Slain missionaries defining moment for Layman editor
Recoin the axiom in today’s vernacular, wrap it around the work of Parker T. Williamson, and it would come out something like this: The pen is mightier than bombs, bullets and bad theology.
For Williamson, then a rising national leader and a member of the General Assembly Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (PCUS), a defining moment in his career came with a hail of gunfire more than two decades ago.
During the racially intense civil war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), guerrillas shot down an unarmed plane. Christian missionaries were among the survivors murdered after the crash.
That event eventually changed Williamson’s pulpit from the 600-member First Presbyterian Church in Lenoir, N.C., to the 575,000 Presbyterian households that receive The Presbyterian Layman.
Williamson was a hunger action enabler for the PCUS mission board, which was the equivalent of the reunited denomination’s General Assembly Council. Toting a stack of brochures depicting children with bloated bellies, Williamson traveled from church to church to raise money for the denomination’s hunger program.
But unknown to Williamson during his fund-raising trips was that the mission board had politicized the hunger campaign. Besides giving the money he had raised for food and technical assistance, the board, through the World Council of Churches, was financing guerrilla warfare under the guise of “attacking hunger’s root causes.”
The Rhodesian guerrillas who shot down the plane had been recipients of Presbyterian mission money. “When I found out, I went ballistic,” Williamson said. “I felt I had betrayed Presbyterians by my participation in that program.”
Williamson mounted the soapbox and began exhorting Presbyterians to oppose the denomination’s support of political movements that were bankrolled under the banner of liberation theology.
Langdon S. Flowers, now retired but then chairman of the board of Flowers Industries, Inc., in Thomasville, Ga., heard Williamson speak at a men’s conference. He was impressed. He flew Williamson to Washington, D.C., to address a conference on world hunger.
Two members of The Presbyterian Lay Committee heard Williamson speak at the conference. They asked him to serve on The Layman’s editorial advisory committee. One thing led to another. Soon, Williamson was writing most of the editorials for The Layman. In 1989, Williamson was named editor.In 1997, he became executive editor of the newspaper and chief operating officer of the Lay Committee.
Providence and genes
A good Calvinist would say that Williamson’s journey from Baton Rouge, La., to college philosophy major, to seminarian, to the pulpit, and to the editorship of one of the nation’s strongest and most influential religious publications, was the inevitable work of providence. That would be tough to dispute. But so would genes.
His father, Rene de Visme Williamson, was a Harvard-trained professor of political theory, and a quiet, intellectual Calvinist. Rene Williamson gained his understanding of the faith by reading the Bible. He was an early critic of liberation theology, a theological premise that God takes sides in political and social battles and inevitably favors those with the least power regardless of their theological or moral persuasion. He wrote a booklet, The Integrity of the Gospel: A Critique of Liberation Theology, that was published reluctantly by John Knox Press.
With the denominational leadership so sympathetic to liberation theology, the editorial committee of John Knox Press opposed publishing the book. So Parker made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: Publish his father’s book, and if it didn’t sell, Parker would come up with the money to buy all unsold copies. The Integrity of the Gospel sold out with the John Knox Press imprimatur and without Williamson’s funds. But John Knox would not reprint the booklet, nor would it release the copyright so that another publisher might reprint it. Parker badgered them until they relented. The Integrity of the Gospel was reprinted by the Lay Committee, and it sold out again.
As a journalist, Parker T. Williamson has defied liberation theology, now no more than a trickle of the stream that once flooded denominational headquarters. Presbyterians have increasingly earmarked their denominational benevolences so that they cannot be used for political purposes. Donor-designated gifts now account for nearly 74 percent of the PCUSA’s mission budget.
Biblically and theologically, Williamson is conservative and evangelical. He has a pastor’s heart and a gift for rallying people and resources to meet human needs.
Believing that African-American citizens should not be denied the right to vote, Williamson was one of three students from Union Theological Seminary to join Martin Luther King, Jr. on his march to Selma. After graduation from Union and Yale University (masters in Christian ethics), Williamson accepted a call to pastor a Presbyterian Church near Tampa, Fla. In Tampa, he helped develop an inner-city ministry in a Hispanic-African-American neighborhood.
As a Presbyterian pastor in Lenoir, in the foothills of North Carolina’s mountains, Williamson was again on the cutting edge of social change. Leading a bi-racial church group, with the principal financial guarantee by his own all-white congregation, Williamson helped develop a bi-racial community of 140 privately-owned homes for people with low to moderate incomes.
Williamson also led the Lenoir church to sponsor other social ministries: a hospice program that has become a national model and Koinonia, a Christian housing program for the elderly.
Setting the record straight
He winces when liberals accuse conservatives of having no compassion for needy people. “They talk a big game about community involvement,” he says. “But I find that they are rarely involved personally. Often they use the church to lobby for government programs whose effectiveness in meeting human needs is not at all clear. It has been my observation that people who take the Scriptures seriously go into the streets, roll up their sleeves and work for and with the poor. You can’t read the Scriptures and not be involved.”
A new challenge
Today, Williamson travels extensively for The Layman, both covering events and working with other renewal groups in the PCUSA. Alongside for many trips is Patty Williamson, an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Lenoir, who formerly worked as a congressional staffer in Washington. Her commitment to church and civic projects matches his.
Both enjoy getaways, sailing their 25-foot sloop off the North Carolina coast. But even there, Williamson often refers to his sport using Biblical metaphors. He speaks of the wind: whence it comes; wither it goes; how its power is essential to movement; how it allows choices for the skipper who respects its authority and senses its direction.
“But you cannot defy the wind,” says Williamson. Hence his metaphor: for a sailor, the wind is analogous to the breath or spirit of God. You can defy bullets, bombs, bad theology and the words of scoffers, but not the breath of God.
Parker Williamson has stood firm in the face of theological aberrances: the homosexual ordination movement; the Sophia movement (goddess worship); church funding for radical groups that preach and practice violence; New Age movements within the denomination; and misuse of money intended by Presbyterians to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Each edition of The Layman is both a stand against human-blown winds of doctrine and an appeal to a higher power, the God whose spirit birthed the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with roots deeply anchored in Biblical and Reformed theology, and with Jesus Christ at the helm of his church.