A tribute to my friend, Joel Edwards

Joel Edwards

A week ago, today, the Christian community in Britain lost one of its greatest modern leaders. On 30 June, Joel lost his battle with cancer and departed this world to be with the Lord he loved, having served faithfully all his adult life.

Toward the end of his days, we spoke about death a great deal. Not in a morbid or fearful sense, but rather as a necessary and natural rite of passage - a transition. We talked about 'dying well'. And the word that came up again and again for some strange reason was 'vindication'. If the Christian faith and the hope of the resurrection were real, and if the songs we both knew so well were more than a mere comfort blanket (especially the one beloved of Pentecostals with the words: 'O, I want to see Him, to look upon His face'), then death was also about vindication.

Accepting death in the hope of the resurrection made perfect sense to Joel, vindicating his life, his ministry, and anticipating his ultimate hope. We reflected deeply upon the simple and profound thoughts of the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor's response to a question about death and dying: the Cardinal confidently said that he was at peace and that he had 'no fear of what is to come', because the same God who kept him in life 'will keep him in death'. Joel believed this right up to the end of his life. Ultimately, he understood and took comfort from a central theme and reminder in Pauline eschatology: 'If our hope in Christ is for this life alone, we are to be pitied more than all men.' (1 Corinthians 15:19)

I was privileged to know and work with Joel for nearly four decades. He was my friend, my pastor, my colleague, my mentor, my older brother, my confidante, my boss, my theo-political sounding board, and my greatest cheerleader. He baptised our children, spoke at their weddings and celebrated their achievements. His daughter Davina and son Joel Jr. and our daughters, Rachel and Kemi, are close friends. They grew up together in Mile End New Testament Church under Joel's leadership and influence. In the last months of his life, our daughter Shani was helping 'Uncle Joel' with research for a book he was working on. Like all who knew him and loved him dearly, we are all heartbroken that a giant in the Kingdom and the noble spirit in our lives has gone home. In fact, those were the words he whispered to me during my last moments with him: 'David, I am going home.'

But how does one begin to talk about such a beautiful man, such a good man, such a gracious leader, such a generous soul, such a friend, in a short tribute like this? As he would say: we can but testify.

Joel Edwards was born in 1951 in Jamaica and came to the UK in 1960. He trained at the London Bible College (LBC) from 1972-1975. After 10 years in the Probation Service, his formal ministry started in Mile End New Testament Church. In 1988, he became the General Secretary of the West Indian Evangelical Alliance (which later became the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, ACEA). In this role, he devoted enormous time and energy encouraging black and white Christians to work together for the common good; he also provided a platform for Black ministers to discuss some of the problems and challenges facing them as leaders of diaspora congregations.

From 1992-1997 he was UK Director of the Evangelical Alliance (EA), providing leadership to the team in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. But the big break came in 1997. In that year, Joel Edwards made history. He became the first black Pentecostal person to be appointed General Director of the EA, an organisation founded in 1846. I was excited about this appointment; we all were.

I was privileged to be asked by him to provide a 'personal reference' in support of his application. In that reference, I remember saying that Joel Edwards was an outstanding, inspirational leader and servant; that he was the kind of person and leader who cleared the debris from the run-way so that others could take off; that he was the leader who made even lame ducks believe they could fly. We had seen him do this for so many. I had seen and experienced his care for souls and his encouragement to men and women to make full proof of their ministry and gifts, even against the odds.

Leading the Evangelical Alliance for 11 years allowed him to build upon the work of Clive Calver, uniting and transforming evangelicals in his unique way with several national initiatives. Whether it was the Respect campaign, the Agenda for Change tours, or his work with Dr Marijke Hoek on the Forum for Change, Joel wanted the voice of evangelicals (actually all Christians) to be a credible one in the public square. At the centre of his ministry were three big ideas: 'making Christ credible' in the public square, mediating the Gospel as 'good news', and uniting evangelicals to transform society. As a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, Joel's voice, insight, and wisdom was heard nationally and internationally.

I knew he was a little anxious about 'stepping into Clive Calver's shoes'. However, he didn't really have anything to worry about, as he later told me, because Clive Calver had 'taken his shoes with him'.

I witnessed the way he operated in various communities and non-Christian meetings; I saw him in full flight in ecumenical gatherings and interfaith meetings. He was a master communicator, speaking truth to both power and pastors. He spoke with a fluency and efficacy; he addressed multiple audiences with a clarity and confidence that many admired and envied. I had functioned as his quasi theo-political adviser for years. He would come to me to 'rehearse a thought', 'run some ideas', or think through a 'pressing and perennial problem' of theology or politics.

Like the time around our dinner table in 2005, when he started to wax lyrical about wanting to establish a public theology department at the Evangelical Alliance to address some of the moral, political, and social challenges facing the nation. Four months later, following a series of interviews and what seemed like a battery of psychometric tests, I was working with Joel at the EA as his Executive Director for Public Theology.

Going to work for the EA was a big decision for me, but Joel's persuasion was irresistible. I spent five years working closely with him and his executive PA, Vikki McLachlan, along with a talented team, including Dr David Hilborn (Head of Theology), Dr Don Horrocks (Head of Public Affairs), and Miles Giljam (Head of Communications). Working closely with Joel gave me a unique insight into his mind and spirit. Theologically, he was astute but accessible, as seen in his The Cradle, The Cross and the Empty Tomb (2000) and his Agenda for Change: A Global Call for Spiritual and Social Transformation (2008). Historically, he had a keen sense of the culture and emergence of the Black Church in Britain, adding to its development lexicon his four stages of 'inception', 'consolidation', 'initiation' and 'transition', from the 1950s to post-1988.

And he understood the sociology of the Caribbean Christian community from which he came and its early struggles for recognition. For him, it was not always the result of 'hostile rejection or polite indifference' (the mono-causal theory of racism), but was also the result of a 'mismatch of cultural responses and incongruity between the secularised formalities of many churches and the simple fervency of many Caribbeans'.

Of course, I felt privileged and honoured to have a soul-mate like him: the great Joel Edwards depended on me to help him gather his thoughts and think through some of the themes and issues he was concerned about. But in truth, I learned a great deal from him. He was deeply theological, helping me to think more seriously about the intersection of faith and politics.

I finally realized how important our partnership was to him during our trip to America in the mid-1990s when we visited a number of evangelical leaders and organizations. After several iterations, he presented a phenomenal paper entitled 'The England Happening' at Lee College (the Church of God University in Cleveland Tennessee), chaired by the theologian Christopher Thomas. During our two weeks in the US, we also attended the Church of God's 'Black Ministers Conference'. For me it was a shocking experience, as I listened to the testimony of a minister recounting his experience of racism in the Church of God during the 1960s when the leadership would not allow him as a black Church of God minister to have an office in the HQ. The story was relayed tearfully.

Joel was, indeed, concerned with the history of racism in the Church of God and their approach to 'internationalization', especially after the 1994 Memphis colloquy on racial reconciliation. He wanted us to work on provoking it to look more diverse and representative, rather than a white dominated oligarch. This piece of work fell off the agenda when Joel left the organization and joined the Assemblies of God.

Joel had a passion for justice, which he embodied as International Director for Micah Challenge. He and Vikki were evangelical about the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). They mobilized the churches to support and stand in solidarity with the poor in the Global South. Unsurprisingly, in 2019 he was recognized in the Queen's New Year's Honours List with a CBE for 'services to tackling poverty and injustice'.

Joel was so many things to so many people. He was nurtured in a black Pentecostal church, but he was also an ecumenist. He was a pastor, preacher, theologian, and supreme communicator. He was a unifier and a diplomat, negotiating the 'choppy waters' (a phrase he often used) of competing evangelical traditions, as well as the inevitable conflicts arising from his deeply held Christian convictions as he sought to make relevant and accessible the Christian voice in the public square.

He was an 'Ambassador of Christ'. Although it would be quite disingenuous to say, like St Paul, that Joel became 'all things to things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some' (1 Corinthians 9:22), he had a way of reaching diverse groups of people with the gospel.

In the local church, the children and young people loved him. I will never forget the day he announced that he was leaving our congregation to join the EA full-time: the church was deeply saddened, but the children and young people wept uncontrollably. He was equally loved and admired by people outside the church. Pauline Brandt, the BBC South presenter and broadcaster came to help us at the EA with a special media campaign. She paid this tribute to him: 'Joel was a gentleman, compassionate and thoughtful. He was the embodiment of Christianity.'

For many people, Joel's tenure as Senior Pastor of Mile End New Testament Church of God (1985-1995), was one of the most exciting times in the history of the organisation. He established a dynamic ministry team, and empowered women leadership at a time when it was not fashionable. Mile End New Testament Church of God was 'the place to be' if you were 'young, Christian and black conscious'; it was 'the happening place' where you heard preaching at its best, where discipleship and spiritual growth happened in an empowering and loving environment. It was an environment where you expected to hear 'a word from the Lord'.

Although it might seem strange in retrospect, Joel admitted that when he was 'called to the ministry' he 'had not thought of being a pastor, and I knew very little about the church, but I accepted'. However, he is forever thought of by members of the local church as being the 'best pastor I have ever had' or as 'our most caring and wonderful pastor and friend'. As director of the Whitelands Centre for Pentecostalism & Community Engagement at the University of Roehampton, it was my pleasure and delight to invite my friend Dr Joel Edwards to give the inaugural address for the William J. Seymour Annual Lecture on 'Pentecostalism at the Crossroads of Identity'.

But how will this giant in the Kingdom of God be remembered? Many will remember him for his warmth, his smile, his sense of humour and his compassion. Others will recall his powerful preaching and his public witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform lives and culture. The many phases of his ministry and career speak to a life well lived serving Christ, the Church and the common good.

We remember our friend and colleague Joel Edwards as an 'Ambassador of Christ' with a ministry and gift for reconciliation. In his unique and characteristic style, his farewell message to his friends and the wider Christian family reminds us of God as 'The faithful One' who is 'marvellous, mysterious and majestic in all that He does'. Confident in his faith and the Christian hope of the resurrection, Joel ended his farewell message with these beautiful words: "I wait to welcome you."

Dr R David Muir is Head of Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, and Senior Lecturer in Public Theology & Community Engagement. He is the Director of the Centre for Pentecostalism & Community Engagement at Roehampton University and executive member of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR). In 2015, he co-authored the first Black Church political manifesto, produced by the National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF).