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The Rev. James R. Crowder, Episcopal priest and former senior associate at the Church of the Redeemer, dies

The Rev. James R. Crowder became a vigorous proponent of civil rights in the 1960s.
The Rev. James R. Crowder became a vigorous proponent of civil rights in the 1960s. (handout)

The Rev. James R. Crowder, a retired Episcopal clergyman and former senior associate at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer who was an outspoken supporter of civil rights in the South in the 1960s, for which he received death threats, died April 6 of a subdermal hematoma at the Gilchrist Center in Towson.

The Broadmead Retirement Community resident was 87.

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“Wherever Jim went, he was held in high regard,” said former Suffragan Bishop Charles L. Longest of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, a longtime friend and traveling companion.

“He was a deep person, and when he made a commitment it was not a shallow commitment. He invested himself fully in it. He was a very capable and hardworking person, and when you asked him to do something, you knew it would be done responsibly and fully,” he said.

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“Whatever he was a part of, he contributed a tremendous amount of energy and conviction. That’s why his life and family were in danger in Mississippi,” Bishop longest said. “That’s a reflection that when he took on something, he gave it his all.”

James Robert Crowder, son of Walter Byron Crowder, a postal worker, and his wife, Sadie Graves Crowder, a schoolteacher, was born and raised in Ellisville, Mississippi.

A 1951 graduate of Jones County Agricultural High School, he began his college studies at Jones County Junior College, which was next door to his high school.

During his high school years, he worked as a radio announcer at a nearby station in Laurel, Mississippi.

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“That’s where he learned how to lose his southern accent,” said his wife of 63 years, the former Suzanne Reed Buckson, a registered nurse. “The station manager gave him a few books to read and told him to learn how to sound like announcers from the Midwest.”

Mr. Crowder transferred to Mississippi State University, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955 in business administration, and from 1955 to 1957 worked with the YMCA, where his sensitivity to racial issues and civil rights was deeply aroused.

Called to the ministry, he entered Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, from which he earned a master’s degree in 1959 in divinity and was ordained an Episcopal priest.

Mr. Crowder returned to Mississippi and was appointed an assistant at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Meridian, where he became a ”point person for busing organizers from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi, in an effort to register Black voters,” his wife said.

“The young people on the bus stopped in Meridian to use the bathroom, and Jim promised the gathered police who surrounded the buses that there would be no violence as they stood there with their hands on their holsters,” Mrs. Crowder said.

Her husband’s civil rights advocacy came at a cost.

“The Crowder phone was regularly tapped, and when you picked it up, you could hear a series of clicks, and there were death threats,” Mrs. Crowder recalled. “It was the Episcopal bishop of Mississippi who told Jim to get out or he would be killed, leaving a young widow with two children. He needed to get out.”

Three years after Mr. Crowder left Meridian to become rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mount Washington, the city gained further civil rights ignominy after the Ku Klux Klan, aided by the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department and the Philadelphia Police Department, murdered civil right workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were attempting to register African American voters.

Mr. Crowder continued his civil rights activism and in July 1963 was one of 283 demonstrators, many of them clergy, who were arrested during an anti-segregation demonstration at Gwynn Oak Park.

In 1966, Mr. Crowder became rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Timonium, where he remained for a decade until being named rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Farmington, Connecticut. While in New England, he chaired the Crowder Commission, which reorganized the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut and hired one of its first ordained women priests.

“Looking back, both on his positions on racial justice and the ordination of women, were issues for which he paid a heavy price in some parishes,” his wife said.

Mr. Crowder left Connecticut in 1989 when the Rev. Robert Patterson, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, asked him to come to Baltimore as senior associate and a member of the church’s staff, where he was able to spend less time in administrative duties and more time for pastoral and liturgical work.

Jeffrey P. Ayres, a longtime Redeemer parishioner and former chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, was a close friend of Mr. Crowder’s.

“Jim was a ‘Steady Eddie Murphy’ kind of priest and person. He was calm and collected, loyal and grounded,” wrote My Ayres in an email. “He gave me pastoral solace and support, when my mother died unexpectedly three decades ago, that I remember like he was drinking coffee with me this morning.”

“These were rich years,” Mrs. Crowder said, that were crowned when the Episcopal bishop of Maryland asked him to head the diocesan Human Sexuality Commission. He was joined by other diocesan clergy and faculty of the University of Maryland Medical School to study the subject of human sexuality, and then moved throughout the diocese educating parishes as issues arose regarding this matter.

As co-author of the 1992 human sexuality report, Mr. Crowder said the that “church remains divided on how it should regard homosexual unions,” reported The Baltimore Sun in 1995.

In 1991, The Sun reported that Mr. Crowder told Baltimore County Council members that he had come to the conclusion that sexual orientation “is given at birth. The fact that it’s not a matter of choice puts it in a whole different category, as far as I’m concerned.”

While with the Diocese of Maryland, he was active with the Citizens Planning & Housing Association to combat discrimination in real estate, as well as setting up deacon training programs and ecumenical vacation Bible schools.

After Mr. Crowder retired in 1998, he and his wife remained active at the Church of the Redeemer.

Since 2011, the Cockeysville resident had lived at Broadmead, where he led occasional Vespers services. He was a former president of the retirement community’s residents association and a representative to its board of directors. He enjoyed reading, playing golf and attending vintage automobile shows.

Mr. Crowder left his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board. Plans for a memorial service at Redeemer in June are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Paul R. Crowder of Louisville, Colorado, and Christopher J. Crowder of Bend, Oregon; two daughters, Catherine C. Johnston of Minneapolis and A. Elizabeth Crowder of Hillsboro, North Carolina; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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