The Jesus Story is What I’m Living Out Of

Bill WKBy Tommy Airey, co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net

The first half of a two-post interview with Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann.

Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a man who has reclaimed civil disobedience as a spiritual practice and a vital component of Christian ministry for the past four decades in Detroit.  An ordained United Methodist minister, he only accepted part-time positions at churches in the city so that he could lavish time and energy into community organizing and direct action.  Back in the early 80’s, while serving a short stint in federal prison for an action at the Pentagon, the pastor-parish committee at his church inquired if it would be counted as “vacation time.”  His district supervisor countered, “Oh no.  Bill’s doing ministry.” 

A few days before the Summer Solstice, Pastor Bill and I retreated into our office at the Onassis Coney Island diner across the street from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and Manna Meal soup kitchen for the first of our two exclusive “exit interviews.” Sporting sunglasses as light poured into our window booth, he was looking more like a veteran rock star on tour than an old-school pastor about to retire.

Our sit-down was a few days before Bill received word that his current trial had finally been dismissed due to “lack of a speedy trial.”  It had been 1,067 days since the “Homrich 9” were charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct after they blocked trucks for several hours protesting the city’s water shut-off policy.  When Bill defended himself in court, he focused on the irony that he was trial and not the mayor or the governor-appointed emergency manager running the city like a dictator—these, after all, were the officials making decisions leaving long-time Detroiters homeless, jobless and dehydrated.

A native Detroiter, it’s been exactly fifty years since Bill graduated from Cooley High School where he penned his senior thesis on the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi and King.  A few months later, he remembers looking down Grand River towards downtown, heartbroken as fires consumed blocks of the city during the uprising of 1967.  In college, he quit playing football the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.  Other things seemed far more important.  He attended Union Theological Seminary in New York where he drank the Kool-Aid of holy rebels, in particular priest-activist Daniel Berrigan and lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow.  He learned well that a radical vocation required hyphens.  The more he studied, the more his heart broke and the more he realized he was called to break laws.  He became a pastor-activist.

I asked him if he felt his was a unique calling, or if every member of the clergy ought to be risking arrested.  He didn’t hesitate:

Oh yeah. Clergy and lay people should be doing this together.  And not just civil disobedience, but all sorts of things beyond that, like radical hospitality and water distribution.  I’ve always tried to invite others into this work, like getting bishops to serve Eucharist at military bases or performing an exorcism at a gun show.

I had to put my fork down to let that last line soak in.  Exorcism at a gun show?  I confess: I felt a tingling giddiness spread through my body. There was grief too.  Isn’t this precisely what the church ought to be about?  We need exorcisms all over the place.  At the White House.  At city hall.  At Walmart.  At Chase bank. Hell, at church.  While the demonic reigns, our Sunday performances stay in the sanctuary. After he experimented with all of this in the 70s and 80s, he published a very accessible and vastly underappreciated book called Seasons of Faith and Conscience (1991) where he theologized and sampled this “virtual liturgical renewal movement in the streets.”

When I got back to my cheese omelette, I queried why more clergy weren’t throwing in with him. He lamented:

The church isn’t set up for it.  The structure of the appointment process means bigger churches and bigger salaries. I’ve been able to do it because I’ve been half-time.  I’ve stayed out of that system.  The system would need to change because it captures people into this bondage. 

Refusing to blame the victim, Pastor Bill keeps the focus on systems, not symptoms.  It’s the principalities and powers, Stupid.  Structures need naming, engaging and transforming.

Bill’s daughter-in-law, Erinn, calls him her “father outlaw.”  That digs at an entire lifetime of holy rebellion. It also homes in on one of his most personal acts of disobedience.  He officiated the wedding ceremony of Erinn and Lydia, a same-sex partnership still shunned by the United Methodist conference in Michigan.  When the higher ups called Bill in to report to headquarters, he didn’t bring his lawyer.  Instead, he brought Lydia, whose presence alone questioned the notion, as she recounts, “if there was really something about my love and my life that is offensive to the gospel.”

A few weeks ago, Bill had the honor of baptizing Cedar and Ira, two of his grandsons, in the Detroit River (full disclosure: I am Cedar’s godfather).  One of the questions to parents and godparents:

Will you teach Ira and Cedar to recognize and stand up against the powers of evil in this world, to name and resist racism, militarism, materialism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of injustice, and walk with them as they struggle with and against their own privilege holding them with gentleness and humility?

As he concludes four decades of formal ministry, though, young people are bailing on the church in record numbers.  Sixteen percent of Americans label “none of the above” on survey questions about religion. I asked him about the importance of Christian identity for the future work of peace and justice.  He shared:

I guess I have an appreciation of what Bonhoeffer saw as “religionless Christianity.”  He was in jail and he was stripped down to the nub of faith.  He had a vision of what could be Christian without all the ecclesial trappings.  I’m a Jesus guy and the Jesus story is what I’m living out of, or at least aspiring to.  Baptizing Ira and Cedar was baptizing them into that Story. I certainly don’t aspire to the “none-of-the-above” stuff.  This can be pretty washed out spirituality.  No doubt and no question there’s also some creative depth to what’s going on there.  But there’s a pretty easy cultural accommodation. A Tradition can give you some resources to resist and push back. 

A few years back, Uncle Ched lamented to Lindsay and I that, within this radical discipleship movement, we need more community organizers at church and more pastors at organizing meetings.  This is Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s sweet spot, a vocation that will continue long after he stops facilitating liturgies and offering homilies at St. Peter’s Episcopal this month. It will be easy to find Bill in “retirement,” still providing pastoral presence at activist gatherings all over Detroit, slogging through an onslaught of water shut-offs, home foreclosures and waves of gentrification.

At the open mic bonfire in Bill’s honor last week, Maureen Taylor, co-director of Michigan Welfare Rights, provided a nice summary of the role Pastor Bill has played over the decades:

There are 4,017 churches in Detroit.  They’re all over the place.  But there’s only a handful spokesmen who really care about social justice in the city.  Bill Wylie-Kellermann is definitely one of them.  I don’t know who it is that the rest of them are praying to.  I don’t know who it is that the rest of them are following.  You are supposed to do the right thing—if not all the time, at least most of the time.  And I can say, as I long as I’ve known this young man, even when he was sick and had health challenges, he was still at the meetings and planning activities.  May the Spirit always shine on you and may the wind be always at your back and, hopefully, the next time you are at a public place you will find a wallet full of money and no name. 

Here’s to a retirement colored with full wallets, speedy trials and plenty of exorcisms.

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