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Arts & Life

'If I Had Hair It Would All Be Gone': A Baptist Minister In Kansas City Tells His Pandemic Story So Far

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR.org
Reverend Eric Williams stands inside the church-based gym that's currently being used as a community kitchen.

For Eric Williams, virtual church has meant dressing down and being more real. It's also meant a new chapter in a decades-long ministry soothing pain in the here-and-now: relief from hunger.

"We started with two cans of SPAM and macaroni with no cheese." — Reverend Eric D. Williams, Calvary Temple Baptist Church

When it comes to his ministry, Reverend Eric Williams has never taken the obvious route.

In the early 1990s, he sent shock waves through both the gay community in Kansas City and Black church groups here in town by officiating memorial services for families grieving men who'd died of AIDS.

"It could have easily been a short story," he told me years later, with a laugh. "It could have been 'Black minister with Jheri curl announces that we're going to support gay and lesbian people and love them. And the Calvary Temple Baptist Church fires him on the spot.'"

But that's not what happened. Instead, Calvary Temple Baptist Church has become what Williams calls "ground zero" for HIV prevention, education and support. That includes tackling taboo subject matter from the pulpit and meeting needs in unexpected ways.

More recently, Williams raised money to build a fitness center next door to his church at 29th Street and Holmes Road.

"If the people at your church are sick," he explains, "they can't really have the abundant life that we keep preaching about."

So although his detractors still urge him to stick to what churches have always done, Williams' ministry continues to be shaped by the pain he witnesses around him.

When the pandemic first hit, though, Williams didn't think he had anything to offer. He himself was in a tight spot. The church had caught fire a year earlier, in March of 2019.

"We were already kind of homeless," he says. In March 2020, Calvary Temple Baptist not only lacked worship space, but it also had a gym no one could use. "We couldn’t exercise because of people sweating and breathing on each other," Williams explains.

The situation was stressful. "If I had hair, it would all be gone," Williams says.

But after ruminating a while, he realized what he did have: 10,000 square feet of space just begging to be used. So the gym became a food pantry.

"We started with two cans of SPAM and macaroni with no cheese," Williams says. "Now we've fed thousands of people."

The through-line of Williams' ministry is alleviating people's pain, wherever he sees it throbbing. But that's meant starting at the beginning, over and over, to understand root causes and apply some preventive medicine, too. So he's currently learning, as fast as he can, about hunger in his community.

"It has been excruciating," he admits. "But it's also been rewarding."

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR.org

The rewarding part is that he's managed to partner with people and organizations he'd felt disconnected from in the past.

"Typically, churches stick within their denomination and their religion," Williams says. "Rarely do we talk. It’s almost gang behavior. This has been different.”

Williams has managed to convene Kansas City clergy virtually, across denominations, with the goal of "making sure, particularly in Black churches, that we don’t add to our COVID problems by meeting unsafely," he says. A town hall meeting early on led to the formation of the Clergy Response Network, which has continued meeting online ever since to put trusted community voices in a position to "save some lives and dispel some rumors," as Williams puts it.

This has been Williams' contribution to protests for Black lives.

"This is the first time I haven’t participated on the frontline of a march since the 1960s," he says, explaining that being in an older age group puts him at high risk for severe outcomes of coronavirus infection. "I'm having to learn to be a convener instead of a marcher. There’s a Bible quote I’ve been thinking about: 'Old men for counsel, young men for walk.'"

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR.org
Eric Williams sits in his church, which was damaged by fire in 2019. Now, he leads services via Zoom.

Also new for Williams since the pandemic: dressing down for Sunday church services.

"For the first six weeks, I was still dressing in my suit. Then I realized, they're listening in pajamas, drinking coffee. What am I gonna dress up for? If we’re gonna be together in this, let’s really be together in this," he says. Now he wears casual clothes to deliver his sermons. "It feels a lot more real," he admits.

But Williams does miss the intimacy and immediacy of his pre-COVID ministry. He recalls walking into a hospital room to be with a woman from his church who was suffering. He says the light was funny, and she wasn't quite lucid, so she thought he was Jesus when he entered the room.

"Of course, I'm not, I just work for him and stuff," Williams says with a laugh. "But I understood, that was what it felt like to have someone be there, someone that she knew loved her." Being of comfort with his mere presence is something that he says is "all but gone."

Even Williams' role in feeding the hungry is more planning than actual feeding. He's had to depend on volunteers and staff to do the rest. And that's been hard.

"In my young days, I would have been the one unlocking the doors in the morning, climbing ladders and stocking shelves all day long. I can't do that any more," Williams says.

When asked if there's a spiritual lesson for him in that, Williams doesn't miss a beat.

"Dependence," he says. "It would seem like now we’d be more isolated and less dependent. I’ve found we’re less isolated and more dependent. This has forced me to stay home more, depend on other people more. And to trust a little more, because there are simply things I cannot do."