For one longtime Oklahoma City preacher — and America in general — 1963 was a watershed year:
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
Four little black girls were killed when the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed.
And the Rev. John Arethaus “J.A.” Reed, became senior pastor of Fairview Baptist Church, 1700 NE 7, one of the more prominent black churches in Oklahoma City.
Reed is celebrating his 50th anniversary as Fairview's pastor. The clergyman said he feels as if his pastoral ministry is intricately interwoven into the fabric of his vibrant church and the surrounding community.
Part of that appears to be because Reed, 74, has been the church's leader for almost half of the 104-year-old church's existence.
And it all started in 1963 — his momentous first year as Fairview's pastor.
His memories of meeting historic people and visiting historic places that year are still vivid.
“I met Martin Luther King in person in Birmingham, and I met Ralph Abernathy, too,” he said during a recent interview. “I had an opportunity to go to one of the rallies at the 16th Street Church that June, and I heard Martin Luther King preach there. The (church) bombing was in September.”
“In 1963 when I came, we were right in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle,” he said. “How do you preach during a tumultuous time?”
Reed said he has the wonderful distinction of having been baptized in the church where he is pastor. He said his family lived in the 700 block of Kelham Avenue when he was baptized at age 7 at Fairview. As the son of a Baptist preacher, Reed said he was surrounded by God-fearing people, both at home and at the church. He said many of the people who watched him grow up over the years were members of the congregation when he was called as the church's senior pastor.
“There was a crowd of people here who knew me and taught me. They really helped me become who I am,” he said, smiling.
The gregarious Reed preached his 50th anniversary sermon on a sunny Sunday in January. He said at that time, he gave honor to many of those people who knew him as a youth and helped him along the way to the pastorate. The congregation plans to host an anniversary celebration and banquet for Reed on March 15.
“I've seen at least four generations here and maybe a few fifth (generations),” he said.
He said many members see him and his wife, Patricia, as father and mother figures and not just as the pastor and first lady of the church.
“Most of them don't call me pastor. They call me ‘Pops,'” he said.
Reed said the church and the Oklahoma City black community at large would draw upon that sense of family and connectedness throughout the turbulent '60s. He said he drew upon Scripture during those difficult days when Jim Crow laws kept the city segregated and blacks faced daily challenges of racism and social economic injustice.
“We used the word of God to transform lives,” Reed said.
He said it's important to note King was a Baptist preacher, and the Civil Rights movement was birthed in the black church. He said King's message of nonviolence had Scriptural basis, most notably in the words of Christ who encourages believers to turn the other cheek when they are struck and to pray for those who despise them.
“How do you preach during a tumultuous time? My response at this church was: through the word of God. It kept the membership encouraged,” Reed said.
He said he found himself alongside local rights leader Clara Luper, now deceased, during the sit-in movement she led in downtown Oklahoma City. Reed said he remembers meeting at churches to discuss the struggle for civil rights, and one incident in particular stands out.
Reed said he was the youngest pastor among a group of black clergy who decided to take a stand with the city's mostly black sanitation workers who went on strike in 1969 in the hopes of gaining better wages and working conditions. Reed said the sanitation strike was led by the Rev. W.K. Jackson, who was the much respected senior pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church at that time.
Negotiations halted eventually because the two sides were at an impasse.
Reed said at one point, he and the group of clergy, holding Bibles, faced down several hundred police and highway patrol troopers and a sanitation truck that appeared to be prepared to move the group of nonviolent protesters out of the way. The clergy group — holding fast to King's nonviolent approach — were attempting to lead protesters in a march to Oklahoma City Hall.
“We stood there, and Rev. Jackson was reading the 1 Chronicles 16:22 that says, ‘Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm,' as the truck was moving right toward us,” Reed said.
“You had to be prayed up to do that,” he said, grinning and shaking his head.
Reed said the harrowing moment was worth it: The sanitation workers received better wages and working conditions six days later. By most accounts, Jackson and the other clergy leaders and strike leaders were praised by both blacks and whites in the community for their leadership of the nonviolent protests.
Reed said he and his church congregation have tried to stay abreast of challenges facing the community as they walked out their faith journeys together.
“Over the years, our church has been involved in this community. We haven't ever given up,” Reed said.
He said the church has numerous outreach ministries, including a food and clothing giveaway program and rental assistance program. Reed said he is particularly proud of the 2012 summer youth camp that drew hundreds of children from all over the metro for educational and fun activities at a nominal fee. The church also has a prison ministry that is far-reaching and aimed at ministering to offenders helping them transition into society once they complete their sentences, he said.
Reed said he has learned over his 50 years as Fairview's pastor that churches play a vital role in the communities they serve.
“The greatest organization that we have in our community is the church,” he said.
Reed said those who lived in the tumultuous '60s likely would agree with him. He said his past has been filled with historic moments and he won't be found sitting “idly by” as he helps to shape the future of his church, the city, state and country.