Getting a Finger on the Pulse with Rev. Gary Bernard Williams

Gary Bernard WilliamsRev. Gary Bernard Williams holds a dual charge within his United Methodist denomination, serving both the 112-year-old Hamilton UMC at South Figueroa and 63rd Street and also the relatively “new” Faith UMC on 108th St. near Western Avenue. Under Rev. Williams’ leadership, Faith is now being transformed into a hub for a new reentry support ministry and for after-school programming to help break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Rev. Williams describes himself as a recovering addict who went through 10 recovery programs before one finally “took” as he was facing a prison term and a compassionate public defender helped him get into an effective jail-based program. A lifelong United Methodist, Rev. Williams decided at age 51 to return to seminary with the aim of giving back. He was ordained a “full connection” elder in 2013—one of very few people of color to leap all the hurdles in this UMC conference.

Justice Not Jails: You indicate that your own experience forged your worldview and gave you your passion for service. Can you elaborate?

Rev. Williams: I was born and raised east of the 110 freeway at a time when many black families were moving out of the South Central corridor and heading west to greener pastures. Lots of people I came up with were walking on the wild side, so to speak, and my own father was involved with marijuana. I starting stealing marijuana from him when I was 13.

But my mother took me off to Bowen Memorial United Methodist Church every Sunday. I didn’t much like it, but in the end it was good for me in that the pastor, who was a humble servant leader type, and some of the church elders took an interest in me and kept their eye on me.

In those days the Black Church was at the center of community life in every respect, and in those churches middle class people rubbed shoulders with people like us who were far from middle class but who were still God’s children.

These days, unfortunately, many of our African American churches only survive on account of people who don’t live in the neighborhood but who drive in and drive out. This includes many pastors who drive in and drive out of the neighborhood. The problem that arises with this is that the local church begins to abandon one of its primary missions, which is is knowing and serving the people who are struggling to survive in these hard-hit neighborhoods—and especially the at-risk youth who have no one keeping an eye on them the way the folks at Bowen kept an eye on me.

My point is that even though I was the Prodigal Son who sank further and further into a life of cocaine addiction and crime, that church planted some good seeds deep down in my soul—and those seeds eventually bore fruit. If that was true for me, it can also be true for others.

JNJ: Both nationally and locally, there is now an unprecedented conversation about ending mass incarceration for both ethical and financial reasons. What does your crystal ball tell you about where this is going?

Rev. Williams: I expect that 10 years from now we will not have eliminated mass incarceration but we may have been able to cut it back to, say, half of what a “normal” rate of incarceration would look like. And it’s certainly good that the deeply racist dimensions of the New Jim Crow system are finally coming to light: the disproportionate arrest rates and the disproportionately harsh sentences for the same crimes that Black people are given.

We can make all these changes and still leave the Black community in a highly vulnerable position unless we also make a massive public investment in the infrastructure needed to give people real life opportunities. And I don’t see us doing that.

I even think we will be able to reform policing practices and policies to a significant degree and finally start to address the plague of undiagnosed and untreated mental health afflictions in our community that end up becoming law enforcement issues. I even think that we will at least dial down the hugely expensive and abusive “war on drugs”—and I say that as a person in recovery.

But here is my concern. We can make all these changes and still leave the Black community in a highly vulnerable position unless we also make a massive public investment in the infrastructure needed to give people real life opportunities. And I don’t see us doing that.

For example, I see states like Texas pocketing the money they are saving from reducing their prison population: I don’t see them spending it on education and employment and mental health and the all of the things that will give poor people of color a real an opening to get on their feet and participate fully in the economy and in civil society.

Here in California we may have a chance to reinvest the savings from de-carceration into developing a public health model for public safety. But that outcome is by no means guaranteed. We will have to work for it and demand it.

JNJ: So where does faith community engagement come into this? Where should faith communities be putting their emphasis over these next 10 years?

Rev. Williams: Faith community engagement matters in two ways. The first is through the prophetic vocation of faith leaders: naming what is going on, always “keeping it real” in terms of the powers and principalities, being truly unashamed to speak of God’s identification with the poor and downtrodden. I’m glad that there are networks like Justice Not Jails that can help faith leaders sharpen their prophetic critique and even get them involved in urgent policy work.

But then I also think that our smaller churches can make a vital difference if they will return to their service vocation in respect to the communities in which they are located. Too many pastors think that the first order of business is to give folks Jesus—to get them to the altar, so to speak. Whereas I think that the first order of business is to act like Jesus, to walk the walk, to make the church into a center of hospitality and service in every sense.

Even if this sometimes means making sacrifices, pooling resources with other churches to meet the community need. I want us to show the folks in the neighborhoods what the Reign of God looks like in respect to our radical hospitality. Then if they want to come to the altar, they will be coming in the right context.

peter-laarman-15Getting back to basics in this way won’t be easy. It will threaten some in our churches who think that middle-class respectability is what church is really about. But it’s got to happen, and I see it starting to happen here and there.

Peter Laarman
Justice Not Jails

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.


  1. Luis Lozano says:

    I agree with Rev. Williams. If ending the War on Drugs, eliminating mandatory minimums, ending three-strikes laws and reducing sentences for low level non-violent offenders are going to work we also need to address issues of unemployment in our communities, job training, drug and alcohol treatment resources and availability. Without sounding like a conspiracy nut I believe there are forces at work in law enforcement, incarceration and in politics that will work to undermine any progressive effort to reform how we deal with drugs, crime and incarceration. It is also not enough to merely release someone back into the community when there are no jobs for them to go to and when other services are being decimated.