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“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” — Matthew 20:16

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Susan Stack
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2009 John Park Lee Award

The Rev. Dr. Johnnie Monroe

Nominated by Dr. Ronald Peters

Photo of Rev. Johnnie Monroe

Rev. Johnnie Monroe. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Rev. Dr. Johnnie Monroe’s 42 years of service as a Presbyterian minister of Word and Sacrament exemplifies the essence of devotion to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that social justice advocacy for “the least of these” becomes a key to the salvation for all people in all contexts and geographical settings. As a pastor, social justice advocate and community leader, teacher and mentor, Dr. Johnnie Monroe has preached to, baptized and nurtured thousands of people in congregations as well as been a “public pastor” to many “outside of his congregational fold,” but he has also built churches into community centers of health and spiritual healing in areas where others would have seen only blight with social and economic dysfunction. Believing in the strong justice aspect of Jesus’ ministry, Johnnie Monroe has been a tireless advocate and fighter for justice and human dignity among all people, growing out of the historic struggle for justice rooted in the African American experience in the United States of America.

The fourth child born to the late Howard and Barbara Monroe, Dr. Johnnie Monroe was reared in a strong, loving, Christian home and was nurtured by a close-knit church and community and educated in vibrant African American institutions. Dr. Monroe’s ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) formally began when he was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in 1966 by the Atlantic Presbytery in South Carolina. He began his work in ministry with the Board for Urban Ministry of the Rochester Area Council of Churches, Rochester, New York. Subsequently, he served as Associate Pastor of the Western Highlands Presbyterian Church, Kansas City, Kansas and Organizing Pastor of the Temple of the Black Messiah, a New Church Development project in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 1973, he accepted the call to become pastor of the Thomas M. Thomas Memorial Presbyterian Church in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he served from 1973 to 1986. While in Chester, in addition to building and strengthening the congregation spiritually as well as in tremendous numerical growth, Dr. Monroe’s civic leadership was broadly recognized and affirmed. He served as board president of the Chester branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), president of the Chester Ministerial Alliance and president of the board of directors of Delaware County Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC) of America, a job-training and placement resource for the unemployed and under-educated. In honor of his diligent work in establishing a fire station for its community, the station was named the Rev. Dr. Johnnie Monroe Fire Station of Chester, Pennsylvania in 1995.

Because of his belief that social justice advocacy is at the heart of leading people to faith in Jesus Christ, Dr. Johnnie accepted the call of Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1986 to come and serve as its Associate for Evangelism and Church and Community of Pittsburgh Presbytery, a post he served until 1990 when he was called to serve as the associate for evangelism and church development for the Synod of the Trinity. Both within Pittsburgh Presbytery and as Synod staff, Dr. Monroe worked tirelessly as a social justice pastor to strengthen the ability of Presbyterian congregations to address the needs of society’s most vulnerable populations “in the streets of the city” and other troubled areas as a means of doing evangelism.

On January 1, 1993, Dr. Monroe was called as pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church. The “mother congregation” among Black Presbyterian churches in Pittsburgh, Grace was established in 1867 by the abolitionist preacher, Henry Highland Garnett, and had historically enjoyed strong clergy leadership in public ministry. Having been without pastoral leadership for more than two years prior to Dr. Monroe’s arrival, however, the congregation’s attendance dwindled precipitously, but after 15 years of Dr. Monroe’s pastoral leadership, the congregation remains one of the city’s leading churches. Located in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the city’s oldest African American neighborhood, Grace Memorial has been an educational, spiritual and political anchor against inner city challenges common to poor neighborhoods. Dr. Monroe has been a pastor to those whose homes have been riddled with gunshots from gang warfare, murders, narcotics and other violent crime, and political disenfranchisement.

Still, he sees the inner city of the urban scene as a beacon of hope for society and an opportunity for evangelistic ministry in the name of Jesus Christ through social justice advocacy. Some of the ministries that have been inspired under Dr. Monroe’s leadership include:

  • After-School Tutorial and Enrichment Program (ASTEP) that serves over 130 children daily.
  • Summer Enrichment Program for over 100 children and youth for six weeks during the summer months.
  • The “UTOM” Program (United Teens on a Mission), a weekly gathering of inner city and church-related teens that meets weekly and allows children and youth to deal with issues and opportunities of their own choosing.
  • Bible Study: four different groups meeting regularly to help people in the congregation as well as from throughout the neighborhood learn the Word and relate Scripture to daily life and personal spiritual growth.
  • The Potter’s Ministry, a men's ministry to help men come to grips and deal with the issues that relate especially to men.
  • The Young Adult Ministry that allows the younger adults of the church and community wrestle with the tough issues of urban life and young adulthood through Bible study, discussion groups, and activities unique to this emerging leadership class of city-dwellers.
  • The Schenley Heights Community Development Corporation,a collaborative housing ministry that works with at least five other community groups working together to make affordable housing available to low-income persons.

Dr. Monroe’s ministry in the community extends far beyond the Hill District into all portions of Allegheny County and the state of Pennsylvania. He is the executive director of the Schenley Heights Community Development Program and is a member of the board of directors of Dwelling House Savings and Loan Association (the city’s only African American-owned and controlled savings and loan bank, which underwrites mortgages for persons in the Hill District and through the city who have been redlined or declined by other banks, and which has a ministry to enable incarcerated persons prepare financially for their post-incarceration return to society). Dr. Monroe served on the City of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board and as the founding president of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, the Gamaliel-affiliated, interracial and interfaith community-organizing network of over 30 congregations working to support systemic change and transform power structures in the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Indeed, Dr. Johnnie Monroe was a leading figure in helping Pittsburgh’s Hill District to keep a new casino gambling facility from being built in this community and his leadership helped foster the adoption of a community-benefits agreement for Hill District residents in connection with the construction of a new arena for Pittsburgh’s hockey franchise, the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008.

A natural teacher, Dr. Monroe serves as a founding member of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Metro Urban Institute Advisory Board, where he is also an adjunct professor. He is published, having written a chapter entitled “Building an Afrocentric Bridge from Inside Stained-Glass Windows to the Community Outside,” in Marsha Snulligan Haney and Ronald Peters (eds) Africentric Approaches to Urban Ministries (University Press, 2006). Dr. Monroe’s conviction that the heart of ministry in the Black Presbyterian church should improve the quality of life in its surrounding neighborhood is summarized in the title of his doctoral thesis: The Impact and Influence of Black Presbyterians United Upon the Mission and Ministry of Philadelphia Presbytery. He has received numerous awards for his contributions to church and community.

Dr. Monroe has been happily married to Geraldine Lyles Monroe since February, 1968 and they are the parents of two adult children: John Gregory Monroe (and his wife, Michelle) and Nikki Janita Monroe–Hines (her husband Brian), one grandson, Brevan Amir Hines and two granddaughters, Christy Ann Newell Hines and Sydney Michelle Monroe and a granddaughter to be born, January 2009.

Until the election of Barack Obama in 2008, many Americans of all races had not seen much of what intelligent, passionate, and devoted African American manhood looked like, except perhaps in the field of sports or other trivialized stereotypes. Yet, in black communities throughout the nation, many people knew of and were familiar with several unsung heroes of black manhood whose faith in God and personal integrity have made them critical components of Black church, community, and family leadership all of our lives. The life and ministry of Dr. Johnnie Monroe is a brilliant example of this type of Christian leader whose witness to Jesus Christ through love and social justice advocacy has been a blessing to the thousands of people who have been touched by his work in Christ’s name.

Dr. Monroe received the John Park Lee Award on June 12, 2009 at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.