A pastor whose family ties to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee inspired him to crusade against white supremacy will be in Tulsa this weekend to talk about race and reconciliation.
The Rev. Rob Lee, a descendant of the Southern Civil War commander, will be a special guest at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 4200 S. Atlanta Place, as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday observance.
On Saturday, he will facilitate a panel discussion on race reconciliation. The program will begin at 4 p.m. at the church.
He will also be guest speaker on Sunday during the church’s regular service times — at 7:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. The public is invited to all events.
Lee, who is pastor at Unifour Church in Newton, North Carolina, has become widely known as an activist, author and outspoken critic of efforts to commemorate the Old South.
Lee, whose name is Robert W. Lee IV, is a direct descendant of Lee’s older brother, Charles Carter Lee.
Just as the Confederate general’s name remains “a blessing to some and a curse to others,” the pastor’s family ties have been both a “blessing and a curse,” he said in a phone interview this week.
“We’re all burdened by the actions of our ancestors,” Lee said. “It’s given me a sense of purpose — a sense that I have to work for justice.”
Robert E. Lee, he added, is a “complex character” whose life should be studied, especially as it touches on the idea of duty and how we determine where it lies.
Lee said he’s happy to be coming to Tulsa at a time when the community is confronting its own racially checkered past.
“Tulsa has been in the spotlight,” he said, adding that he was already aware of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and its upcoming 100th anniversary.
He said he hopes in his short time in Tulsa to start “a conversation” and leave Tulsans with a challenge — “that we will be that which God has called us to be,” advocates for “righteousness and justice.”
Rob Lee has supported efforts nationally to remove Confederate memorials and change names identified with the Confederacy, such as what happened recently with Tulsa Public School’s Lee Elementary.
The 100-year-old school, which was named for Robert E. Lee, was stripped of its association with the Confederate icon in 2018 and renamed Council Oak Elementary.
“I think it’s a justice issue,” Rob Lee said. “The names have been co-opted — they’ve become idols of white supremacy. ... I’ve always been clear — we have an opportunity here to engage in an honest conversation about what we value.”
Lee’s public stances haven’t always made his churches comfortable. He resigned from a previous congregation in 2017 after members questioned an MTV award show appearance in which he praised the Black Lives Matter movement.
Lee has made numerous television appearances, including on CNN, BBC and “The View,” speaking out on the need to confront white supremacy.
His books include “A Sin By Any Other Name,” in which he takes on his namesake ancestor and the ongoing idolization of the Confederacy.
However, he said, he still considers himself a preacher first and foremost.
“That’s my vocation,” he said.
The Rev. Samuel Colley-Toothaker, interim rector at St. John’s, said Lee’s visit is not only timely but consistent with the church’s mission.
“As a faith community in Tulsa, it is important that we engage the prescient issues of the day. Race and reconciliation are two such issues,” Colley-Toothaker said.
“As Christians, our baptismal covenant demands we respect the dignity of every human being. No exceptions. So we offer this conversation. Our faith demands it; our time requires it.”