Faith leaders and religion influencers who died in 2020

(RNS) — 2020 has been a year of mourning of seemingly biblical proportions, including a mounting global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, nearing 2 million as the year closes out.

Losses in the religion world included people known for their contributions to preaching, civil rights or music.

Luminaries from entertainment, politics and sports, such as Chadwick Boseman, Little Richard, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Kobe Bryant, were known for work unrelated to faith but nevertheless lived lives connected to religion. The suicides of pastor Darrin Patrick and Marilane Carter, a pastor’s wife, prompted outpourings of grief and alarm over clergy mental health.

Here are 10 religious influencers who died in 2020:

Bishop Barbara Harris

The retired prelate was the first woman to be ordained and consecrated as a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Newly consecrated as the first woman bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Barbara Harris gives the benediction at the conclusion of a service in Boston on Feb. 11, 1989. Religion News Service file photo

Harris died at age 89 on March 13.

Known for quoting the words “Hallelujah anyhow” from a gospel song, Harris served as the suffragan, or assisting, bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts from 1989 until her retirement in 2002. She later was an assisting bishop in the Diocese of Washington.

The great-granddaughter of a woman born into slavery, Harris broke numerous stereotypes: Not only was she the first woman Anglican bishop, she was African American, divorced, and had not graduated from seminary.

“The temptation we have,” she said in her first sermon as bishop, “is to play it safe, don’t make waves.

“But if Jesus had played it safe, we would not be saved,” she continued, as noted in 1989 coverage in the Los Angeles Times. “If the Diocese of Massachusetts had played it safe, I would not be standing here clothed in rochet and chimere and wearing a pectoral cross.”

The Rev. Joseph Lowery

The preacher and close colleague of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was known for his efforts to desegregate buses, protest apartheid and draw attention to the AIDS crisis in the U.S. and Africa.

In this Aug. 12, 2009, file photo, President Barack Obama presents a 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Lowery died at the age of 98 on March 27.

The United Methodist minister served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for 20 years after co-founding it with King.

Lowery, who was dubbed the “dean of the civil rights movement” by the NAACP, gave the benediction at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, recalling the country’s racial challenges as the nation gained its first Black president. Several years later, Lowery criticized President George W. Bush for “weapons of misdirection” as they both were on the dais for Coretta Scott King’s funeral.

Obama presented Lowery with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 2009. Asked if his work was mostly completed after his inaugural prayer and receipt of the medal, Lowery said no.

“Our work is never done,” he told Religion News Service in 2011. “A Christian’s work is never done. The spiritual says we’ve always got ‘one more river to cross.’”

Ravi Zacharias

The Christian evangelist and author of more than 20 books rose to prominence after Billy Graham invited him to appear at a 1983 international evangelism conference.

Ravi Zacharias speaks to students at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, in Oxford, England, in July 2018. Photo by Hazel Thompson/True Image Media

Zacharias died at age 74 on May 19.

He founded a Georgia-based apologetics ministry in which he and, eventually, almost 100 other Christian evangelists spoke and trained others in how to answer questions about Christianity and the existence of God.

Shortly before Zacharias’ death, prominent evangelicals spoke of how he was one of their “heroes” and how their shelves included his books.

But in recent months an investigation by a law firm hired by his ministry has found what the firm called “significant, credible evidence that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of many years.”

In a Dec. 23 announcement about the interim investigation update, the board of directors of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries said “we share your compassion for any victims of this conduct, and we appreciate your prayers for them and also for Ravi’s family who have been devastated by this information.”

John Lewis

The longtime civil rights activist and ordained Baptist minister was known for preaching about getting in “good trouble.” He was often remembered for being beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as he worked for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama join hands with Rep. John Lewis, center, as they lead the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015. Photo courtesy of The White House/Lawrence Jackson

Lewis died at the age of 80 on July 17.

He was also the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, speaking shortly before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis later became a longtime U.S. congressman representing the state of Georgia.

As he coped with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Lewis urged attendees at the National Prayer Breakfast in February to “be a blessing to our fellow human beings.”

Lewis wrote in “March,” an award-winning graphic novel series, of how he preached to his chickens as a child on his family farm and later gave his first public sermon at age 15. He told RNS in 2016 he didn’t regret moving away from traditional ministry.

“I preach every day,” he said. “Every day, I’m preaching a sermon, telling people to get off their butts and do something.”

The Rev. C.T. Vivian

The minister and civil rights advocate was known for confronting an Alabama sheriff as Black residents of Selma sought to register to vote.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian in Washington on Aug. 23, 2013. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Vivian died at the age of 95 on July 17.

The social justice work of Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian began in 1947, when he nonviolently and successfully protested segregated lunch counters in Peoria, Illinois.

Two decades later, he stood almost nose to nose with Sheriff Jim Clark on the steps of a Selma courthouse.

“You can turn your back on me but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice,” Vivian told Clark minutes before the sheriff punched the minister in the face. “You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand but you cannot beat down justice.”

Vivian served on the executive staff of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta and was the editor for a Baptist Sunday school publisher. In 2013, he was honored by Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sister Ardeth Platte

The nun in the Dominican order was a proponent of nuclear disarmament who later was the inspiration for a character in the “Orange Is the New Black” series on Netflix.

Sister Ardeth Platte is shown outside of the Danbury Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Connecticut, after being released from the prison on Dec. 22, 2005. (AP Photo/Douglas Healey)

Platte died at age 84 on Sept. 30.

She worked with Sister Carol Gilbert, her frequent collaborator and best friend, and served time in prison for her nonviolent civil disobedience as she opposed war and nuclear weapons. They recently had been working to gain support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

In Michigan, Platte worked as a teacher and coordinator of Saginaw’s Home for Peace and Justice. Her story became the subject of a documentary about her and other nuns and the catalyst for the “Orange Is the New Black” character. She had practiced yoga with fellow prisoner Piper Kerman, author of the book on which the series was based, when they both served in a Connecticut prison.

In 2017, Platte described herself to The Denver Post as someone dedicated to peace.

“I refuse to have an enemy,” she said. “I simply won’t.”

James Randi

The onetime magician and author was known for his investigation and disproving of faith healers.

James Randi in 2014. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Randi died at the age of 92 on Oct. 20.

The New York Times reported that the skeptic, known as the “Amazing Randi,” moved from seeking to break the records of illusionist Houdini to exposing falsehoods. It noted he was inquisitive from an early age as a boy attending Sunday school.

“They started to read to me from the Bible,” the newspaper said he recalled in 2016. “And I interrupted and said: ‘Excuse me, how do you know that’s true? It sounds strange.’”

In 1976, along with scientists such as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, Randi founded the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, now known as the Center for Inquiry. The white-bearded and bespectacled man appeared on TV shows and spoke at atheist gatherings, including the 2016 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. The MacArthur Grant winner was honored by numerous scientific, atheist and magician organizations.

“To the skeptical movement, he was a hero,” said Center for Inquiry President Robyn Blumner at the time of Randi’s death. “To us, he was family.”

Bishop Rance Allen

The gospel singer known for the song “Something About the Name Jesus” created the Rance Allen Group in 1969 with two of his brothers.

Bishop Rance Allen performs in 2014. Video screengrab via Warner Music Group

Allen died at age 71 on Oct. 31.

He was the lead vocalist for the group known for incorporating R&B, soul and rock with traditional Black gospel music. The five-time Grammy nominee joined his group in a 2015 performance for Obama at an event celebrating gospel music history.

An Ohio pastor who became a bishop of the Church of God in Christ in 2011, Allen performed “Blessing Me Again” with rapper Snoop Dogg at the 2018 Super Bowl Gospel Celebration.

Early in 2020, a Toledo radio station honored Allen during Black History Month.

“I’ve been singing over 60 years and it’s all been as far as I was concerned a ministry,” he told the station.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom was a Modern Orthodox rabbi who fostered interfaith understanding.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks holds a news conference at the Vatican on Nov. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Sacks died at age 72 on Nov. 7.

His efforts toward educating different faiths about each other was not without controversy.

“No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” he wrote in his 2002 book, “The Dignity of Difference.” After complaints from some Orthodox groups, he used toned-down language in subsequent editions.

The onetime leader of the well-known Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, Sacks went on to hold the role of chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

Prince Charles was among the international leaders who reacted to Sacks’ death:
“With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the entire world have lost a leader whose wisdom, scholarship and humanity were without equal.”

Bishop Harry Jackson Jr.

The conservative pastor and evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump was known for his efforts to foster racial reconciliation.

Bishop Harry Jackson of Maryland speaks at the unveiling of the “Justice Declaration,” a statement by Christian leaders on criminal justice, in Washington, D.C., on June 20, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Jackson died at age 66 on Nov. 9.

Ten years after a 2005 diagnosis of esophageal cancer, he told “The 700 Club” that at one point he was “24 hours away from dying” but he believed God still had work for him to do.

An author and co-author of several books, the Black pastor in the charismatic tradition was outspoken in his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. But  Jackson advocated prison reform and economic development in his 2005 “Black Contract With America.”

He was among the dozens of evangelical leaders who urged the Trump administration to address criminal justice reform as an alternative to “tough on crime” language. At an April 10 Oval Office gathering on Good Friday, Trump called on Jackson to declare a blessing as clergy joined in an event two days before Easter.

“What I believe is that the whole left and right paradigm that politics has chosen to create for itself is fundamentally incorrect because the Bible has both what we call left and right issues,” Jackson told RNS in 2005.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *