothic edifice built by John D. Rockefeller in 1928 on the Hudson River near Columbia University, had 3,000 members and budget problems. Hill made tough staff and program reductions, and admonished members to triple their annual donation pledges. He also lectured the 500 or so weekly visitors who attended services to ogle the $18-million stained glass windows and other lavish decor to put more in the offering plate than their customary $2 a person.

"Try taking that down to your Broadway theater," he chided tourists from the pulpit. "For $2 this has got to be the best show in town!"

Despite financial problems, however, Hill continued programs to assist the homeless and the poor. He was proud to call himself a liberal.

Unfortunately, Hill told The Times in 1989, the word liberal "has fallen into disrepair." Hill defined its social and political meaning as "being willing to err on the side of being humane and generous, rather than pinched and overly cautious."

From 1989 until his death, the semi-retired Hill led Bible studies and worked in the ministry of the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles.

He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Mary; three children, Mary Louise Kaull, Barbara "Jo" Maassen and Robert W. Hill, and four grandchildren.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles, 760 Westmoreland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90005-1499, or to the National Cancer Assn., 3333 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 900, Los Angeles, CA 90010.

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