Leadership in Context: Alabama

Essays

I have been only sporadically involved in politics throughout my ministry, generally considering political engagement by clergy to be a decidedly mixed bag. My high calling as a preacher didn’t seem to mesh well with the grubby compromise demanded by democratic politics.Then the church sent me to be bishop in Alabama.

All ministry is a demonstration of the Incarnation; the Trinity refuses to be relegated to the abstract and the detached but rather locates, incarnates, tabernacles among us.  My particular experience of Incarnation was, in the wisdom of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, Alabama.  I have been only sporadically involved in politics throughout my ministry, generally considering political engagement by clergy to be a decidedly mixed bag.  My high calling as a preacher didn’t seem to mesh well with the grubby compromise demanded by democratic politics.

Then the church sent me to be bishop in Alabama.  Church leadership in this part of the world taught me that I either had to get engaged in politics or else not be true to my vocation as a spokesperson for the Kingdom of God.

From one angle Alabama is an example of bad state government and a string of sad choices by the voters (many of whom are United Methodists).[1]  Where George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door snarling “segregation now, segregation forever,” our current governor (proclaiming himself to be an exemplary Christian) stands in the way of government becoming more responsive to its citizens – one his few initiatives in his first year was passage of the most mean-spirited anti-immigration legislation in the nation.  (Which the Episcopal and Roman Catholic bishops joined with me in challenging in court.  We got the judge to remove some of the most heinous parts of the law that would have penalized churches working with immigrants.)

A 2009 Gallup Poll of political ideology found Alabama the most conservative U.S.state.[2]  Our economy is utterly dependent on US military largesse.[3]  Although our legislators bad mouth the Feds, the US sends Alabama $1.66 for every dollar we pay in Federal tax.   Alabama stubbornly refuses to elect or even appoint women to public service, having fewer women leading in public life than any state in the Union.   We have the most regressive tax system in the country supported by a racist, labyrinthine constitution that was conceived in sin to protect the economic privilege of white people.[4]  Efforts by many United Methodists to change our constitution and our tax structure have been continually rebuffed, often by better-financed right wing Christians (some of whom are United Methodists).  We are one of the most polluted states in the country.  The Birmingham mayor (whom I attempted to counsel and support) is now serving a long prison sentence for stealing huge sums from the people.  “God knows what I have done and not done and that’s enough for me,” Mayor Langford said on his way to jail, “Everybody else can go to hell.”  

And yet by the grace of God, Alabama is also the home of Helen Keller and Rosa Parks.  The state that called itself “The Heart of Dixie,” is also where Martin Luther King, Jr. was discovered, where Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver worked, where Methodist Harper Lee wrote our nation’s finest novel, and where lots of courageous Methodists dismantled racial segregation.

In 1921 a Methodist preacher (also an active member of the KKK) shot dead Father James Coyle for marrying his daughter to a Puerto Rican, was acquitted and continued to preach the gospel.[5]  Alabama was the national center for religious terrorism, with nearly two dozen bombs planted in churches and synagogues between 1949 and 1965 (if so many bombs had been planted by Islamic extremists, the US would have declared war on Alabama.)[6] Alabama has the largest percentage of citizens in church on a Sunday and the second most generous individual givers in the nation.[7]  Make of that what you will.

You would have to be a Christian to understand why Patsy and I considered it a great privilege to be assigned to serve God in Bama.  For one thing, being beset by legions of biblical literalists, neo-Calvinist fundamentalists, and Baptist bigots is a golden opportunity to rediscover the vitality and intellectual superiority of Wesleyan Christianity.  I always loved our theological heritage, Alabama taught me the continuing glorious human implications of divine Arminianism in action.  Time and again, when I was leading a sob session of criticism of our United Methodist problems, there was always someone to say, “It took me thirty years to find the United Methodist Church and I love it!  I never heard of grace until I met Methodists.”

Alabama is partly in a fix due to our propensity to choose leaders who exemplify the worst in us.  And I’m not just talking about the current legislature.   That means that I’ve discovered (in Conference-wide discussions on race, on immigration, and on war) that Methodist Alabamians  are wonderfully responsive to leadership inspired by Christ rather than by mean-spirited, self-interested resentment.  My prayer sessions with our former Governor, Bob Riley, not only gave me a glimpse into the huge challenges faced by a consecrated Christian leader but almost converted me into voting Republican.  Almost. 

Sure, it’s sad that Alabama stays 48th in factors relating to childhood health, education, and safety.[8]  However the plight of poor children in our state was one reason why Patsy committed so much time and effort to our thriving, excellent network of United Methodist Children’s Homes in Alabama. 

I suppose there are places in the world where churches thrash about trying to find something courageous to do.  Not in Alabama.  Having one of the most irresponsible and corrupt governments in the country gives us a God-ordained opportunity to reach out to those in need in the name of Jesus Christ.  My high regard for my courageous clergy who dare to speak out and act up for Jesus Alabama is unbounded.

“If some teenager is to be rescued, if a crack mom is to be saved in this county, the Methodist Church is the only organized, caring way that’s to be done,” said one of my preachers.  Her church promised God that though Alabama has found so many ways to ignore the poor the United Methodist Church will not.

In my better moments, when I became discouraged by the reactionary attitudes of some of our people, God would graciously remind me that Alabama has one of the worst school systems in America, kept down by a self-protective state teachers’ association and underfunded by the nation’s most regressive tax system.  I would see our situation as a call for better Christian teaching, not for more moralistic scolding, and thank God I got to serve God in Alabama.

Whenever I encountered resistance, I remembered the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was told to ease up on Alabama.  In his sermon, “Our God is Marching On,” King vowed, “No, we will not allow Alabama to return to normalcy.” 

Normalcy ceased to be an option for the United Methodist Church in Alabama once I got my books unpacked and reported for service as Bama Bishop.

Will Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and the author of the forthcoming, Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Abingdon Press).



[1] The sad story of the contemporary history of my adopted state is documented in Allen Tullos, Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie (Athens: the University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[2] Tullos, Alabama Getaway, 2.

[3] Tullos, Alabama Getaway 3.  I can’t figure out why Alabamians so despise the Federal Government – the US military provides much of the growth in our state’s sad economy.

[4] Methodist Susan Pace Hamill enlisted me in her fight against Alabama’s tax code.  See Susan Pace Hamill, The Least of These: Fair Taxes and the Moral Duty of Christians (Birmingham: Crane Hill Press, 2003).

[5] We’ve organized a Service of Repentance for the spring of 2012 in which we UM’s will repent for our weak response to the murder of Father Coyle.

[6] See the list in Wayne Flynt’s, Alabama in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2004), 470-472.  I tried to make Flynt’s history required reading for all clergy trying to understand the context of their ministry, particularly chapter 10, “What Would Jesus Do?  Religion.”

[7] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2008) 107.

[8] Tullos, Alabama Getaway, 248.

One thought on “Leadership in Context: Alabama

  1. Wow! There is so many things wrong with this article and how can you, being a bishop, be a democrat? Do you support abortion? Gay marriage? Socialism? Because the Bible never speaks in support of any of those and NO we have not forgotten the poor, but we realize while such “great” states as New York and California spend into oblivion (crying to us for a bailout) that you can’t keep dumping money into the pit of welfare. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “I am for doing good to the poor, but…I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed…that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.” The Bible talks about doing good for the poor, and I am a firm believer in volunteer work and charity, but Jesus NEVER said “Well, it’s the government’s job to fix all the problems we face. I think I just protest, riot, and things of that nature.” NO! He took it upon himself to help the sick, the poor, and those who weren’t Christians. So I feel sorry and will be praying for you. Quit whining to the government about your problems and pray about them. Get help from other churches. I would love to help more. Don’t be lazy.

    Also, I’m tired of everyone living in the past. It’s called the past for a reason. AND if I am not mistaken, when Gov. Wallace ran for re-election, he had the majority of the black vote in Alabama. So don’t blame him for trying to continue a career in politics. AND MLK NEVER called for handouts. He wanted equal opportunity. AND maybe we don’t have that many women in key leadership roles in our government because they don’t run. Oh, last time i checked, Kay Ivey, yeah she was the Lt. Governor at one point. That’s a pretty high position, if you ask me.

    I’m a little confused. Are you condoning what the B-ham mayor said? If so, you’ve got me worried. “Everyone else can go to hell?” REALLY? What a example of a great Christian!!!

    Also, we don’t have crazy tax rates BECAUSE we are a less-fortunate state in some parts. That “horrible” tax rates you speak of, are the reason we have companies still coming to Alabama to create jobs!

    Lastly, while you’re naming off great people from Alabama, how about naming of the current CEO from Apple Inc., Louise Fletcher, Daniel Pratt, Braxton Bragg Comer, and not to mention that Auburn University is ranked #1 for most graduates as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

    So before you downing the state I live in all because you don’t appreciate some of all history, look around at other states. I’d said financially, were doing better than California, and much of the east coast. As for spiritually, I’ll pray for you, my friend and fellow Methodist. The thought of you (a bishop) voting for abortion, same sex marriage, American’s rights being taken, and the abolishment of God in our schools and communities, to name of few, makes me sick. I’ll be praying!

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