RALEIGH (RNS) — For his final sermon as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., on Sunday (June 18), the Rev. William Barber spoke of the “cripple’s testimony.”
The sermon, which capped his 30-year tenure as pastor of Disciples of Christ Church in the majority black city about 50 miles southeast of Raleigh, the state capital, was unusually personal.
Barber, considered by some to be the successor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. because of his anti-poverty activism, will spend his time training future pastors. Late last year, he was named founding director of the Yale Divinity School’s Center for Public Theology and Public Policy.
Upon completing his term at Greenleaf, Barber, 59, talked about the fight that he almost ended his career before it began.
In 1993, the year he was called to lead the church, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. Although he didn’t name the condition, which causes the vertebrae in the spine to fuse together and results in a hunched back and an unsteady gait, he spoke candidly about the depression and near-loss of faith that accompanied his diagnosis and the ways he was forced to. to lean more on God.
“I had an official from the Christian church, the national church, call me and say, ‘Bobby, you’re probably going to have to find something else to do besides pastor, because the church isn’t going to want a cripple to pastor. ‘” he recounted.
At a time when muscular Christianity, a militant, almost warlike faith, appears on the rise in many Christian and political spaces, Barber, who walks with a cane, has gambled his life speaking out for the weak and lowly.
“We work very hard to present how strong we are, and we think that’s faith,” Barber said.
But, he added, “the grace of God and the glory of God are most evident when we are weak.”
“So if you’re going to brag about your faith,” he intoned, “don’t tell everyone how good you are. Tell them how you fell.
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Using the Biblical prophet Isaiah’s image of a bruised reed and the story of a lame man named Mephibosheth from the Book of Samuel, Barber spoke for 45 minutes about his own struggle and that of other Biblical characters such as Job, the prophet Jeremiah, and the Apostle Paul. and many others were physically or psychologically distressed.
Sitting behind him were Terri Hord Owens, general minister and president of the Disciples of Christ, as well as Sharon Watkins, her predecessor and the first woman to lead a traditional denomination in 2005.
Barber, who also served as president of the NAACP’s North Carolina state conference from 2005 to 2017, is best known in the state for organizing the Moral Monday movement to protest cuts in unemployment benefits, funding for health care, voting rights and the environment. regulations. The movement is credited with helping to defeat former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016.
His dedication to low-income Americans and their concerns raised his profile nationally and led to speeches at the Democratic National Convention and later a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. More recently, Tennessee state representative Justin Jones, who was ousted by the mostly white, Republican-controlled state legislature and later reinstated, recognized Barber as something of a “godfather” to him.
In a phone call with RNS after the service, Barber said he was especially proud to hand over leadership of his church to a woman, the Rev. G. Shyrl Hinnant-Uzzell, who was named his successor at Greenleaf.
Hinnant-Uzzell has served as an assistant pastor at the church for several years. Barber also turned over leadership of another organization he founded, Breach Menders, to a woman, the Reverend A. Kazimir Brown. Barber will retain the title of president and full professor.
Immediately after his last service, Barber headed for Washington for a three-day Poor People’s Appeal. event to raise awareness about poverty, which he said is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. As part of that event, he is scheduled to meet at the White House on Wednesday.
Barber said he will always keep a home in the South, though he intends to spend most of his time at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, starting this fall.
He felt it was important to leave Greenleaf with the message that hardship can be a source of strength, or as he put it, “Your inability doesn’t disqualify you.”
“Your cripple gives God a place to display God’s strength and also allows you to be in community, because you can’t do it alone.”
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