“Three Amigos” | Houston faith leaders join forces for justice

The Rev. William A. Lawson (Baptist), Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza (Catholic), and Rabbi Samuel E. Karff (Jewish) joined forces for more than 50 years.

HOUSTON — The last of the “Three Amigos” has died, leaving a huge void in the heart of the city of Houston.

On Tuesday, KHOU 11 News learned of the death of Rev. William Bill Lawson at the age of 95. The beloved pastor of Wheeler Ave Baptist Church touched the lives of countless Houstonians in many ways, dating back to the civil rights movement. He will always be remembered as the “Pastor of Houston.”

Lawson was one of the Three Amigos along with Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza and Rabbi Samuel Karff. Houston’s faith leaders have joined forces to support civil rights for more than 50 years.

The Three Amigos helped break down walls and build relationships between people of different faiths and backgrounds.

The pastor, the rabbi and the archbishop had a lasting friendship that embodied love and harmony. Their friendship inspired us all. Now the Three Amigos are gone.

Who was Lawson?

Lawson arrived in Houston after the seminar.

“I came here in August 1955,” he said in an interview several years ago. “At that time, things were starting to boil in the South. I didn’t realize it, but they were. A young man named Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. That was the day I came.

He was a director of the Baptist Student Union and a professor at Texas Southern University.

It wasn’t long before he founded and opened the nearby Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Lawson and 12 others opened the doors to the small white church among the pine trees. The year was 1962. John F. Kennedy was in the White House. The civil rights movement was spreading.

The Reverend transformed abandoned apartments into shelters for the homeless, reached out to the hungry, and orchestrated proper legal representation for the poor and people of color, creating Harris County’s first-ever public defender’s office . He did so crossing color lines, political affiliations and religions.

Lawson retired from the church in 2005 and became the pastor emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist.

Rev Lawson said his greatest achievement was his own family. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, including fellow journalist, long-time presenter and friend, Melanie Lawson.

RELATED: Rev. Bill Lawson, Champion of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Spiritual Rights, Dies at 95

Who was Karff?

Karff was born September 19, 1931 in Philadelphia. He was a cum laude graduate of Harvard College. He was ordained in 1956, and in 1962 he received his doctorate in Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Karff was married for 57 years to Joan Mag Karff, with whom he raised three daughters.

Karff served as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel from 1975 until 1999, when he became rabbi emeritus. He was an Air Force chaplain and served congregations in Boston, Hartford, Chicago, Montgomery, Alabama and Flint. He has also been an author and visiting professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

His death was announced in August 2020. He was 88 years old.

RELATED: Local leaders share messages after death of progressive Houston rabbi Samuel Karff

Who was Fiorenza?

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Anthony Fiorenza was born January 25, 1931 in Beaumont. The son of Italian immigrant parents, he was the second of four children of Anthony and Grace Fiorenza.

Fiorenza graduated from St. Anthony High School in Beaumont on May 29, 1947. He began his studies for the priesthood in 1947 and was ordained a priest for the then Diocese of Galveston-Houston on May 29, 1954.

After his ordination, he served as an assistant pastor in Houston for three years, then became a professor of medical ethics at Dominican College and chaplain at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Houston. From 1959 to 1967, he was administrator of the Sacré-Cœur co-cathedral. He pastored several churches from 1967 until 1973, when he was named chancellor of Galveston-Houston.

Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of San Angelo on September 4, 1979, and he served in that West Texas diocese until 1985, when he was named bishop of Galveston-Houston, a archdiocese which has more than 1.7 million Catholics. in 146 parishes spread across 10 counties. He became the first archbishop of Galveston-Houston on December 29, 2004.

Fiorenza died on September 19, 2022. He was 91 years old.

RELATED: Retired Houston Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza dies at 91