Houstonian Rev. William "Bill" Lawson Honored with Diana R. Garland Legacy Award

May 7, 2018
  • Rev Lawson DoorsRev. Bill Lawson behind the heavy brass doors of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Photo from the Houston Chronicle.
  • Rev Lawson HeadshotRev. Bill Lawson. Photo from the University of Houston.
  • Rev Lawson MLK

A few years ago, in memory of Founding Dean Diana Garland and as a way to honor her work, the Garland School created the Diana R. Garland Legacy Award. This year, we honor the School’s dear friend, Houstonian Rev. William “Bill” Lawson.

In 1957, the Rev. William “Bill” Lawson, joined the Baylor Religious Hour as a guest preacher. The BSU leadership went about planning for the worship service as they had most Wednesdays that fall. Rev. Lawson arrived in town, they ate on campus, he preached a rousing and memorable sermon, and they made their way to a local hotel, where Rev. Lawson had a reservation; upon arrival, however, the African-American pastor was turned away. The pastor had no option but to spend the night on the students’ couch. It was another insult Rev. Lawson seemed to take in stride, though he always sought to avoid such experiences. For the students, it was a humbling awakening to their privileged perspectives on race.

Several years later, Rev. Lawson had begun Wheeler Ave. Baptist Church in Houston and was helping to lead the relatively peaceful desegregation of one of America’s largest cities. Rev. Lawson, along with a group of black and white leaders from around Houston stealthily met in the 17th floor of the Rice Hotel, cutting deals to protect their economy, hoping to save face, and relegate segregation to history. Rev. Lawson had to be shepherded in through the back doors to these meetings, something he usually would refuse to do … like riding the bus if he had to sit at the back, or patronizing the Loew’s State Theater if he had to use the back entrance and sit in the balcony. As a result of experiences like the one at Baylor, he wanted no part of segregation. As one reporter put it, if Rev. Lawson couldn’t walk into the Loew’s State Theater through those heavy brass doors, he wouldn’t walk into it all. That is how Bill Lawson has lived his life…in determined resistance, quietly fighting for what was right.

As his congregation at Wheeler Avenue Baptist grew over the years, Rev. Lawson once again found himself at the Rice Hotel…bargain hunting! In 1982, the church set out to build a new sanctuary, and he and his wife Audrey went to the newly closed Rice Hotel and walked away with the Italian marble floors from the lobby of the hotel … a lobby that Rev. Lawson could not even walk through just 20 years earlier, and that now his congregants could stand on to worship. And the big brass doors of the Loew’s Theater Rev. Lawson was never allowed to walk through? He purchased those too, and they become the front entrance of the new sanctuary of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, where African-Americans could enter freely to experience the love of their creator week after week, year after year.

You know you have been picked out by God, called by Him to care for the least of these, anointed with the ability to love the unlovable, and sent forth to witness not for Family Services or the Food Bank, but for Jesus Christ, who has invited all human beings into His family, and given us the example of social work at its best.

In 2012, Diana Garland introduced us to Rev. Lawson, inviting him to serve on our Board of Advocates, and he gladly accepted. A year later, she asked him to preach at our fall worship service, and even though his title is pastor, we learned he has the heart of a social worker. He has an abiding love for the work of social workers, and he considers it a true calling from God.

“Why have you chosen Social Work as a profession?” Rev. Lawson asked in his sermon that night. “Because social work, at its best, is not really a profession. At its best, it is a calling of Jesus Christ to look at the weak of the world as though they were ourselves. Social work is a ministry that re-defines clients as manifestations of Jesus Himself, to be loved and cared for as if we had the opportunity to minister to Jesus on the streets, or in the food lines, or behind bars, or wandering, bruised and battered by a drunken spouse, clutching a baby in His arms … you know you have been picked out by God, called by Him to care for the least of these, anointed with the ability to love the unlovable, and sent forth to witness not for Family Services or the Food Bank, but for Jesus Christ, who has invited all human beings into His family, and given us the example of social work at its best.”

Rev. Lawson, now retired, has accomplished and been a part of so much throughout his career. He shared in the formation of the first Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Houston, where he taught classes in Sociology and the Black Church. He marched with Dr. King, and he headed the city’s chapter of Southern Christian Leadership for more than three decades. In 1996, a group of friends gifted to Rev. Lawson a non-profit organization called the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace & Prosperity, which aims at bridging the gap between the powerful and the powerless. Among many other acts of community service, Rev. Lawson, an Eagle Scout, helped his church to organize the largest Boy Scout troop in Houston, helped to form the Coalition for the Homeless, and created a program to register and mobilize voters in the predominantly African-American precincts of Houston. At the heart of all of this is his calling: his calling to the work of the faith, which is also the calling of Baylor social workers.

Rev. Lawson has dedicated himself to the service of others, deeply investing in the lives of those around him, from students to church members and everyone in between.

“We give this award to Rev. Lawson as our small way of showing our gratitude and our support for his legacy,” Dean Singletary said. “He is one of the humblest men I know, and he profoundly lives out the vision and impact Diana valued so deeply, and that is why we have recognized him with this award.”

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