The Reverend Joseph Alger Pelham, 1930-1992
The Rev. Joseph Pelham, former president of ESCRU, diocesan Executive Council member, and long-time Director of the Episcopal City Mission in Boston, led a life of service characterized by his talent for leadership and his devotion to the eradication of racial and economic injustice, both within the Church and in the larger world.
Joseph Alger Pelham was born in Detroit in 1930, to Alger Joseph Pelham and Isabell Street. He attended the University of Michigan, receiving his BA in 1952, and graduated from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in 1955. He was ordained a deacon in June of that same year, and priested in 1956. Before being ordained a priest, he served briefly as Deacon-in-Charge at St. Cyprian’s, a historically black parish in Detroit, and then as Curate of St. Paul's in Saginaw, MI, from 1955-1956. Following this, he returned to his native city as the Assistant Rector of Mariners Church, Detroit, from 1956-58.
Joe Pelham began to take on leadership roles while at Mariner's Church, serving as assistant director and then executive director of the Diocesan Department of Christian Social Relations from 1956 to 1962. During this period, he was also Chairman of Province V (1960-1963) and he served as Vice President of ESCRU from 1960 to 1962, becoming President from 1962 to 1964. At the Special General Convention in 1969, Pelham was among the spokesmen for the Union of Black Clergy and Laity, who vehemently insisted that the Church give $200,000 with no strings attached to the Black Economic Development Conference.
In 1969, Rev. Pelham left Trinity Church to become Dean of Students and an Associate Professor of Field Education at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School (Bexley Hall), where he taught until 1981. During his time in Rochester, he helped the school to implement a Black Studies program, designed not only to prepare black students for ordination but to enrich the school’s culture by introducing students of other races to the unique black religious experience. He also began to turn his attention to the pressing issue of economic injustice, studying particularly the effects of poverty, neglect and discrimination on the urban population.
He was the principal author of the influential advocacy piece, To Hear and To Heed: The Episcopal Church Listens and Acts in the City, published for the Urban Bishops Coalition, writing an extensive and far-reaching study of existing problems and proposing a detailed plan of action for the Church in urban areas.
In 1981, Pelham moved to Boston to serve as the Executive Director of the Episcopal City Mission. Under his direction, the Mission began to address not only the effects of poverty, but the root causes, enlarging the scope of the mission work to include public policy studies and statements. The first policy paper published by the Mission was “Housing as a Basic Human Right.” While at the City Mission, Pelham also served as a Jubilee officer for the Diocese of Massachusetts.
Joseph Pelham died of kidney failure in 1992, at the age of 62, while still serving at the Episcopal City Mission. The City Mission established a fund in his honor. The Pelham Fund for Economic Justice provides start-up money to community-oriented programs and revitalization efforts in the Northeast. [Sources]