I was 9 years old when my church got a strange new preacher. From the moment he walked in the door, I was in awe of this bespectacled man with the bushy beard and jolly disposition. He wasn’t like the preachers I was accustomed to. He favored being called “Brother” to “Reverend.” He lit up the room when he entered it and his brightness cued the lights in each person he encountered. He talked and listened to me, a child, with the same respect and intent focus as he did any adult in the room. He spoke with equal parts softness and conviction, telling stories of the gospel; spinning a yarn so captivating I often got lost in the beauty of his words. I instantly loved him, knew unquestionably that he loved me too (just as he did everyone he met), and I spent the better part of my childhood hoping that I would grow up to be like him and to do what he did.
My family would go on to follow him to the next church he was appointed to, when I was a teenager. For us, church had become less about the brick and mortar space in which the message was delivered, but about the person delivering the message. We became singularly drawn to the message he delivered every Sunday and we would drive to the other side of town week after week to hear the Good News from the mouth we believed – we knew – to be the best to tell it.
When I went to college, he was appointed to a church even further out of town, which was just a bit too far to drive every Sunday and we lost touch for a while. During this time, I began falling into a trap that many late-teens to early-20-somethings fall into: I got lost in myself. My parents had split up, I was in an unfamiliar town struggling to make friends, struggling to find my footing in my life, and struggling to feel connected. In this time of struggle, I lost my faith in God and, honestly, in other people and myself. I became world-weary and, in that weariness, I lost my connection to God and sunk into a feeling of deep uneasiness.
At some point during this time, I heard that the minister we loved so much had been newly appointed to a church that was closer to my family’s home and I decided that what I needed more than anything was to be in the presence of this man who had meant so much to me for so many years. So, one weekend, I drove the two hours home to visit my family, and that Sunday I took myself to church. I went alone, and I sat in the pew and I listened to that familiar, loving voice and I cried, feeling a rush of relief and joy. I felt uplifted in a way I hadn’t felt in a number of years. In this voice, this magnanimous presence, I was comforted and from the hole I had dug myself, a ladder began to form for me to climb out. And, whether or not I had returned to a fervent belief in God, I saw him in this man’s eyes. I heard him in his calm, assured voice. I felt him in his joyful embrace.
From that day forward, I attended his service anytime I was able. When I moved back to Nashville for a brief period, I attended church services weekly, as well as a weekly lunchtime bible study he lead on Tuesdays. It was one of the best parts of my week, filled with thoughtful observations, humor and connection.
When I lost two of my grandfathers, he performed the funeral services, granting the greatest peace and comfort anyone could have given my family. We felt uplifted, believing in the words he spoke with his signature grace and conviction. We believed that the world would right itself again, because he told us that it would.
Most of all, we felt loved. For that was his greatest gift: he was the embodiment of love. And that love manifested itself in so many ways: through his gift of storytelling, his service to others, his ardent belief in caring for ALL of God’s children, his outspoken championing of the voiceless, the broken, the marginalized and his unending humility and grace.
The world lost him yesterday, and I am beyond devastated. And, to be honest, I’m not sure how the world will right itself this time. There are so many more things I could say about him; so many words I have yet to find and feelings I have yet to come to terms with, but suffice it to say, Michael E. Williams was a giant among men, a beacon of hope in the darkness, a bastion of love and light and my hero. I, along with my whole family, will never forget him as long as I live and I will mourn his loss, in the poetic words of Eddie Izzard, “somewhere between half-an-hour and a lifetime.”
Farewell, my teacher; my role model; my friend. You have made my life better for being in it. Thank you for everything.