Lex Mathews, pioneer of North Carolina social ministries, remembered

By Summerlee Walter
Posted Apr 8, 2014
The Rev. Lex Mathews, director of Christian social ministries for the Diocese of North Carolina, 1975-1985. Photo from the archives of the Diocese of North Carolina.

The Rev. Lex Mathews, director of Christian social ministries for the Diocese of North Carolina, 1975-1985. Photo from the archives of the Diocese of North Carolina.

[Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina] The Diocese of North Carolina recently gathered to commemorate and be inspired by the legacy of the Rev. Lex Mathews, director of Christian social ministries for the diocese from 1975 until his untimely death in 1985.

On April 5, people from across the Southeast came together at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, to share stories about the man who brought hospice care to North Carolina, inspired dozens of feeding ministries, established a scholarship for women entering the workforce, shepherded the founding of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, and encouraged the creation of local outreach ministries that have since become the backbone of the diocese’s presence in local communities.

The oral history event, organized by diocesan historiographer the Rev. Brooks Graebner and diocesan archivist Lynn Hoke, included six members of the Mathews family and three bishops. The event was recorded to add to the diocese’s historical record.

The day began with Graebner contextualizing the historical significance of Mathews’ work, which encouraged congregations to engage in local outreach ministries and led to the formation of church-based outreach committees, a fairly novel idea in the 1970s. In opposition to an Episcopal Church initiative to address the social unrest of the 1960s by bypassing dioceses and local churches with national grants made directly to local community organizations, Mathews called on North Carolina’s 1976 annual convention to stop relying on supposed experts to dictate social ministries.

“Good Christian theology tells us that man’s need to love is greater than his need to be loved,” he told the convention. “Now, change that so it reads ‘to help rather than to be helped.’ When we ask the Atlantas, the Washingtons or whatever to be the helper, then we cut the light right out from under the would-be helpers in our own backyards.”

Mathews’ efforts to stem the alienation between the broader Episcopal Church and many of the diocese’s congregations — and between congregations and the work happening in their communities — led him in 1974 to propose a new position. He called his idea “Community Consultant and Instigator for Disoriented Young People,” a characteristically Mathews phrase, Graebner assured attendees. The position evolved into the director of the Committee for Christian Social Ministries, but Mathews’ original vision of “the community address[ing] itself to its own problem utilizing its own resources on a very low budget instead of wringing its hands, cursing young people and waiting on some sort of overnight magic cure in the form of a government grant” remained the defining characteristic of the group’s work.

Scott Evans Hughes, former president of the Episcopal Church Women in North Carolina, recalled a time Mathews encouraged her to address a local problem. In 1979 she was on her way to a meeting at the diocesan office when she drove by a development project and wondered who cared for the animals displaced by the construction.

“I realized I did,” she said.

With Mathews’ encouragement, Hughes educated herself about environmental issues and eventually brought her concerns before the 1982 Triennial Meeting of Episcopal Church Women. According to Hughes, it was one of the first times the Episcopal Church took up the environmental cause.

“Lex encouraged me, supported me and charmed me into doing more than I ever thought I could,” she explained.

Mathews’ active role in encouraging lay people, and especially women, to pursue causes about which they were passionate was a theme that ran throughout the day’s stories.

The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple and Judy Wright Mathews remember Lex Mathews. Photo: Summerlee Walter.

The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple and Judy Wright Mathews remember Lex Mathews. Photo: Summerlee Walter.

The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, bishop suffragan of North Carolina, recalled a 1982 meeting she had with the Rt. Rev. Robert Estill, former bishop of North Carolina, while she was still a community organizer working in rural Kentucky. When Fraser enthusiastically described to her the principles of community organizing that Mathews taught him, Hodges-Copple began to think there might be a place for her in the priesthood in North Carolina.

“Lex was a midwife in showing and leading women into their own ministries, especially lay ministries,” she said. “He believed in the capacity of each one of us to embody Jesus in an authentic way.”

Panelists also described the ways Mathews’ contributions continue to motivate change in North Carolina. The Episcopal Farmworker Ministry he helped to found in Dunn provides liturgical ministry, English as a Second Language classes, pesticide education, transportation to medical care and donations of food, clothing, and toiletry kits to 3,500 migrant workers each year. Good Shepherd’s Shepherd’s Table soup kitchen, one of approximately 45 local feeding ministries Mathews inspired, continues to serve hot lunches to 350 people each week day. The Lex Mathews Scholarship for Women has distributed $270,000 in scholarships to women entering college as non-traditional students, and the hospice network in North Carolina owes its existence to Mathews’ dedicated efforts in the late 1970s to recruit the right people to incorporate the program.

Six members of the Mathews family attended the commemorative event held in Lex Mathews’ honor. Photo: Karla Joy Towle.

Six members of the Mathews family attended the commemorative event held in Lex Mathews’ honor. Photo: Karla Joy Towle.

Mathews’ wife, Judy Wright Mathews, was thrilled by the outpouring of love and respect for her late husband and was glad to see that his work continues.

“This gives me a chance to see the work done for the marginalized people reinforced,” she said before advocating for the work yet to be done. “I think there’s more things we can do. The trends in the United States now make it more difficult for these marginalized people.”

For Hughes, it is clear that Mathews’ example will continue to inspire outreach ministries in North Carolina.

“When Bishop Curry asked us to ‘go do’ at this year’s convention, that was Lex.”

— Summerlee Walter is the communications coordinator for the Diocese of North Carolina.


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Comments (5)

  1. Douglas M. Carpenter says:

    In our class of 1960 at Virginia Seminary, Lex was the one we turned to when we wanted counsel. His counseling included a lot of good humor and foolishness that was very healing. He and I often drove back and forth between Virginia and Alabama. Those long drives which could have been tedious were instead delightful; full of conversation, laughter and a deep communion of our spirits. He had a special way of making one’s spirt sparkle with thanksgiving. – Doug Carpenter

    1. Waite Maclin says:

      Reading about Lex, Judy and in particular Doug Carpenter’s response to “The Letter From The Birmingham Jail” bring back so many good, important and cherished memories from those years in North Carolina, Virginia and the Province. This is a way of saying hello to all my good friends after so many years.

      Can I also add that included in those memories are wonderful ones of my dear friend, Jim “Cracker” Walter and his many stories he told of his escapades with cousin, Lex in Alabama.

      We all lived through such important and crucial times.

      Warm regards and love, Waite

  2. Ron Caldwell says:

    I wish I had known about this in advance. I would have been there for sure. I knew Lex Mathews in the “in between” years, between Alabama and North Carolina. He had a profound influence on my life. I was a lowly college student at Florida State disillusioned with the religion of my youth and floundering around for new meaning in life. Lex showed me how to combine faith with social action. In an era of great turmoil, he had a clear vision of justice and a will to carry it out, even against the odds; and he did so with grace and humor. That has been the guide of my life ever since. Besides, he officiated at my wedding at the student chapel in Tallahassee in 1966. In two years, my wife and I plan to return to that place for our golden anniversary. I know Lex will be there too. — Ron Caldwell (student at FSU, 1963-66, 1968-71).

  3. The Rev. Joyce W. Holmes says:

    I knew Lex Mathews at FSU, as well. While I was there (1967-1972) I got to be the first woman lector in the Diocese of Florida, first female President of Canterbury House and the first female president of the University Religious Council. In those days, it was revolutionary! Lex paved the way for equal rights for women, long before others understood the Gospel imperative! Also,he was fortunate to have an Assisting Chaplain, John Talbird, Jr. who walked along side of Lex and his ministry.
    Lex, continue to rest in the loving arms of Jesus as you need to and continue the unbinding of people’s lives! Joyce+

  4. The Rev Garrett Wingfield says:

    I just read Judy’s article from the Church Pension Fund and wanted to share this story with her. In 1963 I was in my first church assignment at St John’s, Silbee TX. At that time my wife and I had 6 children, 3 sons & 3 daughters. On the first Bishop’s visitation, Bishop Milton Richardson was accompanied by his wife Gene. At lunch after the Confirmation, Gene said to me, “Garrett I have not seen female acolytes before in this Diocese. I think you are breaking new ground.” I replied, “I did not realize that, with three daughters in the family it just seemed to be the right thing to do.”

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