The Rev. Charles W. Gilchrist

`Servant's heart': A leader whose spiritual and secular lives merged in service to others.

June 29, 1999

WHEN HE LEFT Maryland politics for the Episcopal Church, friends said Charlie Gilchrist had always been more priest than politician.

He explained his abrupt change as if it were not such a change at all, just a different community need.

"I had a feeling the church didn't respond to real problems of people," said Mr. Gilchrist, 62, who died Friday of pancreatic cancer.

Some thought the state senator and Montgomery County executive could have become governor. He was an able administrator whose reputation for scrupulous fairness and honesty took him through difficult political times without blemish.

His associates spoke in awe of a man who seemed naively committed to doing right in a political world. "He was sometimes maddening and always inspiring," said Blair Lee IV, Montgomery County's lobbyist in Annapolis when Mr. Gilchrist was the county executive.

When Mr. Gilchrist announced his new spiritual vocation in 1986, it was a dramatic though natural evolution. He became an inner-city priest, serving after his ordination at the aptly named Church of the Epiphany in Chicago. He and his wife, Phoebe, lived in that parish for five years.

In 1996, as some of his old Democratic Party allies gathered for the presidential nominating convention, Mr. Gilchrist said he would return to Baltimore for a post in the New Song Ministry in Sandtown-Winchester. At a going-away party in Chicago, one of the Epiphany parish's young people said, "We're going to miss his kindness, his warmth, his heart" -- just as the people of Sandtown-Winchester welcomed it.

"He has a real servant's heart," said Allan Tibbels, co-director of the community's Habitat for Humanity program.

At New Song, Mr. Tibbels said, "We share the pain and the struggle, the joy and celebration -- and there is quite a bit of both."

The pain of loss is eased perhaps by the recollection of Charles Gilchrist's ennobling and inspiring service to others.

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