The Rev. Charles Gordon Clews, a United Methodist minister who challenged racial segregation early in his career and later created a drive-in church for harried summer parishioners, died Friday of respiratory failure at Northwest Medical Center. He was 81.
In a career that spanned 60 years, Mr. Clews served Methodist churches in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Indiana and Virginia. The resident of Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster retired last year. He was born in Kennedyville, the son of a Methodist minister who had emigrated in 1903 from Widnes, England, to minister to rural congregations in Virginia, Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
The son was raised in Frostburg. A 1932 graduate of Savage High School, he graduated from the Moody Bible Institute in 1934 and earned his bachelor's degree from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., in 1938.
One of the lasting experiences of Mr. Clews' childhood was the death of his twin, George, who was killed by a drunken driver at age 9. "His first pastorate in the late 1930s was the Union Rescue Mission in Washington, D.C., where he came to regard the alcoholics and homeless he served as 'God's Little Pearls,' " said a son, Vincent Clews of Reisterstown. "The special regard he developed for this particular population became one of the hallmarks of his ministry."
In 1940, he married the former Eleanora Marciano. He was assigned in the early 1940s to a church in Richmond, Va. Later, he was a circuit rider, ministering to five churches in Brunswick County, Va.
On his first Sunday in one pulpit, his son said, Mr. Clews told the congregation, "If the Constitution is true, the Negro is my equal. If the Bible is true, the Negro is my brother. I believe both are true, and these church doors will be open to everyone who chooses to attend."
As a result, white members of the church walked out.
"That took a lot of courage especially in a community where in those days the blacks stepped off the sidewalk when whites came along. The congregation eventually came back and many became lifelong friends of his," Vincent Clews said.
As minister of Hollywood Methodist Church in St. Mary's County in 1950, Mr. Clews inaugurated Sunday morning drive-in services at an outdoor theater so parishioners could attend church casually dressed and have the rest of the day for other pursuits.
He preached from the top of the concession stand while the congregation listened over speakers placed on the car windows.
In 1961, he moved to Baltimore's Hampden United Methodist Church. He ministered there until 1969, and became a familiar and friendly figure in the community.
But when he learned that a black family who moved to Hampden was made to feel unwelcome he castigated the congregation at the next Sunday's service. "He advised them that it was more important to make it a better neighborhood than to worry about the color of the skin of those who moved in," said Vincent Clews.
The minister was also remembered as considerate of those who wished to attend Colt football games. Even though he didn't attend the games himself because he believed that they should not be played on the Lord's Day, he always made certain that parishioners could leave in time to reach the stadium for the kickoff.
Other churches served by Mr. Clews included Providence in Friendly and Deer Park in Reisterstown. He preached part time in Towson, Forest Hills and Westminster before his retirement.
"He was most proud of the fact that no matter how society changed, he preached Christ crucified for mankind's redemption and the inviolate word of God," said his daughter, Marcia Wessel of Cardiff.
"He was ahead of his time when it came to the treatment of blacks," said the Rev. C. Winfield Hall of Annapolis, a friend for nearly 50 years. "He was on time while the others were behind time."
Mr. Hall will conduct services for Mr. Clews at 11 a.m. today at Westminster United Methodist Church, 165 E. Main St., Westminster.
In addition to his wife, daughter and son, Mr. Clews' survivors include another son, Carter L. Clews of Westminster; and six grandchildren. His brother, the Rev. W. Hedley Clews, also a Methodist minister for 45 years in the Washington area, died in 1979. The family suggested memorial donations to the Methodist Board of Child Care, 3300 Gaither Road, Baltimore 21244.