The Rev. E.V. Hill, the pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles who rose from poverty in Texas to become a confidant of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and a power within one of the nation’s largest African American denominations, has died. He was 69.
Hill died late Monday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he was admitted Feb. 8 with what an aide said was an aggressive form of pneumonia complicated by other medical conditions.
In the last eight months, Hill had to preach sitting down because of a condition that weakened his legs. He also suffered from diabetes, his son, the Rev. E.V. Hill II, pastor of Calvary Temple Pentecostal Holiness Church in North Hollywood, said Tuesday.
Known as a preacher whose sermons could thunder with righteousness even as he could listen with a pastor’s heart, Hill would have celebrated his 42nd anniversary as pastor of Mt. Zion this month.
Bishop Charles E. Blake, pastor of West Angeles Cathedral in Los Angeles and a leader in another predominantly African American denomination, the Church of God in Christ, called Hill “one of the most significant personalities in the clergy over the past 30 or 40 years.”
“He was a great preacher, a tremendous preacher,” Blake said, “and a common man’s theologian.”
Blake said Hill would be remembered in Los Angeles “for his compassion for the poor and his commitment to the community.”
Under Hill’s leadership, his congregation became a center of political and social activism in Los Angeles that, like the better-known First African Methodist Episcopal Church led by the Rev. Cecil M. “Chip” Murray, drew presidents and preachers alike.
On one occasion, evangelist Billy Graham showed up unannounced so he could hear Hill preach. It was Hill’s church that President George H.W. Bush visited in the days immediately after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Like other activist black leaders, Hill was an early confidant of King. In the years that followed, he fought for government programs to bring housing and economic development to the needy in the community he served. He started a program for the hungry, called the “Lord’s Kitchen.” His church also built senior citizen housing, started a credit union and provided clothing for the poor.
The Rev. E.V. Hill II said Tuesday that his father had developed such a reputation for helping people that the senior Hill once joked about it. “ ‘I guess next time you think I’m going to help a crippled crab across the street,’ ” he quoted his father as saying. “But if anyone was going to help a crippled crab, it would be him.”
The senior Hill also gained a reputation among African American preachers as a man of the cloth cut from a different cloth. For one thing, he was a Republican. He gave the inaugural prayer for President Richard Nixon’s second term in the middle of Watergate and twice led clergy committees for Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
“I switched parties. I’m a conservative Republican now. But I’m no longer a Democrat. I left that in Texas,” Hill said a decade ago.
“His philosophy was that you can’t put everybody in the same boat. He had to get in a different boat,” the Rev. Perry Jones, pastor of Messiah Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, said Tuesday. “But his objectives were the same: to advance the cause of Christ, primarily, and, second, to advance the cause of his people.”
Hill became a backer of the late Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, and in 1973 backed Yorty over an up-and-coming black police officer turned politician who would later become Hill’s friend, Tom Bradley. More recently, Hill aligned himself with such preachers as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other Christian conservatives.
Hill preached on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. His back-to-basics, no-nonsense Christianity holding men accountable for their lives and marriages became a staple at Promise Keepers rallies across the country. Promise Keepers, a predominantly white evangelical men’s ministry, proclaimed that men should become “promise keepers instead of promise breakers.”
Its founder, former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, hoped that Hill’s prominence in the African American community would help Promise Keepers break through the color barrier and appeal to blacks as well as whites. But it was a dream only partially realized.
Hill could verbally flay liberals with a passion honed by years in the pulpit. At a 1994 Promise Keepers rally in Orange County, he spoke negatively about the teaching of evolution, the abortion “epidemic” and the “satanic” American Civil Liberties Union. He denounced homosexuality.
As high a standard of fidelity as Hill held for men, he was a pastor familiar with human failings and quick to pronounce forgiveness, even in the face of scandal.
Hill was a leader in the National Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest grouping of black churches, and in 1998 he defended the denomination’s disgraced president, the Rev. Henry Lyons, who was found guilty of racketeering. Years earlier, Hill stood by televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, both of whom were involved in sex scandals.
When Lyons stepped down, Hill ran unsuccessfully to succeed him as president of the 7.5-million-member Baptist convention. “I come here with not a whole lot of joy when one of my best friends is in jail,” Hill told well-wishers in announcing his candidacy.
The Rev. William J. Shaw of Philadelphia, who defeated Hill and seven other candidates to become national president, said Tuesday that Hill could be a defining presence in denominational affairs.
“There was no major issue that the convention faced in which he was not a party. He was always a strong voice, strong opinions -- not always agreed with -- but he helped shape the discussions and debates.”
Despite Hill’s sometimes unvarnished opinions, Shaw said, there were no cross words exchanged during the denomination’s presidential campaign. He said Hill had learned in secular politics how to campaign without becoming personal.
“He had a way of defusing what might be tense moments,” Shaw said. He recounted one of Hill’s homespun tales about human foibles. “He had a story he would tell quite often about a preacher and a deacon going fishing. The deacon caught a big fish and then the fish got away and the deacon cursed. E.V. said the pastor rebuked the deacon for cursing. Then the pastor caught a great big fish and it got away. The pastor’s comment was, ‘Someone ought to say something.’ ”
Edward Victor Hill, who was born in Texas on Nov. 11, 1933, grew up in poverty in a log cabin. He once said that one of his proudest moments was when he won a ribbon for the grand champion hog at the 1947 Texas State Fair. He was the first black child to receive the same price for his hog as a white boy, $3 a pound.
His mother prayed for him to graduate from high school at a time when blacks usually didn’t get past the 10th grade, he told a prayer breakfast in Austin, Texas, in 1999. He said his mother bought him a bus ticket to Prairie View A&M; University, which is 40 miles northwest of Houston. He stood in the registration line with $1.83 in his pocket. But he had a four-year scholarship.
Hill recalled his days growing up in the log cabin during an interview around 1994. “I really didn’t know I was poor,” he said. “For the most part, the Afro-American community never equated materialism with poverty. Poverty was a matter of the spirit, and we were always rich in spirit.”
At 21, Hill became pastor of Mt. Corinth Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. While there, he was one of seven black pastors in various Southern cities who joined King in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was to become central to the civil rights struggle. Hill nominated King as president of the conference.
Hill came to Los Angeles in 1961 to become pastor of Mt. Zion. With about 2,000 active members, Mt. Zion is still a fairly large congregation, but it is not one of the Baptist denomination’s mega-churches, Shaw said.
In 1972, Hill was elected as the youngest president of the California State Baptist Convention. He also served as co-chairman of the Baptist World Alliance, and was an associate professor of evangelism for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. In 1971, Hill was one of eight black clergymen whom Graham brought to the White House to speak privately with Nixon.
During the Yorty administration, Hill served as chairman of the city Economic Opportunity Committee and chairman of the Fire Commission. He also served on the city Planning Commission and as chairman of the City Housing Authority.
Hill’s involvement in city politics didn’t end with Yorty. After Bradley was elected mayor, he served as an honorary chairman of Hill’s 25th anniversary celebration at Mt. Zion in 1986.
In 1993, Hill was named a special volunteer advisor on South-Central Los Angeles by Republican Mayor Richard Riordan.
He rejected the term “black” in 1993 as a description for African Americans. He called it “theologically, philosophically and ophthalmologically unacceptable.” He said then that he preferred “Negro.”
At a time when there was much political talk about the “silent majority,” Hill railed at what he saw as stereotypes of blacks as troublemakers on the political scene. He said most blacks fell into what Hill called the “silenced majority.”
“I saw and see a deliberate, planned effort in this country to keep only the voices of radical, militant Negroes in the ears of white people,” Hill said in 1970. He said he believed that the best hope for racial cooperation lay in more contacts between mainstream blacks and whites.
Hill is survived by his second wife, La Dean, whom he married in 1992 after his first wife, Jane Edna Hill, died in 1987. Besides his son, Hill is survived by a daughter, Norva Rose Kennard, a Boston attorney; three grandsons; and a stepson, Lawrence Anthony Donald of Orlando, Fl.
Funeral services are pending.