RALEIGH (RNS) — For his final sermon as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, on Sunday (June 18), the Rev. William Barber spoke of “the testimony of the cripple.”
The sermon, which capped his 30-year tenure as pastor of the Disciples of Christ church in the mostly Black town about 50 miles southeast of Raleigh, the state capital, was unusually personal.
Barber, who some consider a successor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for his anti-poverty activism, will devote his time to training future pastors. Late last year, he was appointed founding director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School.
In completing his tenure at Greenleaf, Barber, 59, spoke of the struggle that nearly ended his career before it began.
In 1993, the year he was called to lead the church, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. Though he didn’t name the condition, which causes the vertebrae of the spine to fuse together and has resulted in a hunched back and a halting gait, he spoke candidly of the depression and near loss of faith that came with his diagnosis and the ways it forced him to lean more heavily on God.
“I had an officer in the Christian church, the national church, call me and said, ‘Bobby, you probably gonna need to figure out another thing to do besides pastoring, because the church ain’t gonna want a cripple to be a pastor,’” he recounted.
At a time when muscular Christianity, a militant, almost warrior-like faith appears ascendant in many Christian and political spaces, Barber, who walks with a cane, has staked his life on speaking for the weak and lowly.
“We work so hard to present how strong we are, and we think that’s faith,” Barber said.
But, he added, “God’s grace and God’s glory is most evident when we are weak.”
“So if you’re going to boast about your faith, ” he intoned, “don’t tell everybody how good you are. Tell them how you’ve fallen.”
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 about those of other biblical figures such as Job, the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul and many others were either physically or psychologically afflicted.
Sitting behind him was 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 mainline denomination in 2005.
Barber, who also served as president of the North Carolina state conference of the NAACP from 2005 until 2017, is best known in the state for organizing the Moral Monday movement as a protest against cuts to unemployment benefits, health care funding, voting rights, and environmental regulations. The movement was credited with helping 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” grant. Most recently, Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones, who was expelled by the overwhelmingly white, Republican-controlled state Legislature and then reinstated, credited Barber as a sort of “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 assistant pastor at the church for several years. Barber has also handed the leadership of another organization he founded, Repairers of the Breach, to a woman, the Rev. A. Kazimir Brown. Barber will retain the title of president and senior lecturer.
Immediately after his last service, Barber headed to Washington for a three-day Poor People’s Campaign event to raise awareness of poverty, which he said is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States. As part of that event, he is scheduled to have a meeting in the White House on Wednesday.
Barber said he will always keep a home in the South, even as he intends to spend most of his time at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, beginning this fall.
He felt it was important to leave Greenleaf with a message that hardship can be a source of strength, or as he put it: “your crippleness doesn’t disqualify you.”
“Your crippleness gives God a place to show God’s strength and it also enables you to be in community, because you cannot do it on your own.”