The letters and cards that Rev. Frederick Lowry’s family received after his death kept circling back to the same sentiments: how kind he was, how much he cared, his sense of humor.
The volume and substance of those letters illustrated the far-reaching impact that Lowry, 82, had on both the Reston community and Fairfax County as a whole before he died due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease on Dec. 25, 2017 at The Adler Center Hospice in Aldie.
“He just was a very kind, caring person for everybody, anybody he met,” Lowry’s wife, Leni Lowry, said. “We had just moved to the condominium here [in Reston], and he made friends right away. That’s the kind of person he is. There’s a thread through his life, and that is that he was a civil rights activist, that he was for justice and for equality, for all human rights.”
Lowry primarily cemented his reputation as a local community leader during his 14-year tenure as the director of the Community Ministry of Fairfax, an issue-oriented ministry that helped coordinate programs dealing with housing, education, criminal justice, and other social needs.
In addition to leading the Community Ministry from when he and his family moved to Reston in 1980 to his retirement in 1994, Lowry served on a number of county committees and advisory boards, including a homelessness oversight committee, the Fairfax County Care Network for Seniors’ advisory board, and the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Advisory Board, according to his son, David Lowry.
“There’s a half dozen other committees here,” David added after going through a list that also included a Fairfax County housing coalition and the board of directors for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.
Lowry’s dedication to addressing social justice and equity issues started well before he arrived in Reston.
Born in Providence, R.I., in 1935, Lowry primarily spent his childhood in Rumford and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1956 before attending divinity school at Yale University.
After graduating from Yale Divinity School in 1959, he was ordained at the United Church of Christ’s Orient Congregational Church, a Presbyterian church in Orient, N.Y., in 1960, according to his obituary.
Rather than focusing purely on the spiritual aspect of ministry, Lowry viewed his faith as a path that could guide him to helping make the world a better, more just place.
He supported the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, first as a volunteer for the Mississippi Summer Project voter registration drive in McComb, Miss., in 1964 and then as a staff member of the National Council of Churches’ Delta Ministry in Greenville, Miss., from 1965 to 1967.
At the same time, Lowry went to Switzerland to study at the University of Geneva’s School of Ecumenical Studies. While in Geneva, he met Leni, and they got married in 1967.
After finishing his work with the Delta Ministry, Lowry became director of the Yakima Valley Ministry, which was dedicated to supporting farm workers in Sunnyside, Wash., by pushing for legislation to improve working conditions, health, and housing, and supporting related community action programs.
Upon returning to the East Coast in 1971, Lowry served as director of the Woburn Council of Social Concern, a ministry program based in Woburn, Mass., and he became minister of the United Church of Christ’s Plymouth Congregational Church in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1974 until moving to Reston in 1980.
According to Leni, Lowry specifically sought to work with congregations that not only preached progressive values, but also committed to translating those beliefs into action.
“I’d say at the core of it is probably his belief that an individual can make great change in the world,” David Lowry said. “I think his life work was probably trying to lead by example with that.”
The Community Ministry of Fairfax County did not give Lowry the opportunity to be as hands-on as he was with the previous congregations and organizations that he served, but it did lead him to get actively involved in shaping public policy related to homelessness and affordable housing, youth services and education, aging, poverty, the environment, and criminal justice.
According to his obituary, one of the Community Ministry’s biggest projects was its participation in the county’s Project Homes program, which brought together 90 different churches that worked with and found housing for more than 250 homeless families.
Leni Lowry says that her husband also frequently visited jails to talk with both guards and prisoners, since he was interested in ensuring that prisoners were able to receive education and job skills training to prepare them for their release.
Not even the onset of Alzheimer’s put an end to Lowry’s desire to engage with and help his community.
Though Leni says that they saw him “diminish” as the disease took hold, Lowry still went out on walks and made a habit of greeting everybody he met along the way, earning him the nickname of “mayor of Reston” from one caregiver.
A public memorial service for Lowry will be held at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday at the United Christian Parish on North Shore Drive in Reston. A private interment will be held at Spring Vale Cemetery in East Providence, R.I., at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, the family recommends that well-wishers make donations to the Alzheimer’s Association, a fitting tribute to a man who lived his life in service of others.
“He was a passionate advocate on behalf of others,” Leni Lowry said. “He had integrity and vision and belief in inclusive, affirming, and caring communities…That’s what he did his whole life, building bridges.”