U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., right, embraces the Rev. William Edward Ray, who was honored for his 50 years of service on Oct. 14 at the Family Life Center of the New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy Instagram)

By Marnita Coleman,
Special to the AFRO

A crowd of lifelong friends, family, clergy, politicians, community organizers, entrepreneurs and supporters from across Maryland gathered Oct. 14 at the Family Life Center of the New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore to honor the Rev. William Edward Ray.  Under the theme, “The Man, The Message, The Mission,” the luncheon celebrated Ray’s 50 years of activism and ministry.

An agent of change, Ray has dedicated his adult life to transforming lives.  In addition to founding Save Another Youth, Inc. and Baltimore Coalition to Stop the Killing, the hometown hero is known for organizing prayer vigils, marches and programs and handing out those flyers to promote events and raise awareness about at-risk youth.

In recognition of his distinguished work, Gov. Wes Moore, Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott and City Council President Nick Mosby have awarded him citations.

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat representing the 7th Congressional District of Maryland, was the keynote speaker of the luncheon. The congressman reminisced about meeting Ray at about 7:15 p.m. on April 5, 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated the day before, triggering civil unrest across the nation. In Baltimore, the streets were on fire. Black business owners were putting red, black and green signs upon their businesses denoting ownership to avoid burning and looting of their property during the uprising.

“I remember standing on the corner of Pennsylvania and Preston, where Willie and I met,” Mfume said. They stood on that corner, he added, with a “great deal of inquisitiveness” at “19 and 20 years of age trying to figure it all out.” 

As their friendship grew, Mfume continued, a “young Willie Ray,” stood out: He carried that DNA of hope gleaned from Black ancestors, even as his ambition was to find a way to save the next generation.

The congressman praised Ray for his half-century dedication to uplifting youth, saying of his commitment: “Unless we are prepared to save the next generation, we fail to save ourselves.”

Mfume later said in a statement on Instagram: “It was fitting and a privilege to celebrate Rev. Willie E. Ray, a man who chose to commit himself early in life to saving the next generation by ministering to them wherever they are and casting his lot as an ever-bellowing instrument of the stop the killing movement. It was a celebration of 50 years but we’ve known each other and worked together longer. You deserve your flowers, our collective thank you, and a well-earned salute as an officer in the army of change agents, Reverend.”

Rev. Ray also recalled that fateful moment in history when he met the future civil rights leader and lawmaker. At the time of the King assassination, he said he experienced  a “divine intervention,” and was called into the ministry by the Lord Jesus. He said it was like Apostle Paul’s Damascus Road encounter: Paul was on his way to persecute Christians when Jesus “interrupted, grounded and converted” him with a new purpose. That direct encounter with God led Ray to do what he’s doing today, he said.

In 50 years of advocating for youth, Ray has achieved countless successes in Baltimore. Some of the highlights include securing $250,000 for the restoration and renovation of the Pine Street Police Station for use as a youth center. In 1969, Redeemer’s Palace, a substance abuse prevention and treatment center founded by Ray, served 5,000 youth. In 1975, he was the lead advocate in securing $5.5 million for the development of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center and $200,000 for Soul Shack Restaurant. In 2000, he started the first Safety House and received a $25,000 grant for renovations from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

In November 2000, he acted as faith-based coordinator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ray also was the Baltimore coordinator for the historic Obama Campaign in 2008 and 2012.

Rev. Ray also has affiliations with several organizations: He served on the boards of directors of the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Boy Scouts of America (1975), and the Urban League’s Black Needs Assessments committee (1975). 

And with just over 45 years in ministry, Rev. Ray is a fixture among Maryland clergy.

Ray “spent 50 years in the community, connecting with youth and young adults. We’re here to give breath to his vision–one faith, one church, one corner, one community, and one safety House,” said the Rev. Dr. Arnold William Howard, pastor of Enon Baptist Church on North Fremont Avenue, in his tribute.

Congressman Mfume concluded his remarks by citing the late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays of Morehous College who said, “He who starts behind in the great race of life must forever remain behind or run faster than the man in front.”

“Willie has touched the lives of so many young people to give them the ability to run faster so they would not be left behind,” Mfume said. “Thank you for teaching us how not to be afraid [and] how to believe in something that we can’t even see at the moment.”