Full circle for Father Manuel Williams, C.R.

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He was born in 1957 in the segregated South. He saw for himself the old ways. Once, when he was sick, his mother took him to the only doctor available, a man who employed a nurse who would actually touch the black patients and tell him what their symptoms were, so he wouldn’t have to get too close.

His mother was an educator, and she didn’t want her son, Manuel Williams, to go to the impoverished black-only schools in Montgomery. She knew what they were like. So during the week, Manuel and his mother, Thelma, lived in Aliceville, Alabama with her parents. On the weekends, she and Manuel commuted 140 miles to Montgomery to see his father, Nathan, who worked at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Imagine what it was like for this small-town boy, who had been raised at the feet of his Methodist and Baptist great-grandmothers, to finally move to Montgomery and to enroll, as he puts it, “in the brand-spanking new school” that was right in the middle of his brand-new subdivision. This was Resurrection Catholic School, founded to serve the African American community and part of a complex that has grown now to include a nursing home, a center for children with profound disabilities, and many other programs. It was Manuel Williams’ introduction, in the fourth grade, to the wonders of Catholicism.

And what he saw and smelled and felt and learned there—the lessons about commitment and faith, about caring for others—took him away into the world and then back home. He was led by the examples of the bike-riding and risk-taking priests he met along the way and by the white Polish sisters who weren’t afraid to give the black children a hug and who guided him by their dedicated service away from medicine and into the priesthood, calling him by example home to Montgomery. Now, at 55, he is a Resurrectionist priest himself, director of Resurrection Catholic Missions, and pastor of Resurrection Catholic Church.

For Williams, there was no one blazing moment of insight that called him to the priesthood. Instead, he walked for years among priests and sisters who were always quietly planting seeds, preparing the soil, and watering, making the world a better place. He saw their glorious harvest; he tasted its goodness. In time—knowing how rocky the ground could be, how hard and rewarding the work, how marvelous the place and its people—out of faith he picked up the hoe.

A rich spirituality
He had come from a public school for blacks in Aliceville, where, starting in the first grade, it was the boys’ responsibility to come early and stoke the fire in the potbellied stove. At Resurrection, “We had central air conditioning and projectors that came out of the wall,” Williams says. “There was equipment, there were good teachers, it was a brand new building.”

And “there was something clear, that these folks were different. Especially they were very different from most of the white people we had known. They touched you, which didn’t happen too often” to a black boy from Aliceville.

The Resurrection mission had been founded in 1943 by priests from the Congregation of the Resurrection and also was served by Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Many of these women were strict but loving first- or second-generation immigrants who gave their lives in service to black children. They spoke Polish when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were saying and taught them to greet visitors by saying: “Praise to the Lord Jesus Christ, good afternoon!” in Polish.

Then there was Catholic worship.

He’d grown up going to churches—small Methodist and Baptist churches that, in their own way, cut across denominational lines to draw from the deep springs of African American spirituality. Here, Williams attended Mass every day, immediately became an altar server and made the Stations of the Cross on Fridays.

“The whole ethic and the whole spirituality immediately grabbed me,” he says, adding that, for him, the explosive growth of the Catholic Church in Africa makes sense, not only because of the Good News, but because of the richness of the spirituality. At Resurrection, “We had incense and the imagery,” he says.

One of his earliest Catholic memories is of the huge, roughly 40-foot Traventine marble backdrop behind the altar at the church—an expanse of glowing marble that was, that first year, still smooth and blank. Then, workmen started to outline a frame, and Williams and his classmates watched as they began to create an image, starting with feet.

Slowly it unfolded, day after day as they worshipped at Mass, the children crazy with curiosity, wondering what it would be. What emerged was a mosaic of the risen Christ and two angels.

Williams literally saw Jesus’ Resurrection unfold before his eyes, and to his heart “it was magical.”

The path to priesthood
He was baptized in 1968, when he was 11, and became the door by which the rest of his immediate family also encountered Catholicism. The Williams family began attending Mass together—they had “that real sense that we needed to pray together” every Sunday, Manuel says, then sometimes they’d go on for a second service at his father’s church, a Baptist congregation, where his father now is the chairman of the board of deacons.

Later, Williams moved across town to the City of St. Jude, a Catholic high school about 10 miles away. “I was bookish, I was in student government, wasn’t very athletic,” he recalls. “I was too small for football, much too blind for basketball.”

But Williams was a strong student who knew he’d go to college and who ended up following the guidance of a persistent Holy Cross priest at St. Jude, a Notre Dame graduate named Len Collins. Collins slipped application forms and brochures into Williams’ hands, overcoming his football-based reluctance (Notre Dame beat Alabama in a heartbreaker in the 1973 Sugar Bowl) and telling Williams “a little white lie—he said there were a lot of black kids there, and there weren’t.” But Williams applied, got a scholarship, and headed off to a big, mostly white school in a frozen land.

Williams intended to become a doctor, but began to feel disillusioned by the ferocious pre-med competition. He found peace through worship, singing in the University Chapel Choir and helping prepare music for Mass along with two good friends (“They called us the God Squad,” he says. “One black, one brown, one white.”)

After graduating, Williams went back to Montgomery, thinking he’d work for a year or two and then go to graduate school in medicine or law. He took a job in the social service center at St. Jude, and to his surprise found himself thinking of going to seminary. He recognized that the people he was helping were poor, that they needed justice, better education, and economic opportunities. But he felt in his bones that they needed spiritual sustenance as much as anything.

He also met a young priest, Rich Patulski, then at Resurrection. “He blew us away,” Williams says. “He showed up in tennis shorts. . . . He was tan and he had long hair. And we thought, ‘Oh, this is a different type of priest.’ ”

Williams was still skeptical, but Patulski encouraged him to consider seminary—another in the long line of priests, going back to childhood, who put a hand on his shoulder and nudged him along. He told Williams: “You’ll never know until you try.” So he enrolled at the Aquinas Institute of Theology at St. Louis University and thought, “Let me get this out of my system so I can decide what to do with my life.” But, he says, “once I was there, I knew I was in the right spot.”

Williams debated a bit, but chose the Resurrection order because of his long admiration for their work (“these were the folks who put this great school in the middle of my neighborhood”) and his desire to live in community. After all, he grew up surrounded by extended family, never meeting a child in Aliceville who wasn’t his cousin, by blood or by love.

Back home
For Williams, being a priest has brought him full circle. He worked at a high school for boys in Chicago, then after just three years got a call from his order telling him to get ready to go back to Resurrection. “The institution is challenged,” they said, “and you’re the one to turn it around.” He also got calls from some of his old friends on the Resurrection staff. One woman told him, “You could throw a red apple from the altar on Sunday and you wouldn’t hit a soul.”

At his first staff meeting, in July 1990, he was told: “We need $65,000 by Wednesday for payroll.” But he persisted, because of his love for the people and his firsthand understanding of the difference that Catholic commitment could make for a struggling black neighborhood.

In Montgomery, “The Catholic Church’s presence through institutions like Resurrection and St. Jude was revolutionary,” Williams says. “A lot of things that happened that ultimately led to a more just and open society were rooted in our church being in place as an instigator, as a bedrock, providing this kind of education.”

Although he was young when he returned to take charge of Resurrection—in his early 30s—Williams didn’t step lightly, and he wasn’t afraid to take a stand. Williams says his mother taught him: “Take charge. If nobody’s going to do anything, then you do it.”

The first funeral he presided over at Resurrection was for a young man who had died of AIDS, a man whose family refused to talk about it. In the years after, he spoke at the funerals of non-Catholics who died of AIDS and who had nowhere else to go, held lock-ins to teach teenagers about sex and AIDS prevention, became cochair of the Montgomery Area AIDS Task Force, and encouraged other African American pastors to speak up, sometimes with no success.

“I wanted people to know there was no stigma,” Williams says. “We couldn’t sit here and call ourselves followers of Jesus with our heads in the sand, saying this doesn’t affect us.”

At Resurrection, Williams’ role may be different from that of priests in other settings. He’s responsible for a parish and a school but also runs a large social service complex. He must be a manager, a fundraiser, an administrator of a facility that’s always hunting for money, a counselor, a representative of God. And he’s a visible community and national leader, serving on the boards of everything from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to—as one of only about 400 African American priests in the U.S.—the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

Despite his hectic schedule, Williams is “a very human person,” says Jack Galassini, an advertising executive who’s on the Resurrection Catholic Missions Advisory Board. As a preacher, his sermons are “user-friendly,” and “he is just a wonderfully loving and genuine person,” says Yvette Smiley-Smith, an accountant who’s also a St. Jude graduate. “If you have a problem and you need to talk to him, he’s always available” and despite all his responsibilities, “he still makes you feel like yours is the only problem he has.”

Smiley-Smith believes Williams copes with all he has to deal with because “he’s very much in touch with God.” She’s asked Williams, when he’s encountered difficulties with Resurrection, “How did you get through that? How did you know to do that?”

And she says he’s answered, “I stayed in prayer about it. I could feel God with me . . . . I really tried to listen, I really tried to be directed by what He wanted me to do.”

She adds: “He actually lives the scriptures. You can feel his closeness to God. It makes you want to have a better prayer life, a closeness to God like he has. . . . He never is so rattled and hassled that that’s what comes through. What comes through is, ‘This is God’s work, and He will handle it.’ ”

Real joy
Music is a powerful force at Resurrection parish—Williams has a strong singing voice, and “he makes sure the music ministry is provocative and shining and always moving,” Smiley-Smith says.

“We proudly say we are truly black and truly Catholic,” Williams says when asked to describe worship at Resurrection.

When Williams preaches, “It is soulful, he lectures, he gives you a message” that’s “straight from the Bible” and full of stories of everyday life, Vaughn says. “If you go into that environment, that church, and you leave and you have not received an uplift, something is wrong with you.”

Although he doesn’t have much time for relaxation, Williams is surrounded by family—his parents are nearby—and old friends, and when he gets a chance he likes to cook—Creole, Cajun, the occasional Polish cookie. Williams said it’s pastoral work and worship that feed and sustain him, and that his greatest challenge as a priest comes from living in community with men he’s assigned to live with, not that he picked.

Sometimes, when he’s stressed, “I’d literally drag myself” to Mass, he says. Inevitably, the music, the prayer, the energy revitalize him and give him a “spiritual buzz.” While “my feet are struck very clearly in two very complimentary but very different worlds”—administrative and pastoral—it’s the pastoral work, the one-on-one moments with people, Williams says, that “give me real joy.”
Leslie Scanlon is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky.




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