Monday Morning Leadership Devo

(Orininally published on March 2, 2009)

Religious Leadership in an A-Religious World

Methodist bishop William Willimon was the Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University for 23 years. He recently recalled the days of the late Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and his extension to Rev. Falwell to come and speak at Duke.

Once word got out of Falwell’s imminent arrival, a firestorm blew up on campus. The school’s newspaper led with the headline Dean of the Chapel Invites Notorious Homophobe Christian to Duke. The school’s Lesbian-Bisexual-Pre-Operative and Post-Operative Transgendered Alliance called for Willimon’s resignation and the school administration questioned the wisdom of the invitation for Falwell to speak. Feeling that perhaps the whole visit was a bad idea, Willimon contacted Falwell to explain that Duke would only be able to cover his travel expenses and that there would not be an honorarium. Falwell responded that this was not a problem and that he was just honored to be able to speak at such a fine institution as Duke. He even went on to explain that he would be coming in his own private jet and would thus take care of his own travel expenses. Duke would be out nothing.

On the day of the trip, a thunderstorm was brewing in the area, but Falwell called Willimon to assure him that the pilot felt confident they could still make the trip and that he would be on campus on schedule. Willimon began to wonder what it would take for Falwell to not show up!

When Falwell arrived on campus, he was overly gracious, kind and warm. Willimon thought this was Jerry’s way of disarming his audience before blasting them with his fundamental rhetoric.

When the pair arrived at the school auditorium it was a packed house and it was a hostile crowd. “This is going to be a long night,” Willimon thought. As Falwell was introduced and took the stage, boos and hisses rained down on him from the student body. Smiling from ear to ear, Jerry Falwell spoke of the honor it was to be at a Christian university such as Duke. He explained that he wanted to speak on the role of faith in higher education. He spoke of the Christian roots of not only Duke but also schools like Harvard and Princeton and he pointed out that we have the church to thank for these fine schools. As Falwell went on for over 30 minutes, the boos and hisses died down and the students began to grow weary. When Falwell finished, he invited questions and open conversation from the floor. Now it was going to get interesting. The first student to the microphone was an African-American young woman. Her question was thus, “I can’t stand your right-wing, narrow-mindedness. You say you are a Christian, but you preach hate. How many African-Americans do you have at your Liberty University?” The crowd erupted with jeers.

Falwell paused, wiped his brow, and said, “Young lady, you could not have asked a question that hurts me more deeply. In asking about minority student enrollment, you have named my most regrettable failure at Liberty University. I have prayed, I have worked, I have been throughout this country attempting to recruit ethnic minority students, and though we have had greater success among some ethnic minority groups, I am sad to report that our enrollment today stands at only about 12 percent African-Americans.” As the audience hissed, Falwell continued, “Of course, we are a very young university, less than a decade in existence. We have such a small endowment. But how can I be sure that I am not simply deceiving myself? I am unwilling to accept excuses for our infidelity in regard to our ministry with African-Americans. Just the other day I was pouring my heart out on this very matter to Coretta — you know, Coretta Scott King, we try to get together every few months, she is a wonderful person — and she told me not to be so consumed with this problem. But I can’t help myself.”

Willimon recalled that at the mention of Coretta’s name, the audience became eerily quiet.

“Do you know, by the way, how many African Americans are enrolled here at Duke?” he asked. No response.
“I’ll tell you. Six percent. Six percent! Your endowment is 50 times bigger than ours. You have had years to work on this issue (though admittedly you spent half of your life as a racially segregated school). In fact, I struggled with whether the Lord wanted me to come here tonight to a school that, though you have been given great gifts, has such a poor record of minority enrollment. I pray that you will let the Lord help you do better in this area.” Dead silence throughout the packed auditorium.

As the evening went on, Falwell answered every question with grace and eloquence. In the end, he actually received a final and warm round of applause.

I share this story with you because I admire Jerry Falwell and believe our world suffered a loss at his passing. He was a modern day prophet. An Elijah.

Passage for Reflection: 1 Kings 18

The world needs more Elijahs and more Jerry Falwells. Prophets lead by pointing a nation back to God that seeks to run from God. That’s what Elijah did with King Ahab and that is what Jerry Falwell did with the United States. Do prophets undergo criticism and rejection? You bet! Jerry Falwell was hated and despised. That is why most people don’t want to lead the way he led. But as Christians we are called to shine the light in the darkness. You may never find yourself on the national stage that Jerry Falwell or Elijah found themselves on, but what about your world, your city, your community? Where do you see darkness? Where do you see the need for light? Should Christians be involved politically and civically? Or should we stay within the box that the world seeks to put us in? I think you know the answer.

Our world, city, town, neighborhood need spiritual and religious leadership.

“Lord, I pray that I would be brave enough to shine in the darkness. Amen.”

Blessings,
Jeff

Note: To listen to a recent sermon I preached on 1 Kings 18 and on the prophet Elijah, click here.

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