Merle Carlson was a beloved minister and civil rights activist.
The Rev. Merle Carlson worked for years as a Lutheran minister in the Twin Cities, advocating for civil rights and social justice even when it put him at odds with those in his congregation. He died June 22 in hospice of natural causes. He was 87.
Carlson, a native of Jamestown, N.Y., graduated from the University of Michigan in 1948 before entering Augustana College and Theological Seminary in Rock Island, Ill. He became a minister in Hutto, Texas, where he was the first white minister asked to preach at a black Baptist church and to have that church's preacher give a sermon to his all-white congregation, according to his son, Jonathan Carlson.
He and his family moved to South St. Paul in 1957, and he became the minister of Bethesda Lutheran Church. Carlson wanted to join the Freedom Riders in the South but decided to allow his congregation to vote on whether he would go, his son said. The plan lost by one vote.
Despite that, Carlson continued to encourage black involvement in the community, which was predominantly white at the time, his son said. When the church was ready to expand, he hired a black architect, Lonnie Adkins, to tackle the project.
Ten years later, he moved his family to the North Side of Minneapolis, where he became the minister at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. He immediately began to participate in civil rights causes in the area and pushed to have the church used as a community center, which created a conflict with his congregation. After five years and heightened tension, he asked to leave the church.
"He was really out there in the fronts and pretty courageous in that respect," said Nancy Williams, a family friend.
He became a "shepherd of the streets" in St. Paul, ministering to people who couldn't afford to build or maintain a church. He created a fund to help people pay rent and court fees. Through this work, he became a principal organizer for the Neighborhood Justice Center, which continues to provide legal services to low-income residents.
He and his wife retired to Tucson, Ariz., in 1983. Although he was retired, he continued to work, organizing a drop-in center so immigrants could receive legal counseling, his son said.
Although he was miles away from his family in Minnesota, he would often drive all night to visit his grandchildren, Jonathan Carlson said. He said his father was the most gentle-mannered person he knew, and it was nearly impossible to rile him up. Throughout his life, he and his wife took in about 17 foreign exchange students and foster children.
"He always returned evil with good," he said. "He was always operating from a position of love."
Carlson is survived by his wife, Dorothy; his four children, Jonathan, Timothy, Priscilla and Stephanie; and six grandchildren. There will be a memorial celebration for him at 4 p.m. July 21, at Bethesda Lutheran Church in South St. Paul.
Masako Hirsch • 612-673-4263