Will Willimon: Remembering our calling

Pastoral leaders can forget our call. Just look at those who support legalized gambling in Alabama.

The best thing in Birmingham is our Civil Rights Institute. There you can literally walk through the entire Civil Rights Movement, start to finish. The tableaus, sound and light shows, and wonderfully displayed artifacts are a fitting tribute to those who marched, witnessed, and suffered for the cause of African American rights, indeed the rights of all Americans. The walk ends at the desk of Mayor Richard Arrington, the distinguished first African American mayor of Birmingham. The implication is that Birmingham’s election of an African American mayor signifies the summit of the movement.

Having been a student in the Sixties, walking through the Institute for me was like seeing some of the most important moments of your life pass before me -- particularly my call into the ministry. I wasn’t thinking about ministry until I got to know some of the pastors and laypeople who risked so much to witness at a time when faithful witness was costly.

I remember sitting on a motel room floor after a student conference on racial justice, listening to a group of Methodist preachers in South Carolina tell of having crosses burned on their yards and bricks thrown through their windshields. I thought to myself, “Wow. I didn’t know being a Methodist preacher was this interesting! Where do I sign up?”

Some time ago we observed the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. That celebration was overshadowed by the arrival in Montgomery of the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They came not to push for greater racial justice in Alabama (which we badly need) but rather to push for a constitutional amendment that would legalize casinos (which we don’t).

The only good sense gambling makes in Alabama is business sense. We have one of the worst educational systems in the country and one of the highest poverty rates. Studies show that a hugely disproportionate share of the poor and poorly educated are customers of the casinos and bingo parlors that the bill would permit. The Reverends Jackson and Sharpton say their concern is jobs for casino workers in some of the state’s poorest counties.

But does economic salvation through gambling make any sense from the viewpoint of the faith of two clergymen?

“Luck,” a popular word in Greco-Roman culture, is found nowhere in scripture. My church believes that gambling is not only a sign of bad government but also an opportunity for corruption. No gambling legislation has ever been passed except from the very best of motives (usually the promise of greater funding for education). Jackson and Sharpton have stated no concerns about the problems of addiction, governmental corruption, and heartache for individuals and families. My pastors -- perhaps because they are still serving as pastors -- report ample evidence that gambling is an unmitigated social evil.

A few weeks ago, as I stood at the desk of Mayor Arrington, savoring the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, looking out on the very street where children marched for freedom, I was overcome with a sad sense of irony. The ex-mayor of Birmingham, Larry Langford (Democrat, African American), was sent to prison last month in part because of corruption. Our present mayor (Dem., AA) was propelled into office after a last minute supportive phone call that the convicted ex-mayor made. For this little children marched in the streets of Birmingham in the Sixties?

Watching Jackson and Sharpton exercise their ordination in this way has served to remind me of the responsibilities the church placed upon my shoulders. To be ordained is to submit to the faith of the church, to be “under orders” even when it is not popular and doesn’t make good business sense. I never contributed to the fight for racial justice to the degree of Jackson or Sharpton, but their actions on behalf of the gambling cartel in Alabama have reminded me of the peril of not being clear about the source of ministerial authority.

Forty-six years ago I sat on the floor of a motel room and thrilled to the stories of a group of ordinary pastors and felt called to join them in the Christian ministry. I am grateful to be reminded of the high calling of which I’m a part.

Jesse and Al, did you forget?

Will Willimon is a United Methodist Bishop serving in Birmingham, Alabama.