“And the Kingdom of God is like that.”
Jesus often ended his parables this way. In his new memoir, Lead Me On, Let Me Stand: A Clergyman’s Story in Black and White, those words are also William H. Barnwell’s refrain. Master story-teller that he proves to be and a prodigious delver into life’s truths, this book can be read as a collection of modern day parables. They are stories from Barnwell’s intrepidly driven life; but we can all relate to them. What drives him? Rebellion, outrage, love, ego, White guilt, the Holy Spirit, the desire to reconcile and unite entrenched opponents? After each confrontation or crises, he assesses these forces, eats crow if necessary and learns something. Barnwell is ever willing to revise a strategy, thus bearing witness to the very process of transformation which he finds central to the message of the Bible.
Barnwell’s friends and family in Old Charleston provided him with a magical, rich childhood of exploration, adventure, learning, love, and lessons that are truly Christian. They were also racist to the core. He recounts one story that combines boys-will-be-boys, intimate revelation, and ignorance: One day as William and his almost-teenage friends were comparing their private parts, they convinced – bribed actually – a Black boy passing by to join in. They were amazed to discover that his thing was the same color he was.
The first time William left Charleston for seminary – in a failed attempt to assuage a broken heart – he was still a home boy with some home boy values. He experienced the kind of “miserableness” that Huck Finn suffered over divided loyalty to his closest friend, the runaway slave Jim and the widow who had raised him, whose “property” he was stealing. Barnwell left seminary and went back home.
Back in seminary as a student in 1966 he worked at an Episcopal community center run by a Black priest in the part of town where his old friends had thrown raw eggs at Black people.
There he discovered people who had an “abiding faith, an ability to endure that my White world seemed to lack.” The journal that he kept that summer became his first book, In Richard’s World: The Battle of Charleston 1966. His family and most of his friends were appalled and mortified that he would question their assumptions and values. In those days, most Whites took a binding oath not to become race traitors; that is, not to work against the systems that had bestowed their privilege. Barnwell went on to challenge many of those systems: the Vietnam War; the racial disparities in sentencing and incarceration in the “justice” system; the death penalty; the exclusion of gays from the right to marry or to become a priest. As he took these stands, he thought of Atticus telling Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”
His stance as defender of the downtrodden got him in trouble in pretty much every church he served in South Carolina, New Orleans and Boston. It also contributed to the dissolution of his first marriage.
In addition to being an intrepid (some would say head strong) social activist, Barnwell is also a gifted teacher and pastoral minister. Many of his stories are about teaching at a very difficult public high school in New Orleans, in college, in prison, and in the many small group learning situations that he helped to create at churches.
But perhaps Barnwell’s greatest gift is forging long-lasting relationships even across barriers that usually divide people. He developed allies for racial reconciliation and prison work in Black churches and in conservative White churches. He manages to connect people and raise up leaders who can carry on his programs without him. He encouraged churches and social agencies to be accountable to people of color, a concept taught by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. He took parishioners from Trinity Church Boston to the Ma’afa remembrance in New York created by the Reverend Johnnie Rae Youngblood who grew up in New Orleans. Designed to heal, the Ma’afa is a beautiful and dramatic re-enactment of the great horror of the Middle Passage of slavery. Only recently has it allowed White people to participate. Being the only White person there, Barnwell was hell bent on walking barefoot the ten yards on burning coals. Never mind that the extremely faithful emerged unscathed while he got blisters.
It’s hard to choose an exemplary reconciliation story from the book because there are so many. But here is one – two actually: Barnwell met James Bullock at Orleans Parish Prison after he had spent many years on death row. Barnwell was at the prison with a program called Concept. Bullock was there because he had killed a policeman, he claimed in self-defense. A fight broke out and everybody except Bullock was whisked away. Bullock was taken to the place where an inmate was holding a homemade knife to the throat of a guard.
“It took James half an hour or so, but quietly and carefully he talked the inmate into handing over the knife. We were just about to execute this man as worthless . . . who saved his jailer’s life.”
In 2003, Barnwell was participating in a forum featuring those who were present at the showdown in the Desire Housing Development, the 1970 police/Black Panther confrontation that except for brave Desire teenagers, community leaders and enlightened city officials, would have certainly resulted in massive bloodshed. On that day (Nov. 19, 1970) Barnwell called himself a “failed mediator” because he and other clergy tried their best to avert the confrontation which happened anyway. At the Ashe Cultural Arts Center 33 years later with key players in attendance, the mediation was finally complete. “A Desire to Heal” read the front page headline in The Louisiana Weekly. The photo shows Barnwell looking on as former Panther Malik Rahim shakes hands with former mayor Moon Landrieu. Meanwhile a distinguished looking older Black man took the floor to thank Rev. Barnwell “not for that day but for when I was in the Parish [prison].” Barnwell finally realized that it was James Bullock, now a free man who he hadn’t seen for 25 years, but who he had often preached about saving the guard’s life.
When Barnwell got up to speak recently at the Community Book Center he said he hoped he wasn’t preaching and he hoped his book wasn’t preaching either. The stories in his book show how he and many others are actually living the Gospel. “Preach the Gospel,” St. Francis of Assisi allegedly said, “and when necessary, use words.”
Orissa Arend is a mediator and psychotherapist in New Orleans and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers take a stand in New Orleans.