Civil rights activist and Baptist preacher Walter E. Fauntroy said farewell Sunday to the church he has called home for nearly 50 years, exhorting hundreds of parishioners and well-wishers to live “always hoping, trusting and loving one another.”
“I’ve come to the end of my work as pastor of the church after 50 years, and I do it on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King’s life, his birthday and legacy. And I am so blessed to do this at a time when we will see the fruition” of Mr. King’s vision.
Mr. Fauntroy, who has steered New Bethel Baptist Church with a steady hand since 1959, spoke passionately about the civil rights struggle that has defined his professional life.
“I have a lot of stops while I am here this week,” said Jesse Jackson Sr. “But this, New Bethel, is my first stop because it would have been Dr. King’s first stop. It was his first stop when he was alive, and he never stopped coming to New Bethel.”
Mr. Fauntroy, 75, was a close friend of King, whose birth is commemorated Monday, the day before Barack Obama is sworn in as the country’s first black president.
Fauntroy aides said the reverend chose this weekend to step down because of its historical significance.
Colleagues and friends say “the singing preacher,” as he is affectionately known, will put his energy into an international version of the community building he brought to the Northwest neighborhood Shaw.
Mr. Fauntroy, who worked tirelessly against the South African apartheid, also has been active in interfaith efforts to stimulate economic development and cross-cultural understanding in the United States and abroad.
He was a headlining speaker at the Global Peace Festival in August on the steps of the Capitol building, where he outlined his vision for a new peace initiative rooted in community service and greater involvement of religious institutions.
He also plans to spend more time trying to relieve African poverty, working with U.N. programs to implement the Millennium Development Goals to halve hunger and illiteracy, while building access to water and sanitation, schools and meaningful work.
Mr. Fauntroy and Dorothy Simms, have two children: Marvin Keith and Melissa Alice.
They adopted their daughter nearly two decades ago, at the suggestion of Barbara Bush. Mr. Fauntroy was accompanying then President Bush and his wife on a tour of D.C. General Hospital.
In the late 1960s, he was one of the rights activists who joined forces with Mr. King in the late 1960s, helping to organize the legendary March on Washington that has become the model for every civil demonstration staged at the Lincoln Memorial.
On Tuesday, he will be the co-host of an anticipated 12,000 “African and International Friends” at unofficial inaugural ball at National Harbor in Oxon Hill.
Mr. Fauntroy has deep roots in D.C. politics, locally and nationally.