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Rev. Steve Montgomery, 1951-2020: “What makes us human is not our mind but our heart”

Retired Memphis minister dies from injuries received while riding bike.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery, whose prophetic hope and pastoral heart gently but firmly challenged and encouraged his church and community to be more just and loving, died Friday morning at Regional One Health with his family by his side. He was 68.

Rev. Dr. Stephen Montgomery

Montgomery, who retired in 2019 as senior pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, died from multiple injuries he received when he was hit by a car while riding his bike on North Perkins Tuesday evening. He never left the intensive care unit at Regional One.

His wife, Patti, and their children, Aaron and Sumita, were at his bedside. His two brothers and sister were on a conference call. The family abided by his “living will” and took him off life support when doctors said they did not expect him to recover.

“We held the phone next to his ear and they all told stories and said their goodbyes,” said Sumita Montgomery. “My dad passed quickly and peacefully surrounded by his family. We ended with a song.” It was the traditional Doxology, which begins: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”

Dr. Scott Morris, Church Health founder who met Montgomery when they both were students at Yale Divinity School in the 1970s, also was at the bedside.

“Being there as he took his last breath was one of the hard things in my life,” Morris said. “Steve was like a brother to me. He was so incredibly kind. We met for breakfast regularly at the Barksdale. The discussion was first about family and then about Memphis. He saw ministry as more than what happens on Sunday morning.”

Montgomery, a tall, gregarious man who always wore a beard, retired in May 2019 after 39 years in a Presbyterian pulpit, the last 19 here at Idlewild, the Gothic revival landmark in Midtown, one of the city’s oldest, largest and most influential congregations.

“In another life I might have played first base for the Atlanta Braves, or sung tenor at the Metropolitan Opera,” Montgomery told the congregation in his farewell sermon. “But I have only one life to live. I am grateful God made me a pastor to you.”

After Montgomery arrived here from Atlanta in 2000, he also became a pastor to his entire beloved community.

“I cannot exaggerate how critical the church Steve led is to the building of a better future for all God’s children, since the church Steve led so magnificently emphasized saving lives as much as saving souls – whether those lives were immigrants, Muslims, Jews, or LGBTQ Christians,” said Rabbi Micah Greenstein, senior rabbi of Temple Israel and one of Montgomery’s closest friends.

“He kept Idlewild walking the talk of faith by sustaining sacred community causes like MIFA, the Food Bank, Church Health, and other expressions of faith in action. By emphasizing deed over creed and an expansive Christian faith that encompassed all of God’s children, Steve was a mirror of my own Jewish teaching of ‘tikun olam,’ healing the brokenness and seeing God in every human being. We were brothers and kindred spirits.”

Stephen Richey Montgomery was born Aug. 21, 1951, in Fort Worth, Texas. He spent his adult life striving to practice what he preached.

He was a son of the South who grew up on Confederate Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, and ended his career on Union Avenue in Memphis.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery and family. (Fran Doggrell)

The son of two Texans, he married a woman from Pennsylvania, and they adopted two children, from Peru and Nepal.

The only white player on his high school basketball team in the late 1960s, he later worked with civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson, C.T. Vivian, and became a board member of the National Civil Rights Museum and LeMoyne-Owen College.

“Steve Montgomery was one of the first people I met when I moved to Memphis,” said Terri Freeman, museum president. “It was clear after meeting Steve that he was both an ally and accomplice in the continuing movement for freedom, justice and equity. Most notably he was an integral part to our faith leaders committee during MLK50. He hosted the first Moral Monday dinner and dialogue in 2017 leading up to the commemoration.”

Montgomery was one of three brothers who became Presbyterian ministers, including Rev. James Montgomery of Indianapolis, and Rev. David Montgomery of Toledo, Ohio. Their sister, Dorothy Montgomery Murphy, is an educator in Atlanta.

Their father,  opens in a new windowJ. Howard Montgomery, became publisher of John Knox Press in Atlanta. Afterward, he turned down several lucrative business offers to serve as a counselor for drug and alcohol patients. He died in 2016.

Their mother,  opens in a new windowMargaret Richey Montgomery, became director of refugee resettlement for the former Presbyterian Church in the United States and later for the Christian Council of Atlanta. She died in 2010.

In a sermon he preached at Idlewild after his mother’s death, Montgomery remembered how his parents hosted refugee families from around the world.

That “reminded me of a lesson I learned long ago from my mother as well as my father: love not only begets love, it transmits strength,” he said.

Montgomery enrolled at  opens in a new windowYale Divinity School in the mid-1970s with plans to become the kind of campus chaplain who had inspired him as an undergraduate at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

While at Yale, he met four people who would inform his vocation and change his life.

The first was Patricia Shivy, a divinity student and registered nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital. They were married in 1977.

In 1990, they flew to Lima, Peru, where they adopted their son, Aaron.

“Dear Aaron,” Montgomery said afterward in a sermon to his congregation in Doraville, Georgia, “A lot of people have said that you are so lucky to be in this country, to have Patti and me as parents. It is we who are the lucky ones, we who have been blessed…. It is through you that we once again witness the great, loving voice of God crying out for life.”

Three years later, Steve flew to Kathmandu, Nepal, where they adopted their daughter, Sumita.

“Dear Sumita,” Montgomery said in a sermon after they returned. “No one is ever beyond the reach of God’s grace. God pursues us in order to comfort us, to reassure us, finally to find us and to carry us home.”

At Yale, Montgomery also met Scott Morris, a fellow student from Atlanta, and founder of Church Health in Memphis.

They met on a softball field and bonded over baseball (both are fans of the Braves, Milwaukee’s and then Atlanta’s) and eventually over their shared biblical, theological and pastoral views of church and community.

When Morris went to medical school in Atlanta, he lived with Montgomery’s parents. When Morris moved to Memphis in 1986 to launch Church Health, they stayed in touch.

“When the position of senior pastor at Idlewild opened up, I convinced him to apply,” Morris said. “At one point the search committee was about to eliminate him from contention. I begged them to go hear him preach in Atlanta, which they did. And then they hired him.”

The Montgomerys weren’t looking to leave Atlanta, “but Scott was always telling me how relational Memphis is and how one person could make a difference there, so I listened,” Steve said in 2018.

Montgomery was deeply influenced by two other men he met at Yale, two teachers and spiritual giants – Henri Nouwen and William Sloane Coffin.

Montgomery took classes with Nouwen, a Dutch priest whose 39 books on Christian spirituality have been published in 28 languages.

“What makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love,” wrote Nouwen,

He took classes with Coffin, a civil rights and anti-war activist and ordained Presbyterian minister who informed a generation of college students.

“Every minister is given two roles, the priestly and the prophetic,” Coffin said. “The prophetic role is the disturber of the peace, to bring the minister himself, the congregation, and entire moral order some judgment.”

Montgomery’s studies at Yale drew him toward parish ministry, a calling that was sealed for him when he took off a year to work as an intern at a small church in rural North Carolina.

After Patti graduated in 1980, they moved to Kentucky, where Steve spent four years as pastor of a small Appalachian church.

“I learned that folks there don’t care if you know Barth or Bonhoeffer or Tillich,” Montgomery said in 2018. “They just want to know if you know Jesus and love them and him.”

After Kentucky, Montgomery served two Presbyterian churches in suburban Atlanta for 16 years.

After Montgomery became Idlewild’s senior pastor in 2000, he gently urged and helped the congregation, his Presbytery, and the larger community to practice what Nouwen called “radical hospitality.”

In scripture, Montgomery reminded his congregation on Valentine’s Day 2010, “We are commanded to love our neighbor one time. But we are commanded to love the stranger, the alien, the sojourner, no less than 36 times. I hadn’t realized that, but I think my mother could have told us that. She and my father practiced a life of radical hospitality.”

Montgomery invited people of all religious and political persuasions to come to Idlewild and pray for peace after 9/11, and again in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.

He invited Jews from Temple Israel and Muslims from Memphis Islamic Center and adherents of other faiths to meet regularly with his parishioners to share food, fellowship and discussions of faith.

He helped lead the Presbytery of the Mid-South to change its definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people,” and to allow its ministers to perform same-sex marriages where it is legal.

He helped found the Covenant Network of Presbyterians in 1997, established to further the inclusion of LGBTQ persons. He and his congregation hosted the Network’s controversial 2014 regional meeting.

“It is about the kind of church that I want my children, one of whom is Hispanic, and one of whom is Asian, to grow up in,” Montgomery said then. “A church that believes in a BIG God.”

Montgomery also attended the 2011 General Assembly of the politically and theologically conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Memphis. The EPC is a new home for pastors and congregations who left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – Montgomery’s denomination.

“God is bigger than any church, denomination or faith,” Montgomery said. “Our churches have different worship styles, theologies, and appeal to different people, and that’s OK.”

Craig Strickland, retired founding pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, an EPC church, remembers when he left Montgomery’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“Steve has been a very good friend to me for over 20 years,” Strickland said. “When I left the PCUSA to start Hope, my efforts were met with a great deal of criticism from my former colleagues in the PCUSA. But not Steve. He was gracious and loving and accepting and encouraging, which is very much his nature. Although righteous indignation was very much a part of who Steve was, his love for humankind was almost palpable.”

While at Idlewild, Montgomery earned a doctorate from Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. One of his professors and mentors was the renowned theologian Dr. Walter Brueggemann.

Brueggemann, whose book “The Prophetic Imagination” deeply influenced Montgomery’s ministry, wrote a foreword to Montgomery’s  opens in a new windowcollected sermons published in 2015.

“The truth he speaks is offered in graciousness and gentleness, spoken not to confront or to irritate but to permit movement to a new way in the world that is marked by glad gospel obedience,” Brueggemann wrote.

Montgomery was even more pastoral than prophetic.

“I am deeply saddened today,” said Gayle Rose, local corporate leader and philanthropist. “Steve was the only reason I made it through the loss of my son, Max. He pushed me into grief therapy and we met for lunch every three months to check in and talk.”

Montgomery delivered his  opens in a new windowfarewell sermon at Idlewild on May 5, 2019.

He thanked the congregation for giving him the “freedom in the pulpit” to address racism, poverty, homophobia, xenophobia and other social, political and personal matters.

He also thanked them for “opening the doors of the church” to all people, “because that’s what we do.”

He blessed them.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, live in peace. And may the God of love and peace be with you,” he said in his benediction.

Then, as he walked down the aisle for the final time, he sang to them. It was a song written by one of Montgomery’s favorite Presbyterian ministers and theologians, Mr. Rogers.

Whether old or new.

I hope that you’ll remember

Even when you’re feeling blue

That it’s you I like,

It’s you yourself,

It’s you,

It’s you I like.

Later that day, he posted the first of  opens in a new windoweight guest columns he wrote for The Daily Memphian.

His list of “12 things I have learned in the ministry” began with this:

“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.”

The family plans to have a memorial service at an appropriate time and requests that any donations be made in honor of Steve Montgomery to Church Health; 1350 Concourse Ave., Suite 142; Memphis, TN 38104.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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