Service at his church celebrates the life of William H. Gray

In celebration of William H. Gray III, Bright Hope Baptist in North Philadelphia, where Gray was pastor for many years, filled beyond capacity. Political figures, spiritual leaders, and family offered tributes Saturday.
In celebration of William H. Gray III, Bright Hope Baptist in North Philadelphia, where Gray was pastor for many years, filled beyond capacity. Political figures, spiritual leaders, and family offered tributes Saturday. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 15, 2013

In the North Philadelphia church where he preached many sermons, the Rev. William Herbert Gray III, the former congressman, was eulogized Saturday by elected officials, spiritual leaders, and common folk as a political giant who served his church, community, and nation.

"Bill Gray understood that the essence of power was empowering other people," former President Bill Clinton told the hundreds who filled Bright Hope Baptist Church at 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

"He was an extraordinarily gifted politician and public figure," Clinton said of Gray, who represented the Second Congressional District of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1991, and rose to become House majority whip and chairman of the House Budget Committee. He later served as head of the United Negro College Fund.

The former president was among dozens of political leaders - from members of the Philadelphia City Council to those of the U.S. Congress - paying tribute to Gray, 71, who died July 1 in London, where he was attending the Wimbledon tennis tournament with his youngest son, Andrew.

After soaring gospel tributes by the church's choir, Bright Hope's current pastor, the Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, described Gray as a friend, mentor, and hands-on man of action with an eye for details.

"The program that you see before you today was put together by Bill Gray," Johnson said with a smile. He said Gray sent the program to him two years ago with a note that said, "Do not change it," followed by three exclamation points.

As he asked

Clinton, also noting that Gray had arranged his own memorial plans, said he would not speak longer than the allotted time.

"I tried always to do the things Bill asked," Clinton said, drawing laughs from the crowd that filled the church's modern, wood-trimmed nave and an overflow room, where the service was shown on video.

Clinton noted that at his request, Gray went to Haiti in 1991 as a liaison and to help keep order after the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a military coup.

"I want you to help me fix it," Clinton said he told Gray. "He proceeded to go to Haiti.

"This is a life to celebrate," Clinton said. "This is a man who made history."

The Rev. William B. Moore, pastor of the city's Tenth Memorial Baptist Church and a longtime friend of Gray's, said, "We celebrate the life, the legacy, and the good works and good deeds of a servant of God."

Moore said: "All he did was worship - whether here at Bright Hope or in the halls of Congress."

He added, "We're all better because William H. Gray came this way."

The service, described as a "Celebration of Life Memorial," was clearly celebratory. There were few tears.

The choir sang a spiritual medley, including  "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Soon I   Will Be Done," and  "By and By."  

A large portrait of Gray and an array of flowers were displayed in front of the dais.

Video screens at the front of the church ran a montage of photos of Gray with dignitaries, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, music producer Quincy Jones, Pope John Paul II, and others.

Text on the screens described Gray as a "Tough guy on the outside" and "A big softy on the inside."

Devoted

George Burrell, a trustee at Bright Hope Baptist Church, a lawyer, and a former Philadelphia city councilman, said Gray was devoted to his wife, Andrea, and their three sons.

"Bill Gray loved his family and adored his grandchildren," Burrell said.

He recalled Gray's inspiring sermons at the church, where he was the pastor until stepping down in 2004.

"In 22 minutes, he put current events into biblical perspective and called us to action," Burrell said.

"He was a powerful and formidable political leader."

Gray's son Justin said his father was a great family man. He said Gray and his wife "lived life to the fullest."

"My father's life started in church," Justin Gray said. "It's appropriate that it ends here."


Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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