Episcopal priest made his reputation by listening If trouble starts, he's called to mediate

May 10, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

When his great-niece drew a picture of the Rev. Robert Powell, she gave him out-sized ears.

"Uncle Bobby is the only one who listens," she told her mother.

In his 21 years as rector of St. Philips Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Father Powell, 63, has developed a reputation as a man with his ears open -- to angry black teen-agers, elderly people and other pastors.

Anne Arundel County schools have asked him to work as a racial trouble-shooter. In 1973, when black parents filed suit against the Board of Education, charging that black students were being expelled in greater numbers than whites for similar offenses, Father Powell was called in to mediate.

He led a committee -- known as the Powell committee -- that developed a discipline code to meet the needs of the system as well as responding to the black community.

"He was able to do that, to be a bridge between the parties," says Carl O. Snowden, Annapolis alderman and civil rights activist. "Whatever reforms have been brought about in the last 20 years in the schools, he has been an integral part of addressing them."

He has continued to intervene in county high schools whenever racial tensions have erupted. Students calm down when they realize he is willing to listen, says Father Powell.

Phoebe Coe, rector of Epiphany Church in Odenton, counts Father Powell as a friend who supported her vocation at a time when women clergy weren't too popular.

Father Powell was president of the standing committee that approved her for ordination in 1977, making Ms. Coe the first woman ordained to the priesthood in a Maryland Episcopal church.

"I'm very, very fond of him," she says. "He was the kind of person I could always talk to."

Members of his congregation praise their priest's outgoing warmth and activism. "He's practically into everything in Annapolis," says Eli Arthur, 74, a former senior warden of the vestry, the church's governing body. "There are very few ministers like that of any denomination. I think a lot of things he goes to because a lot of other ministers won't go."

Father Powell works with the Light House Shelter on West Street; for years, he has served on the board of the County Human Relations Commission and with the County Ministerial Alliance.

Most striking is the priest's ability to touch people's inner needs.

Asked to pray at a political function a few years ago, Father

Powell asked those gathered to turn to their neighbor and say, "I love you."

The priest often gives his church members the same advice. "Look your neighbor in the eye and say, 'I love you,' and mean it," the priest will say. "And if you can't, feel sorry for yourself!"

This might sound hokey to some, but Father Powell, who paints butterflies as a symbol of life and collects clown figures, sees it as responding to a human need.

"There's nothing superficial about it," he says. "I don't care how many people are there: I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit."

When everyone starts hugging, "All of a sudden, you're in the middle of a big party," reports one member.

The party may grow before long. Several large condominiums are being built across the street from the church, bringing 2,300 new residents to the community. Bestgate Road is becoming a four-lane highway.

Church members expect their chief drawing card to be Father Powell himself -- a big man with a deep voice. Says longtime member Velma McCullough: "Nobody will get there faster when you need help than Father Powell."

It is the same personality that built the church at a time when there weren't many black Episcopal priests.

Back then, says Mr. Arthur, Episcopalians weren't terribly interested in their black brethren. In 1969, the little mission church moved from Northwest Street to Bestgate Road, but no priest stayed for long, and the church dwindled.

On Father Powell's first Sunday in 1971, an usher came to tell him that a large congregation had assembled for his first sermon. "How many?" he asked. "Twenty-three," said the usher.

Part of the problem was that upper-class black members didn't welcome other blacks into the church, Father Powell says. "It was a closed society. The average nonblue-blood person felt not welcomed," he says.

Now Father Powell presides over a racially integrated congregation of 250 families, with about 30 white families and a handful of Hispanic and Chinese members, cutting across all economic levels.

"I've never stressed the fact it's integrated, but sometimes I notice everyone together singing the same hymns. This is a microcosm of what it could be like," says Father Powell.

The priest was the first black student to attend Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. Later, he was the first black president of the standing committee -- the first in 192 years of history -- of the Maryland diocese, which makes major decisions for the diocese.

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