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United Methodist Pastor Edward B. Lewis

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page B06

The job of the Rev. Edward B. Lewis, a United Methodist pastor in the Washington area over the past 45 years, was to save souls. He also managed to save and grow congregations as the District's demographics changed. And in a dramatic incident early in his ministry, he also managed to save a despondent man's life. Mr. Lewis, 84, died of cancer April 12 at his home in Silver Spring.

He was the pastor of Union Methodist Church when D.C. police pounded on his parsonage door in the early hours of July 11, 1956. A 23-year-old Air Force sergeant, Donald Seaman, was threatening to jump from a ledge on the 10th floor of a building on Connecticut Avenue. He had asked for a minister.

The Rev. Edward B. Lewis intervened in a man's suicide attempt in the District in 1956. (The Washington Post)

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For 30 minutes, Mr. Lewis pleaded and prayed. "He told me not to come near him or he would jump," the pastor told The Washington Post. Columnist Bill Gold, who witnessed the scene from 18 feet away, reported that Mr. Lewis read the man a passage from the Bible, then asked, "Won't you take my hand, Donald, and let me help you?" When Mr. Lewis extended his hand and took a step toward him, Seaman shifted slightly as if to jump.

"Suddenly the minister leaped forward and grabbed at the boy. [Battalion Fire Chief Elmer F.] Stein's huge body hurtled forward in that same instant. . . ." Gold wrote. "For a few moments, Donald dangled 10 stories above the street as the powerful fireman and the slightly built minister hung on to his writhing form. Then a dozen hands hauled the boy inside while he fought with the blind fury of 10 men to escape their grasp."

Seaman was hauled to safety. Mr. Lewis said he "skinned my knee, but I was never so happy to have it skinned."

"I had no idea of grabbing for him. I didn't think I could do it. I kept thinking: What if you lunge for him and can't hold him? What if you cause him to jump to his death?" he told Gold on the drive home that morning. "Mr. Stein and I needed a lot of help tonight, didn't we? But when we needed Him, He was by our side."

Born in Frostburg, Md., he was the son of a grocer in Cresaptown, Md., and had dreamed of preaching in a little country church. He was described in 1955 in The Post as an earnest, handsome man with a sense of humor and "absolutely lacking in the inner conviction of superiority that tempts one to pass judgment on others. . . . He is as comfortable as an old shoe."

"I love this city. I love this church," he said of Washington and of Union Methodist.

He received his bachelor's degree from American University and his divinity degree from Iliff School of Theology in Denver in 1948. He served at the now-defunct East-West Highway Church, then moved to Union Methodist in 1949. He wrote letters to each of the fewer than 200 members, begging them to stay. They did, and nearly 400 people joined during his eight years there.

In his two years at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Kensington, he added 600 members. As pastor of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church in 1960, he led the merger of 158-year-old Trinity church with Waugh, North Carolina Avenue and Wilson Memorial churches, creating a 1,210-person congregation. He then spearheaded the construction of a $1 million building, which was consecrated in 1966.

The Rev. Dan Abbott, who worked with Mr. Lewis later in his life, said he regarded the successful merger of the churches as one of his main accomplishments. "It is difficult to unite four churches, but he did it fairly quickly and raised a new building as well," Abbott noted.

In 1969, Mr. Lewis was named acting chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Later in the year, he became pastor of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, where he helped set up a scholarship fund for people studying for the ministry. The same year, he was named by Washingtonian magazine as one of the city's best preachers.

"Freedom is the business of religion," he declared in his July 7, 1968, sermon. "We Christians must be opposed to intimidation [by government] of minority religions, remembering that we were once a minority ourselves." In free America, he said, "if you are a Jew or nonbeliever, you are respected as much in your point of view as those who hold to a Christian point of view."

He retired in 1986, but collected many honors and remained active at Mount Vernon. When declining membership threatened the future of the historic church, he helped broker an agreement for the Methodist church to share the venue with the burgeoning Chinese Community Church. He had served on the interdenominational board of managers for the Chinese church in the 1950s.

Survivors include his sister, M. Elizabeth Emerson of Huntingtown in Calvert County.

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