William Barnwell was a tireless organizer and faith leader across the United States. He was the first person I met after moving to New Orleans with Meredith McElroy in late 1971. I met him initially through Letters to the Editor in the Times-Picayune, New Orleans morning paper at the time. He was speaking out against the Death Penalty. Although I had just moved to New Orleans I knew courage when I read it. I knew he must be catching hell and that hell would be thinly veiled racism approved by those captains of white supremacy and arbiters of the racial public order it requires. I would meet him occasionally over the next 25 years at meetings and conferences and I would read his articles in The Christian Century. When I married Margery Freeman in 1982 he officiated at our wedding and we were now officially family as he had married Margery’s sister, Corinne a few years earlier. I write this testimony to a life dedicated to serving justice with humility and walking the walk in a liberating way.
William is my brother-in-law. He knew he was going to heaven and preach to the angels and I know he’s there now. So, he is not a was. He is a now.
I think of William just about every day. I am not being dramatic or cloying. He modeled to me what a real preacher looked like, sounded like and worked like. He embodied the best traits of what I also aspired to be—an anti -racist, Bible preaching, community organizing man of God. He was also a loving husband, father and grandfather. He visited prisons and got to know the prisoners. He was an unapologetic freedom fighter, writer, and storyteller who taught young people how to tell their own stories. He was everywhere, giving communion to the old folks and leading discussions on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. He loved to eat; loved to cook; and would sing the Episcopal grace before every meal. He embraced life and loved his Lord. William was incredibly disciplined and whether writing a letter to the editor opposing capital punishment or one of his many books, he was up at the crack of dawn and he stayed busy all day.
William had his shortcomings, but I can’t remember them at the moment. I do remember another special brother-in-law, Dr. Nat Horwitz, who spent many an hour discussing everything from literature to religion with William, who once said to me, “you know, with William, it always ends up being about Jesus.” I guess that about sums it up.