By Sean Barron
James Locker moved to Youngstown in 1970 after having graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., but found he didn’t know anyone.
The first local family he met, however, told him about a church and its charismatic minister, who later paved the way for Locker to go from being a stranger to the area to serving the community in numerous ways.
The minister was the Rev. Lonnie K.A. Simon, longtime pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, 1507 Hillman St. on the South Side.
“I visited [New Bethel] one Sunday, and I’ve been here ever since,” Locker, a 43-year member, joyously recalled.
On Saturday, Locker was at New Bethel, though for a more solemn occasion: He was part of a standing- room-only crowd that filled the church for a 2 Ω-hour Celebration and Homegoing service for the Rev. Mr. Simon, who died Monday at ValleyCare Northside Medical Center. He was 87.
The gathering honored and celebrated the life and countless accomplishments of Mr. Simon, who served as New Bethel’s pastor from 1962 to 1995. Afterward, the civil-rights activist, educator, poet and three-year Navy veteran was named the church’s pastor emeritus.
Since joining New Bethel, Locker has served as a deacon, Sunday school teacher and treasurer, member of the nominating committee and in several other ways.
He fondly recalled Mr. Simon’s having asked him to form a men’s choir- production group for Easter, though only two people came. Nevertheless, Locker said, Mr. Simon dubbed the trio “the sons of Bethel,” and the group went on to sing locally and regionally.
“He’s a man of conviction and dedicated to whatever he got involved in,” Locker continued. “He wanted you to have the same conviction in what you were doing.”
The Rev. Lawrence Underwood, pastor of Alpha and Omega First Baptist Church and a 50-year friend of Mr. Simon’s, noted that he entered the ministry largely because of Mr. Simon’s influence, wisdom and knowledge.
“Reverend Simon was a man for all people for all times,” he added.
Calling him “a 21st-century preacher in a 20th-century world,” the Rev. Lewis W. Macklin II said Mr. Simon strived to help people see their purposes in life. His zeal and activism in the face of injustices also helped lay the groundwork for more women to enter the ministry, noted the Rev. Mr. Macklin, pastor of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church.
One of those women is Elder Rosetta Rose Carter, who was ordained as Greater Friendship Baptist Church’s first female pastor.
“I think of the Rev. Simon as a protege of Martin Luther King,” said Carter, who’s also director of the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods, a grass roots community organization that works for social justice.
“He affected me by allowing me to come out of the closet and proclaim the word of God as a woman when it was not popular.”
Also grateful for his training and mentoring was the Rev. Gena Thornton, pastor of Grace African Methodist Episcopal Church in Warren, who said Mr. Simon also will be remembered for how many lives he touched.
“I just want to say that I was his favorite nephew,” Alan Simon, one of several family members who spoke on behalf of Mr. Simon, said to laughter. “He warmed everyone’s hearts here.”
Fighting back tears at times, however, was the Rev. Kenneth L. Simon, Mr. Simon’s son and New Bethel’s pastor.
“The time I had with him was precious,” he said in his family tribute, adding: “Martin Luther King and my dad were two greats among men.”
The younger Simon also read a poem that reflects on his father’s commitment to doing what was right, even when it was unpopular, and reaching beyond himself.
Officiating the gathering was the Rev. Dr. Morris W. Lee, pastor of Third Baptist Church, who touted Mr. Simon’s leadership and community service.
Additional remarks, remembrances and praise came from members of the Northern Ohio Baptist District Association, the Eastern Ohio Baptist District Association, the Ohio Baptist General Convention and the Ohio Baptist State Convention.
L.E. Black, Phillips & Holden Funeral Home handled the arrangements for Mr. Simon, who was interred at Belmont Park Cemetery on the North Side.