At Dexter, Church Leaders Face Different Challenges

When 36 year old Richard Wills came to Montgomery in 1992, he assumed spiritual leadership of one of Montgomery’s oldest and most famous religious institutions: Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Forty years ago, another young minister arrived at this Dexter Avenue church: the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., unquestionably the most famous individual to hold the position. On the occasion of Pastor Wills’ departure, this column makes some comparisons of these men and their times at this historic church in Montgomery, Alabama.

When Reverend Wills came to the church, he was 10 years older than Dr. King, who was 26 on his arrival at Dexter in the fall of 1955. Both men were married when they arrived in Montgomery: Dr. King and his wife, Corretta, would start their family here, while Rev. Wills and his wife, Sheila, brought their daughter and son with them to Montgomery.

One man came from the South and the other, the North. The Southerner; Martin Luther King Jr., born the son of a prominent Baptist minister, came from Atlanta, Georgia. The Northerner; Richard Wills, born the son of a career U.S. Army soldier, claims New York City as home.

The Southerner went North for religious training, while the Northerner came South for his religious studies: Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Boston University and Richard Wills attended Virginia Union.

Unlike young Martin King, who was born on a path leading to the pulpit, Richard Wills came to his ministry from a different track. He first took a degree in architecture and practiced in that profession for several years before responding to the call to his ministry.

King’s Times: Just as Dr. King and Rev. Wills are different men from different backgrounds, they served in very different times. Forty years ago when Dr. King came to Dexter Avenue, Montgomery was racially segregated. Segregation laws affected every aspect of human social contact from birth to death, literally. The law mandated that white babies be born in different hospital beds than black babies and that, when they died, whites be buried in separate graveyards than blacks.

Perhaps the most offensive of these segregation laws which impacted daily life, was the one requiring black people to sit in the rear of city buses. The law required black bus riders to pay their fare to the driver at the front of the bus then enter the bus through the rear door for seating. If the front of the bus lacked sufficient seating for white riders, the driver would require blacks sitting in the rear of the bus to stand so white riders could have their seats. Forty years ago, December 1, 1955, a woman named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white man: The rest of that story is history.

Wills’ Times: Today, black males are being arrested and confined to prisons in unprecedented numbers. Writing in his new book, MALIGN NEGLECT: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America, author Michael Tonry says the criminal justice system controls an estimated 56 percent of black males between the ages of nineteen and thirty-five. Is there a role for the church to play in this injustice?

Critics say leaders of the traditional black church remain focused on issues and goals that are largely not relevant or meaningful to many of the young people in their community. They cite the huge turnout at the Million Man March in Washington D.C. as evidence of a lack of spiritual leadership within the traditional community.

A disproportionate number of black families are female-headed. According to the census, nearly sixty percent of black children live in homes without a father present. Forty years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Why are there so many fractured families today?

With the benefit of a generation of hindsight, critics blame federal programs for much of this social pathology. They view programs enacted to make-right the wrongs stemming from segregation as a Trojan horse. These programs provided opportunities for many of those whom W.E.B. Du Bois once referred to as the “talented tenth” within black communities. But in the end, as the infamous Grecian horse seeded devastation in ancient Troy, these programs seeded destruction within many black families and the communities in which they lived.

Richard Wills ponders these types of issues as he departs Dexter Avenue for New York City. There, he will be the principal assistant to Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, close friend and aid to Martin Luther King Jr., at Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church. This move also allows the Wills’ family to be near his ailing father.

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Originally Published: 7 December, 1995 Montgomery Advertiser

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