Review: Lead Me On, Let Me Stand

Joseph T. Reiff

Joseph T. Reiff is Professor of Religion at Emory & Henry College.

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Joseph T. Reiff, "Review: Lead Me On, Let Me Stand," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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William H. Barnwell. Lead Me On, Let Me Stand: A Clergyman’s Story in White and Black. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015. 432 pp. 978-1-938183-00-3.

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The life and work of a Christian pastor or priest is seldom easy, especially if that clergy leader makes social justice a ministerial priority. When the work extends over four decades—mainly in the South—we have a captivating story of considerable interest to students of southern religion. William Barnwell’s autobiography is part confessional, part pastoral theological reflection, and all personal account.  The Episcopal priest’s journey wends from a Charleston, South Carolina, childhood through two tries at seminary in the 1960s, to decades of pastoral and congregationally based justice work in South Carolina and New Orleans, plus brief stints in Boston and at Washington’s National Cathedral. Along the way, he also earned a Master of Arts in Teaching, wrote three additional books (an account of his 1966 summer seminary internship working in a black and poor Charleston neighborhood, a book on the story of Mark’s gospel, and a successful college writing textbook), and assisted in pioneering a creative program to help at-risk college students at the University of New Orleans.

Organized chronologically, this volume is somewhat reminiscent of Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly, in that Barnwell sees his life and ministry as a long story involving generations of his family before him and weaves ministerial and personal elements in a narrative tapestry. The book does not engage issues of historical or theological interpretation in recent southern religion; rather, it presents the author’s account of his own occasionally successful work to organize often-resistant church members and community groups to tackle persistent systemic problems. With drama, power, and occasional humor, the author intersperses biblical wisdom (he uses biblical stories and images deftly to illuminate elements of his experience), the philosophy and theology of Søren Kierkegaard, and H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ Transforms Culture” type in his chronicle. He claims 19th century theologian F. D. Maurice, a principal example in Niebuhr’s exposition of that Christ and Culture type, as a theological and philosophical mentor (175).

Like most autobiographies, Barnwell is the hero of his story, but he does not shy away from self-criticism and sometimes brutal honesty about his shortcomings—his own racism and white privilege, occasional depression, and the effects his workaholic tendencies had on relationships, including his failed first marriage. The story of his stepdaughter’s drug addiction and eventual death from an overdose is woven into the narrative and well illustrates his belief in the brokenness of all human beings. The book occasionally rambles and runs a bit long, but persons committed to urban ministry and Christian community organizing can learn from Barnwell’s tales; taken together, they constitute a handbook for such work, a compendium of his hard-won wisdom. The author’s long tenure as an Episcopal priest in such settings also included a genuine commitment to pastoral care and Christian education; he was integrally involved in leading Disciples of Christ in Community (DOCC) and Education for Ministry programs in his churches in New Orleans, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Thus his approach to urban community ministry took on a holistic character, with an attempt to ground the church’s social justice involvement in a solid biblical and theological context that included personal reflection by the participants.

Pastoral theologians, historians of religion in the U.S. South, and pastors and laypersons concerned about the church’s commitment to social justice will find this book a fascinating case study of the journey of a white “Old Charleston” native turned Episcopal priest who, in seeking to follow Jesus with integrity, has struggled mightily (in community with diverse groups of people) with racism, poverty, prison ministry (Kairos), the death penalty (the book has an introduction by Sister Helen Prejean), and his own demons from the 1960s to the first decade of this century.