The Rev. Cornelius Hastie was a Harvard College undergraduate when he was called upon one day to be a referee of sorts between a visiting group of evangelical Christians from Princeton University and some humanist friends in Cambridge.
Until then, he had planned to attend law school and maybe pursue politics. That conversation, however, turned out to be life-changing.
“I decided to minister to people’s needs, not try to win legal battles regardless of moral right,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir about his life as an Episcopal priest, a calling that initially gave him pause.
“My egalitarian moral qualms about being set apart by ordination were eased, paradoxically, by the ordination-lacking Society of Friends, whose Cambridge meeting I attended occasionally,” he added. “Quaker doctrine holds to the equality of Christians in the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ I accepted ordination as a confirmation and commission to exercise full time the spiritual gifts Christians hold in common.”
The Rev. Hastie, whose ministry ranged from being rector of the St. John and St. James Church in Roxbury to helping launch a Head Start program in the neighborhood, working as a jail chaplain, and serving Communion at Sherrill House in Jamaica Plain, died of a heart attack June 15 while playing bridge with friends at Temple Reyim in Newton. He was 85 and lived in Jamaica Plain.
Although he initially grew up along the New Jersey shore, his family moved often when he was young, so he lived in many places and as a young man hitchhiked to many more. He was well-traveled spiritually, too, and was a welcoming voice of encouragement along the paths others followed.
“Father Hastie really wanted all of us to see and understand that God was calling us and that we were beautiful, and capable and amazing just as we were,” said the Rev. Edwin D. Johnson, priest-in-charge at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dorchester, in a eulogy at the Rev. Hastie’s memorial service.
“This white Jersey shore boy as he described himself was more convinced that Roxbury was the new Galilee than those of us who grew up there,” Johnson said. “He celebrated our African heritage through dashiki vestments, he lifted up our Hispanic identity through having us proclaim the Gospel in Spanish, and he preached again and again about how, regardless of what the world might say about what we as people of color are capable of, that God was calling us and that God needed us to do great things.”
In Roxbury, the Rev. Hastie had “a ministry of empowerment,” said his wife, Linda. As founding director of the St. James Educational Center, he created afterschool programs for children of young single mothers so they could work or go to school, and those efforts led to the creation of a Head Start program.
“He was a man of great integrity,” Linda said. “He was a man who loved his Lord. Jesus was his model, but he never talked about Jesus. He just did things. He was a doer in the world.”
Years ago, that included organizing dances at his church to help keep teenage boys off the streets and out of trouble.
“In our turbulent teens, a man came into our lives and listened to what we said, talked to us and told us how to live a more peaceful enjoyable life. He prayed with us and for us in the church, outside the church, and at all activities. That good man was Father Hastie,” Les Murrell of Randolph, who attended those dances as a Roxbury teenager, wrote in a note to Linda after the Rev. Hastie died.
The fifth of six children, Cornelius deWitt Hastie spent the early part of his childhood in Spring Lake, N.J. His father’s work in the Army Corps of Engineers later took the family to places including Vermont, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
A scholarship student at Phillips Exeter Academy, the Rev. Hastie graduated in 1948 and went on to Harvard, where he received a bachelor’s degree. In 1956, he received a master’s in divinity from what is now the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. He began his ministry in Roxbury as a seminary student.
For much of his career, the Rev. Hastie held more than one job. While overseeing the church and running his church’s educational center, he also was a chaplain at the Suffolk County House of Correction.
“My goal as chaplain was to help imprisoned men stay human,” he wrote in his memoir. “They were being treated, not like children, of course, but like caged animals. In less than a year, most of them would be back on the street, which did not need more wild animals. I addressed every group as ‘Gentlemen.’ I brought them the things that were inconsequential until you no longer had access to them — shoelaces, a writing pen, stationary, postage. The men appreciated the helpfulness of everything I did. The administration did not share my concerns. Penal institutions resist activist chaplains.”
He also was a civil rights activist, traveling to Alabama to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights. The Rev. Hastie found King’s sermon’s restorative and the civil rights work at times frightening. “Late one afternoon, I drove alone back to Selma on a deserted four-lane highway,” he wrote in his memoir. “Two state troopers pulled abreast of me, and remained exactly beside me for the next 10 minutes. I stared straight ahead, kept a constant speed five miles below the limit, and silently prayed.”
Nevertheless, he added, “my experience in Selma was the high point of my life. The dirt streets and dirt sidewalks in the black neighborhood of Selma, on which I felt honored to walk, got paved because the black citizens of Selma gained the votes to demand service.”
The Rev. Hastie’s first marriage, to Elizabeth Lacy, ended in divorce. They had two children — John of Easton and George of Jamaica Plain.
“My dad loved me unconditionally, respected me, and appreciated my public health work and GLBTQ advocacy. He supported me through my dealing with HIV, being queer, and in later life affirming myself as a transgender man,” said George, who was born Beth, in a eulogy.
The Rev. Hastie, George added, “taught me to love everyone. Not abstractly, but really, in action. Regardless of real or perceived difference.”
In addition to his wife and children, the Rev. Hastie leaves a brother, Clement of Westchester County, N.Y., and a grandson.
The Rev. Hastie’s honors include being the 1996 recipient of the John Phillips Award, which Phillips Exeter Academy gives to those who have contributed significantly to their communities.
In 1981, he married Linda Chase Marvin, with whom he shared ministry, much traveling, a sense of humor that he found essential to life.
“I never heard this man say anything negative about anyone. That’s extraordinary,” she said. “He was a very hard man to argue with because he always felt that arguments shouldn’t be won or lost — that people should come out of disagreements feeling good, and that their side was heard and that action was taken. He believed in resolution, and that was part of his empowerment of people.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.