Minister’s message is simple: Jesus

To hear Will Willimon tell it, he’s a Methodist preacher who likes to talk about Jesus.

“I think when it comes down to it, Jesus is the most interesting thing Christians have to say to the world and to themselves,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Willimon, who’s also a former bishop of the North Alabama United Methodist Conference, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University Divinity School, and the author of 70 books that have sold more than a million copies, will spend next weekend in Greenwood talking about his favorite subject.

Hosted by the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, he will give lectures on the night of March 3 and the morning of March 4 and a sermon at Nativity on March 5. The entire community is encouraged to attend, said Nativity Rector Rev. Peter Gray.

Willimon holds a Master of Divinity degree from Yale and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Emory, in addition to 13 honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees.

He said he has been blessed in his long career to “be a bishop for eight years in Alabama, a parish pastor for about 10 years and a professor and minister at a fine university  for 20 years.

“I’ve had a variety of opportunities to see Jesus at work and to see people responding to him in a variety of ways,” he said.

At the heart of his teachings about preaching and about Jesus is Willimon’s strong belief in redemptive possibility. That, he said, is one of the blessings of being a Christian in Mississippi.

Willimon started out preaching in a small South Carolina town and has spent most of his life in the South, encouraging racial reconciliation as a Christian’s duty.  

Most recently he published “Who Lynched Willie Earle: Confronting Racism Through Preaching,” a book rooted in his early life experience and his life teaching others how to preach about difficult issues.

The book begins with a historical narrative “that happened at the hands of people in my hometown,” Willimon said.

In Greenville, South Carolina, in 1947, a black man named Willie Earle was dragged out of a jail cell and brutally murdered in what’s generally considered the last public lynching in South Carolina.

“There was an internationally prominent trial where all 31 white lynchers were acquitted and Strom Thurmond bragged to the governor, ‘Hey, at least we had a trial,’” Willimon said.

Willimon said that  though he grew up in the midst of it, he didn’t hear about Willie Earle until he was in college.

“Since then, I’ve had a kind of lifelong interest in it,” he said.

The part of the narrative that inspired him and others was a sermon by a young Methodist preacher who came to South Carolina shortly after the lynching.

“He stood up and preached and said, ‘Who killed Willie Earle? We all know the answer to that question; it was those men who lynched him,’” Willimon said.

“But that answer was too simple. He went on to say that ‘we’ killed Willie Earle with our segregation laws and economic injustices and our history of discrimination. It was an amazing act of courage, a response to a terrible tragedy of many dimensions.”

The book asks what it means to speak out about race through sermons, and it draws on sermons from some of Willimon’s students following the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston.

“What I try to say is that America’s racism is an opportunity to proclaim the gospel, to say that the redemptive possibilities of God are just limitless,” he said.

Willimon says people would often question him in his attempts to renew and transform the church in Alabama.

“They’d say, ‘Bishop, do you think we can really change the course of history?’ And I’d say, ‘I really believe it is the nature of God to change people.’”

Willimon said preachers are accustomed to talking about things people often would rather they not bring up, and dealing with doubts is one of the great gifts of the ministry.

Recently engaged with students talking about the particular challenges of this time in America, Willimon said the conversation turned to “what a great time (it is) to talk and to see our national situation as a call to teaching and to reflection for sermons.

“It’s great to turn to Jesus for help  just thinking this through,” he said. “The constructive approach is not to fret, to say, ‘I’m going to try to think like a Christian about this.’”

Contact Kathryn Eastburn at 581-7235 or keastburn@gwcommonwealth.com.