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Slain minister’s struggle and hope is also our own

Rev. Dr. Autura Eason-Williams
Rev. Dr. Autura Eason-Williams

Those of us who knew Rev. Autura Eason-Williams are struggling.

Struggling to express the anguish, anger, sorrow we feel over her shocking and senseless  opens in a new windowmurder last week.

“I am having difficulty finding any words at the moment,” said Rev. Renee Dillard, Eason-Williams’ fellow United Methodist clergy, close friend and longtime prayer partner.

Struggling to reconcile our faith and her faith in a loving and gracious God with the arbitrary and capricious, violent and needless way she was taken from us.

“We’re broken. We’re grief-stricken. We have questions. We have doubts,” said Rev. Jody Hill, president of Memphis Theological Seminary where Eason-Williams, an alumna, led spiritual formation classes.

Struggling to understand how a 52-year-old woman who loved God and her neighbors fiercely, who worked prayerfully and tirelessly to keep hope alive in so many, especially the young, could be killed by a teenage carjacker.

“This mother, woman, pastor, human was senselessly shot down by some children,” Rev. Stacy Spencer, Eason-Williams’ longtime friend and colleague, senior pastor of New Direction Christian Church in Hickory Hill, wrote on his Facebook page. “When will it stop?”

Will it ever stop?

The plague of gun violence that grips our community and country.

Rev. Autura Eason-Williams during a 2021 United Walk Against Gun Violence in Binghampton. (Submitted)
Rev. Autura Eason-Williams during a 2021 United Walk Against Gun Violence in Binghampton. (Submitted)

The hopelessness that guts so many young men’s hearts and minds and so easily puts guns in their hands.

The hopelessness we all feel every time someone is gunned down at a concert, in a school, on a street corner, or in her own driveway, especially when it’s someone we know.

‘Autura’s Aura’

My family has known Eason-Williams since she was a teenager. Her family, our fellow Methodists, lived across the street from us in Hickory Hill in the mid-1980s.

She babysat our kids. My wife and I would talk about “Autura’s Aura.” Even as a teenager, she seemed like an old soul. She had a wise and generous spirit and a laugh that filled the house.

We were not surprised when she went to seminary, became an ordained minister, and returned to Hickory Hill to lead a congregation,  opens in a new windowCapleville United Methodist Church.

Eason-Williams was an introvert, but she was not shy about her calling, which included calling out the church to be as honest, forgiving, inclusive, and loving as its Lord and Savior.

”I remember being a child in Sunday school and being taught against xenophobia, only to grow up, answer a call to ministry and find the United Methodist Church still turning a blind-eye to racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism,” she  opens in a new windowwrote in 2020, the year her mostly white, male peers endorsed her candidacy for bishop.

“I yearn for the church to embrace a renewed understanding of love of God and neighbor that welcomes all people at the table of God’s grace.”

Rev. Autura Eason-Williams teaching at Memphis Theological Seminary in 2017. (Credit: MTS)
Rev. Autura Eason-Williams teaching at Memphis Theological Seminary in 2017. (Credit: MTS)

 Eason-Williams did more than yearn. She picked up the yoke.

She firmly but lovingly pushed her clergy colleagues and all of us to confront and dismantle the church’s systemic racism.

She and her daughter, Ayanna, developed and led antiracism seminars for clergy and lay members of the Tennessee-Western Kentucky United Methodist Conference.

Last year, when Eason-Williams joined the bishop’s cabinet as a district superintendent, she persuaded them to participate in antiracism seminars.

”Only Autura could have done that,” said Rev. Billy Vaughan, a retired United Methodist minister who helped Autura lead spiritual formation classes. “She had the courage to speak truth to power and the love that helped transform hearts and see the truth.”

For Eason-Williams, the truth was a product of her faith.

”For me, practicing antiracism in particular and anti-oppression in general is what it means to be a Christian disciple. Jesus practiced antiracism and anti-oppression,” Autura explained in a 2020 letter to her fellow Methodists. “God loves all God’s created so much that God dwells with us, heals us, makes us whole, and holy, so that we may love unconditionally as God does. This is the love that transforms hearts and minds and makes all things new. This is the love that not only makes a difference but makes the world different.”

Autura’s fear and faith

In 2001, two days after 9/11, members of a Christian discipleship class met in the basement of an old Methodist church in Binghampton.

The dozen or so adults took turns expressing their grief, fear and confusion about the terrorist attacks.

They talked about how they felt their entire world had been turned upside down by people from another culture. How they didn’t know who to trust. How unsafe they felt.

 Eason-Williams, then a 31-year-old seminary student, the only Black member of the class, kept her body turned sideways in her chair and didn’t speak.

Finally, the class leader, Rev. Vaughan, asked Eason-Williams to share her thoughts.

”Nothing has changed for me,” she said as she turned to face the group. “As a Black girl and woman, I’ve never felt safe in this culture.”

Her life informed her faith.

“I am an African-American woman, raised in the United Methodist Church, born at the intersection of racism, sexism and classism in a ‘new’ denomination in a ‘new’ society that was trying to figure out what it means to be inclusive. I was born fourteen years after the first (United Methodist) women were ordained and just two years after the (segregated) Central Jurisdiction was dismantled. I was born just two years after Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis,” Autura wrote in 2020.

“I am answering a call to episcopal leadership because I believe God has been preparing me to help lead the United Methodist Church to do the hard work of right relationship in our connection that includes all the people in our neighborhoods.”

Autura’s church and community

In 2015, a white police officer and two Black teenagers were shot and killed in Hickory Hill in three separate incidents over the course of a month.

I went to talk to two pastors in the neighborhood – Stacy Spencer of  opens in a new windowNew Direction Christian Church, and Eason-Williams.

Rev. Autura Eason-Williams was appointed Metro District Superintendent of the Tennessee-Western Kentucky United Methodist Annual Conference in 2021. (Courtesy United Methodist Church)
Rev. Autura Eason-Williams was appointed Metro District Superintendent of the Tennessee-Western Kentucky United Methodist Annual Conference in 2021. (Courtesy United Methodist Church)

Darrius Stewart, a 19-year-old who was killed in a scuffle with a police officer, was shot in front of New Direction’s youth campus on Winchester.

Vicdarrius Pollard, an 18-year-old who was shot and killed by another young man over a basketball game, attended New Direction’s charter school, Power Center Academy. He was a classmate of one of Eason-Williams’ kids.

Sean Bolton, a 33-year-old officer who was shot and killed a week earlier in a scuffle with a young man at a traffic stop, was assigned to patrol Hickory Hill.

“This is not a police problem or a young black men problem,” Spencer  opens in a new windowtold me. “This is a violence problem. We can’t deal with any other problems in this community, including poverty, until we deal with this plague of violence.”

Eason-Williams said violence, poverty, and racism were all symptoms of a larger malady.

“The brokenness of the culture, the church, the community,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do something about it.”

By ‘we’ she meant the Church, which she believed was the Body of Christ at work in the world.

She believed that work was about “community and kinship, not Kingship.”

She believed her faith was “less about worshipping Jesus than it was about imitating Jesus and reflecting the love of Jesus everywhere we go.”

She believed her calling was not to lead a brick-and-mortar church, but “to build communities of shalom.”

Autura’s struggle and hope

Shalom is a Hebrew word.

“The familiar Hebrew word shalom, usually translated ‘peace,’ means more than absence of quarreling,” Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote. “Shalom means wholeness, everything fitting together, nothing missing and nothing broken.”

The Rev. Autura Eason-Williams celebrates the 5th anniversary of her congregation’s US Making it Happen Shalom Zone in 2015, a community collaboration. (Courtesy Peri Gildersleeve)
The Rev. Autura Eason-Williams celebrates the 5th anniversary of her congregation’s US Making it Happen Shalom Zone in 2015, a community collaboration. (Courtesy Peri Gildersleeve)

In the early 1990s, after the Los Angeles riots incited by the acquittal of four police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King, United Methodist bishops called on congregations to establish “communities of shalom” in America’s cities.

After she was ordained, Eason-Williams became one of the denomination’s leading proponents of the work.

“Informed by the  opens in a new windowCommunities of Shalom movement, God has given me a vision of the local church as the Body of Christ moving into the neighborhood as a neighbor who sees all the neighbors in the neighborhood as gifted, regardless of their needs; and creating ministry with neighbors that meets needs and makes disciples, who do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God,” she wrote in 2020.

Eason-Williams and her Hickory Hill congregation founded  opens in a new windowUS Making it Happen Shalom Zone.

It’s a collaboration of churches, neighborhood associations and community organizations that wrapped their arms around children and youth in Hickory Hill.

“This is about sowing seeds in these young people so that our future can be better than our present, all of our futures can be better,” Eason-Williams explained in a video. “This is not tutoring. That’s not what we do. What we do try to do is develop character in our young people and in ourselves.”

Eason-Williams never stopped trying. She died trying.

“Everyone thinks I’m crazy when I say this, but my wildest dream is that we will create a community where people do not have to steal,” Eason-Williams said in a video made to commemorate the shalom zone’s five-year anniversary in 2015.

“A community where people feel safe because they have created safe places where they trust each other, and they become neighbors to each other. You think about that and you think that shouldn’t be too hard, but for whatever reason it is.”

That’s the struggle.

“I just believe that it’s possible and God shows us glimpses every day,” Eason-Williams added.

That’s the hope.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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