OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – The Rev. Walter Willis is nine years older than civil-rights leader John Lewis.
Willis celebrated his 89th birthday on August 3. Lewis died at age 80 on July 17.
Willis watched the memorial services for Lewis on television and felt a connection to the activist who famously tried to cross an iconic Alabama bridge in 1965. Lewis was brutally beaten by state troopers on that “Bloody Sunday,” along with other marchers. Yet the violent images helped to change a nation.
“I have seen with my own eyes people take giant leaps of faith because they believed it was the right thing,” Willis said. “I know how much courage that took. I was not always that aggressive.
“I think my contribution to progress in my country was ... I walked across bridges once they were established,” Willis added. “If someone was reaching out with a hand, I also wanted to extend mine.”
A native of Sylacauga, Alabama, Willis first came to East Tennessee in 1971 as Holston Conference’s first cross-racial appointment. He was a Black pastor serving a white church just three years after the Central Jurisdiction was dissolved and segregation was ceremoniously ended with the formation of The United Methodist Church.
Willis was appointed to Kern Memorial United Methodist Church by L. Scott Allen, Holston’s first Black bishop. Allen was also the first African-American bishop in the denomination’s Southeastern Jurisdiction.
Bishop Allen wanted Holston Conference to take a bold step toward accepting Black pastors in a new age, Willis said.
“The church had taken a stand that it would be totally inclusive,” he said, referring to the denomination’s founding principles. “For Bishop Allen, it wasn’t going to be something that will happen, some time. ... He wanted to open the doors to cross-racial appointments because the church had taken a stand, and he was going to follow through.”
Willis served Kern Memorial in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, from 1971 to 1974. He left to take a new appointment as Maryville District superintendent, believing he and his family had made a “contribution toward racial justice.”
It wasn’t the only time Willis was a spoke in the wheel of change. As a Black pastor at Metropolitan Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Willis joined in meetings with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s. (“I believe he was a man, like Moses, sent to deliver an oppressed people,” Willis said of King.)
In the 1960s, Willis was the first African-American staff in his department at Methodist Publishing House. In the 1980s, he served as “director of ethnic minority local church education” at the denomination’s Board of Discipleship.
Most of his ministry was rewarding, Willis said. “I’ve never been bitter or angry, even though I have experienced what it means to be Black in America.”
He remembers having to wait until all white customers were taken care of before Black customers could be served in an Alabama store. At a South Carolina doctor's office, he was told to take a separate door for Blacks, instead of the main entrance for whites.
His most troubling memory occurred in February 1968, when Willis was chaplain at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Three unarmed Black men in their late teens were killed by state troopers during a protest to desegregate a bowling alley. The violence happened near the campuses of Claflin and its next-door neighbor, South Carolina State University. Twenty-eight protesters were wounded.
Willis was there. He saw it all.
“We talked with the young people. We told them about the danger,” Willis said. “But they would not hear.”
Willis not only talked to the students involved in protests before the fatal night. He also saw the three young men in the college infirmary where he says they died. The gunshot wounds were located in their “backs and buttocks." The ambulances that were called "never made it to the campus."
The incident known as the “Orangeburg Massacre” is fresh on the pastor’s mind as he watches modern-day protesters on TV.
“You’re conflicted. You understand what the young people are about. They’re about justice. They want things to change,” he said. “And that’s the right thing. But you fear for their lives.”
Willis went on from Orangeburg to walk across more bridges. He led Aldersgate United Methodist, a large church outside Cleveland, Ohio, from 1987 to 1994. He returned to Holston Conference in 1994 as a retiree, pastoring Magnolia Avenue United Methodist in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the next 14 years. Under his leadership, Magnolia Avenue was celebrated as “racially inclusive.”
“To attend worship at Magnolia, you would have seen almost a 50-50 racial mix on Sunday mornings,” he said. “That was also true of the choir.”
Today, Willis lives again in Oak Ridge, worshipping at Kern Memorial where he once pastored. His wife and the mother of his children, Claudia, died in 2011. He remarried in 2014 to a former congregant, Mary Joyce Guntner.
On his 89th birthday, Willis said he celebrated how good it is to be alive. He smiled big when told that his reflections on walking across bridges seem very timely. Memorial images of John Lewis are often paired with images of the historic bridge where Lewis left his footprints.
“If you build a bridge and you never cross it,” Willis said, “you’re still where you were.”
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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