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Obituary: The Rev. Ben Martin helped Kirkwood community heal after mass killing

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The Rev. Ben Martin was against the war in Iraq, both of them, torture, the death penalty and any policy that made life more difficult for everyday people. Without hesitation and unstintingly, for more than six decades, he raised his voice for social and racial justice.

“He was extremely passionate around issues of justice and equality,” said the Rev. Craig Palmer, interim executive presbyter, Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, where Rev. Martin was on staff for many years. “That’s what he was engaged in until his last breath.”

That is almost literally what happened. Susan Martin said that her father suffered a stroke on Saturday as he rode home with a friend following an all-day meeting of regional pastors and church leaders. He died the next day (Sunday, Nov. 16), at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. He was 82.

By all accounts, he’d enjoyed the day’s conversation and debate, but the Rev. Palmer said, “He was about the doing.”

The healing

The Rev. Martin called not just for unity, but worked for change in the aftermath of the Feb. 7, 2008, killing spree in his Kirkwood community. Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton took the lives of six city officials, including two police officers and Mayor Mike Swoboda, who died several months later of his injuries. Thornton was killed by police.  

Thornton, an African-American contractor from the predominantly black Meacham Park area of Kirkwood, had a running feud with the city that he blamed on racism. All the officials he killed were white.

Some residents denied Thornton’s claims and simply wanted his name to never be spoken again. The Rev. Martin was among the Kirkwood residents who called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate racial discrimination in the contracting of jobs.

The Justice Department quickly stepped in to form a mediation process. It brought together city officials and community representatives to address “perceived racial issues in the community."

The Rev. Martin called the killings “an American tragedy. But experiencing a tragedy like that and not learning from it, that doubles the tragedy,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2010.

He did his part to move his city beyond the pain. He could, said Harriet Patton, “make it work between opposing groups,” like city officials and Meacham Park residents.

“He was the oil in the wheel,” said Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association. “He never spoke with a loud voice but it was a resounding voice (and) they listened to what he had to share.” 

Last year the Rev. Martin acknowledged there was still work to be done, but he told the St. Louis Beacon, “We feel that healing to some extent has taken place.”

Righting wrongs

The Rev. Martin had spent his life righting wrongs.

He recently offered counsel to the Rev. Martin Rafanan, community director of STL735 Can't Survive on $7.35, the fast-food workers’ wage protest. It was the kind of thing Rafanan had come to expect over the three decades the two had frequently crossed paths.

Rafanan called the Rev. Martin a man ahead of his time for his willing to work across faith lines. Whether it was hunger, housing or issues of race, class or gender, Rafanan said he brought gentleness, compassion, integrity and tremendous power to his work.

“Social justice, economic justice, racial justice – on those points there was no equivocation,” Rafanan said. 

Months after the Kirkwood killings, the Rev. Martin spoke with the Post-Dispatch about torture. The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, with which he had long been affiliated, was just one of three religious bodies in the area engaged in an effort by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to encourage Americans of faith to oppose torture.

"Torture goes against everything we stand for as a nation and everything people of faith stand against," Martin said.

That view went hand-in-hand with his perspective on the death penalty. In 1999, the Cabinet of the Interfaith Partnership of Metropolitan St. Louis, comprised of 23 faiths and denominations, called for "an immediate moratorium" on capital punishment in Missouri. The partnership focused on an old bugaboo.

"The race of persons they kill seems to matter," the Rev. Martin, then chair of the partnership's public issues committee, told the Post-Dispatch. Blacks are more likely to receive a death penalty for killing a white person. Currently, blacks make up 41 percent of the inmates on death row in the U.S.

The Rev. Martin had a hand in the school desegregation program and worked to prevent “rightwing extremists” from taking over the St. Louis City school board; fought for universal health care long before “Obamacare” was heard of; helped successfully oppose building a nuclear waste bunker at Lambert Field and challenged political powers at every turn.

Sometimes, it got personal. In 2011, when U.S. Rep. Todd Akin said that “At the heart of liberalism, really, is a hatred of God,” the Rev. Martin and more than a half-dozen other clergy went to his Ballwin office for a talk. When told that only an aide could see them, most of the visitors left. The Rev. Martin stayed. He told KMOX that he urged Akin to reach out to differing faiths.

“I think his concentration has been upon very conservative faith voices whom I feel often distort the gospel and instead of proclaiming what seems to me to be the heart of the gospel, which is concern for all of humanity as the children of God and that we need to have a special concern for those who are less able to participate in the political realm and are set aside as somehow being unworthy of our concern and care and efforts to help.”

Shortly before his death, he had vowed to take up the cause against Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision giving corporations unlimited political spending rights. 

Cool operator

Benjamin Charles Martin was born Sept. 26, 1931, in Owensboro, Ky. He was the only son and third child of Benjamin Charles Martin, president of Hodge Tobacco Co., and Mary Gilmour Martin’s four children.

He received a B.A. in economics from Washington and Lee University in 1953. He had grown up in the Presbyterian Church, and took the opportunity of a Rockefeller family scholarship to attend Yale Divinity School to explore whether the ministry was the right path for him. At Yale, he met his wife, Patricia Sessions, who became the founder of Missourians for Tax Justice. They were married for 53 years until her death in 2009.

“What united them and brought them together was their passion for justice,” said their daughter, Susan.

He completed NROTC at Washington and Lee and served as a U.S. Naval officer during the Korean War, though not in the war zone.

His first church was United Presbyterian Church in Milford, Conn., which he led from 1958 to 1963. Until moving to Kirkwood in the ‘80s, the Martins had lived in the Compton Heights community of St. Louis near the old Peters Memorial Presbyterian Church. It’s the church he pastored for nearly two decades after moving from Connecticut.

In 1980, the Rev. Martin became associate executive for community ministry for the Presbytery of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, which later merged to form the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. After retiring in 1996, he remained intimately engaged, even serving as acting presbyter for a time.

“He was a guy who took no credit,” Rafanan said. “He was a very cool leader.”

Sometimes, he received the credit he was due. In 2002, he was honored with the William D. Chapman Faith in Action Award from the Interfaith Partnership. The award recognizes St. Louisans whose commitment has focused particularly on racial and economic justice, who have encouraged collaboration among faith groups and who have taken risks in the pursuit of justice. In 2005, he and his wife were honored with Rev. Arnold & Mildred Bringewatt Award from Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri. Last Saturday, his last day of service, he had been recognized for 55 years as an ordained Presbyterian minister.

“My understanding (from my father) of God was that we have a compassionate God who takes care of those in need,” Susan said tearfully of the man she said loved sailing, fly fishing and who wished he had learned to fly. “That’s what my dad tried to center his life around.

“And,” Susan added, “he gave all of us (his children) unconditional love and he gave great hugs.”

In addition to his wife, the Rev. Martin was preceded in death by his parents.

Among his survivors are his three children, Stephen Martin of St. Louis, Logan (Mary Knight-Martin) Martin of St. Petersburg, Fla. and Susan Blair Martin (Ken Shadlen) of London; three sisters, Mary Hoffman of Williamsburg, Va., Lorine Kieler of Wichita, Kan., and Sarah Purdy of Smiths Grove, Ky., and three grandchildren, Benjamin C. Martin II, Kate M. Martin and Louisa Martin Shadlen. 

The Rev. Martin’s memorial service will be at 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 1, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 5300 Delmar Blvd.. His body was donated to Washington University School of Medicine.

Memorials would be appreciated to the Presbyterian Mission Agency-Self-Develop of People or to a charity of the donor’s choice.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.