I already wrote an introduction to this post–and I once again apologize for the lateness. Sometimes life catches up with me. But I have finally transcribed my interview with Damon, and I am so excited to share it with you. It’s a long one, but worth reading, I promise you. So without further ado…
Interview 6: Reverend Damon P. Williams
“I just believe by faith that being in a relationship with something greater than me, God, is going to be better than what I’m doing now.”
Me: So basically, through my interview, I want to get an understanding of your beliefs and how you came to them. If you could use a sentence to describe your faith today, how would you describe it?
Damon: Oh gosh. A sentence to describe my faith?
Me: Well, okay, a paragraph. [laughs]
Damon: A paragraph. [pauses] So I believe in God, and I believe that the revelation of who God is, the character of God, God’s expectations, came through his son Jesus, who came to Earth approximately—the engineer in me won’t say two thousand years ago—approximately two thousand years ago, and that based upon the life that he lived, the way he lived his life, the sacrifice of his life, that he died for my salvation. So that would be the elevator speech of my faith.
Me: Good elevator speech. That’s exactly the terminology I should have used. [laughs] So how were you raised, and how did you come to those beliefs? Have you always believed that, or has there been a transition for you at any time?
Damon: That’s hilarious. No, I have not always believed that. I grew up in the most religiously nebulous household in the world. So, my mother, I would say is agnostic? She’s tried to come to an understanding of faith, most of her life, she’s tried to come to an understanding of God, just hasn’t been able to. When I was a kid growing up, she went to a Roman Catholic church. Every Christian and Judaic Christian denominational affiliation, she visited. Now she kind of goes to an interfaith center, so a place of spirituality and worship, but they would not claim any particular faith. My father grew up in an old-school Black Baptist church. His family went to that church. But during my childhood he was like a Sunday Christian. So Christianity wasn’t the core of his existence. He went to church on Sunday. He dressed up to the nines—excuse me, let me change my vernacular—he dressed as well as you possibly can—
Me: I understand what “dressed up to the nines” means. [laughs]
Damon: So you dressed to the nines and you went to church, and there was this old guy who had on this robe, and he got angry, and started yelling and screaming, who knew what he was yelling and screaming about, God was in there somewhere…. When I was a kid, to be perfectly honest, growing up, even through high school, I didn’t like going to the church. I loved the music, I didn’t like the length. Sunday, football season…I wanted to go home and watch the game. And the church wasn’t really about teaching. I didn’t learn very much. I didn’t learn about Jesus, I didn’t learn about this concept of faith. And then my mother—so the Catholic church—the music wasn’t hitting—this is going to sound totally racist, and it’s totally inappropriate, but I’m gonna say it anyway—black people are very—we’re rhythm-based people, and we’re into music, so these other churches that were singing like [breaks into falsetto Latin chant-singing], like you just can’t get with that. I couldn’t get with that. I needed something with a little more rhythm. So when I got to college, Georgia Tech, I went to church maybe twice? My entire collegiate career. Both times, it was because of a woman. [laughs] It had nothing to do with God at all.
So I didn’t actually come to faith, interestingly, until I was 24, actually, your age. I was a PhD student at the University of Michigan, I had just gotten my Master’s, and my roommate was going to this church, another typical Baptist church. The difference was the pastor was a teaching pastor, so he taught a lot. I used to not like people of faith, and Christians, I thought they just—the engineer in me, the scientist, I thought they just wanted to explain everything away with faith. He was very very very good at teaching. I was going because I liked the music, and I appreciated the teaching, and right at the age of 24 I went through this very traumatic experience—well it was traumatic for me at the time, looking back on it it’s not traumatic—where my advisor left the University of Michigan and went to Cornell, and he couldn’t take me with him. So I was stuck at Michigan with no advisor, not knowing if I was going to finish my PhD. Now I look back on it, not that big a deal, at the time it was like the world was ending, if I didn’t know what I was going to do with my doctorate. So that was how I came to faith.
Me: And so at what point—since I know that this is fairly recent that you went to a school of theology and became a pastor—is that the proper term? Pastor?
Me: At what point did you decide you wanted to be a pastor?
Damon: So I never decided that I wanted to be a pastor. We believe by faith that God calls us into the ministry. And if you dealt with what pastors have to deal with on a daily basis, no rational thinking human being would decide, “This is something I want to do with my life.” I was perfectly happy working at Georgia Tech, loving my students, loving what I do. Going back to being 24, I entered the church, quote-unquote got saved, at 24 years old: got baptized, all of that, really dedicated my life to faith, to God, and to Jesus. About a year and a half later, I started having these really weird dreams and my prayer life was centered around ministry and service, and so…I won’t say that I ever made the decision that I wanted to be a pastor. I came to a decision that I wanted my life to be about serving others, and giving to other people. God revealed to me through dreams and in my prayer life that was going to be in the ministry, I was going to serve in the ministry. So that meant I needed to become a minister. So I went to my pastor and expected him to be like “You’re crazy, you just got saved, you’ve only been in the church for a year and a half, no way!” and when I went to go talk to him he was like “No, we’ve been waiting for you to come talk to me.” “Who’s ‘we’?” “Me and the other deacons and leaders in the church. It’s all over you, everybody can see that you’re supposed to be in the ministry. Come on.”
So at 26 I entered the ministry, and became a licensed minister of the gospel—a preacher, if you will. But I was not a pastor, I was not yet ordained. I stayed and finished my PhD and just served at the church, ran the campus ministry at the University of Michigan for our church, and then when I finished my PhD I came to Atlanta. Actually, interestingly, when I came to Atlanta, I came here to go to seminary. While I was here, the chair of the Industrial Engineering department at the time was a guy named Chip White, he used to be a professor at Michigan. He was like “Hey, I didn’t know you were in town! I need some more people!” Translation: “I need more black people on the faculty.” Shh. We won’t tell anybody that, but that’s probably exactly what that was. While I was in seminary, that’s how I got pulled over into Tech, and I started my career at Tech. Because I never expected to be a pastor, and starting a career at Tech was absolutely something exciting to do. And then, in 2012, after I finished teaching Sunday School, my pastor at the time, at my church in Atlanta, walked up to me and said, “Hey, you think you’re ready to pastor and candidate for a church?” “I dunno, do you think I’m ready to pastor?” And he said, “Yeah, there’s a church that I know of in southwest Atlanta that’s about to become available and I want you to apply.” And this is what was so interesting. So I was 32, I was not married, I was not ordained, and I had no pastoring experience. And this was a church of 700 members with a 1.2 million dollar budget. So your average church of that size would not hire a young guy in his thirties who has no experience. So I told my pastor, “You’re crazy! You want me to apply for that church?” And he said, “Yeah, I want you to apply.” Long story short I applied, and as God would have it, I got the job and so that’s how I ended up in the pastor—but I find myself…I didn’t decide to be a pastor, I was called to be a pastor, but being a pastor allows me to do what I decided, which was my life is going to be about serving other people. So whether I’m serving people through education, on Tech’s campus, or serving other people through the ministry of the church, life is about service, and giving to other people, which is the way that I read the Bible.
Me: I like that. So what is your favorite part of being a pastor, right now?
Damon: Working with the youth. I don’t have any kids, my one year anniversary is coming up in two weeks—
Me: That’s exciting! Congratulations!
Damon: Thank you. So my wife and I will have children soon, but I don’t have any kids, and working with these young people—I don’t have a lot of smaller cousins, I come from a small family—I’m the youngest, when I go home for Christmas I’m the youngest at the table, so there’s no small kids around. Working with the kids? Oh my gosh, it’s like my favorite thing to do in the world. Every Sunday, after I finish preaching, I probably have three kids hanging on me. I didn’t know that I liked kids that much. Teaching at Georgia Tech made me fall in love with college-aged students. I loved mentoring them, teaching them, helping them achieve their goals, talking with them, encouraging them—because Georgia Tech has a way of beating them down and making them think that they’re worthless—so I like to encourage them and say, “Hey, you actually have quite an amount of value”. But pastoring really showed me how much I loved smaller kids. Which is new for me because usually smaller kids are afraid of me. I’m big, I don’t smile as much as I probably should, kids would run away from me. But now I get on the floor and I crawl around with them. I’m really a big kid. I didn’t realize this until I started pastoring. I’m a little too big to be such a big kid, but I am.
Me: Could you describe your church a little bit for me? I don’t know a lot about churches—I’ve gone to a lot of churches but I only know basic distinctions. So if you could just tell me about your church and what makes it special.
Damon: Gotcha. So my church is Provenance Missionary Baptist Church, which is in Southwest Atlanta, right in the historic Cascade community, a very historic community, a very historic African-American community. It’s in a very interesting place, where if you leave the church and turn to the right there are million dollar homes, six or seven thousand square feet; you turn to the left, you see blighted homes and a dilapidated community. So it’s a community that’s right in the mix. The mayor lives on that side of town, things like that. So it’s money and no money, there are very few people in the middle. My church is a hundred and forty-two years old, going on a hundred and forty-three, started by former slaves, so it’s very historic, has a lot of history, has a lot of tradition…has been as its present site since 1995. Before then it was over near the Atlanta University Center, Morehouse, Spelman and all of those. It’s predominantly African-American, ok I lied, it’s all African-American…no no no no! I do have one Caucasian female member, she did join a few weeks ago, so yes, we are multicultural. We’re not really. [chuckles] So it’s predominantly African-American, I would say theologically we probably affiliate more with the American Baptists, I know when I say Baptist most people just think Southern Baptist because that’s the largest of the Baptists…but it aligns more with the American Baptists’ significantly more liberal theology, because I have quite a liberal theology. It’s an older congregation, where a lot of young people are coming back. The former pastor was in his seventies. So now you have a pastor who is in his thirties, and a lot of the young people are coming back, because they see things that are relevant to them. It’s really focused on outreach and service, because I’m focused on outreach and service. Churches to me are too insular. We kind of get in our buildings and we do our own thing, whether we’re Presbyterian or we’re Episcopalian or we’re Christian or we’re Jewish or we’re Muslim, whether we’re in a synagogue or a mosque or a church, we’re too insular. Right? So Jesus never had a church. If you read the Bible you’ll never ever see a place called Provenance Missionary Baptist Church where Reverend Jesus preached every Sunday. Jesus was always among the people and he was always out, he traveled from city to city, so he was more itinerant in nature. There’s no need to be itinerant because there’s a church on every corner in Georgia, but there’s a need to be out and involved in your community. So that’s kind of the focus of where I’m taking my church. They’re not there yet because they’re used to being inside. So me taking them out into the community, some of them are like “yeah! Let’s go!” and others are like “Uhhhh…Damon? What are we doing here buddy? What’s this about?” So it’s fun.
Me: Gradual change.
Damon: Gradual change. Change is hilarious.
Me: And do you have that music that you so much liked when you were younger there?
Damon: So yes and no. My belief is that in church, you’re dealing with babies all the way up to—I could have ten ninety-year-olds in service on any given Sunday. So I have very contemporary people and I have very traditional people and the like. My thing is, everybody has to be uncomfortable some time. We’re a church for all people, we’ve got to have some of this old-school traditional music that will take you back to slavery, and some of this really contemporary music that sounds like a hip-hop artist. And so we really kind of vacillate and go back and forth. I just like things that have really strong rhythm. So some of the older music is kind of not my thing, but I have old people that like it, so…I let them sing it. And I act like I enjoy it. And they enjoy watching me act like I enjoy it, because they know I don’t.
Me: [laughs] Well, at least you cater to your people…your flock…your congregation! That’s the word I was looking for.
Damon: They use all those words! Your people, your congregation, your flock…all of that. They use all of those. I dunno, if they’re a flock, then that makes them geese. And then what am I? The head goose?
Me: [laughs] I don’t know! I don’t know why that word is used.
Damon: If I had to guess, Jesus in the Bible is consistently referred to as a shepherd, the metaphor is him as a shepherd and the people that follow him as sheep, and somewhere, probably, in antiquity, they probably referred to large groups of sheep as not only a herd, but a flock.
[Editor’s note: we then went into a sidebar conversation that isn’t really relevant to the interview…I’m picking back up where we got back to the questions.]
Me: So I want to ask you questions more along the lines of your actual beliefs. For you, what is a soul? What do you think a soul is and what role does it play in our lives?
Damon: So, 1 Thessalonians 5 in the Bible would articulate that the same way we believe God is Creator, Son, and Spirit; human beings are body, soul, and spirit. And so your body is obviously your physical structure, your spirit is your values and your convictions, and then your soul is your feelings and your emotions. And so when you talk about a soul, it would be a person’s feelings and their emotions and the like. And so those three parts—body, spirit, and soul—make up who Lillie is. You are tripartite, three parts, the same way God is in three parts. So that’s what I believe, based upon what I read.
Me: And so do you think our soul continues on, once our physical body dies?
Damon: So not the soul, the spirit. I would say your spirit—when your physical body dies, in Christianity we believe that there is going to be a transition, and that transition would be of your spirit. Now, what happens after that…[shrugs]
Me: What do you think happens after that?
Damon: I have no idea. There’s a word—when you make everything physical and personal, what’s that word, you turn everything into a person…
Me: Oh! You anthropomorphize.
Damon: Thank you, you anthropomorphize. So that’s what we, as Christians, tend to do, after death. We anthropomorphize death, you know, we’ll be walking around in Heaven, and we’re going to see momma when we die, and see granddaddy when we die…I do not believe that. To me, because I’ve read the Bible, the Bible doesn’t support that. The Bible doesn’t support that I’m going to be in this same physical structure. So I can’t really tell you what happens because I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. The Book of Revelation is very unclear. It gives a lot of allegory about what is going to happen. I do not know. What I do believe is that…I can’t anthropomorphize it. I can’t say that Damon’s going to be walking around in this physical structure or Damon’s going to be as Damon is or that the concept of Damon is even going to exist. I believe in that some way, shape, form or fashion, just as Adam and Eve were in the presence of God—whether or not Adam and Eve were physically walking around, that’s a whole ‘nother theological debate—but conceptually, the same way that they were in the presence of God, were able to be in the presence of God—if you believe in Adam and Eve, which is a whole ‘nother theological debate—I digress. That’s what I believe. So, at the point that I die, provided the Lord decides to be in a relationship with me, then I will be in a relationship with the Lord, and what that’s going to look like, I don’t know. I just believe by faith that being in a relationship with something greater than me, God, is going to be better than what I’m doing now. What it’s going to look like, I don’t know.
Me: Do you believe in a heaven and a hell? Do you think there will be any dividing line between those who might be in the presence of God and those who might not?
Damon: So yes. The key for me, what I teach my people, is faith is not about what you know. Faith is about what you don’t know. What makes it faith is the fact that I don’t know. If I knew it, it wouldn’t be faith. I have no faith that you’re sitting across from me talking to me right now, because I know that you’re sitting across from me, I could reach over there and touch you if I felt like it. It’s not faith if you know it. It’s only faith if I don’t know it. So the Bible—this book that I base my entire life upon—it could be wrong. And I’m okay with that. Because that’s what makes it faith, I believe it even though it could be wrong. Does the Bible provide this kind of sense that there is a division, and that some will be with the Lord, and some will not be with the Lord? Yes. The Bible also provides a sense that some were chosen, and some were not: the elect and the reprobate, so says John Calvin. The Bible also provides that there’s a narrow gate and a wide gate; so very few are going to be up and a whole lot are going to be down. And what this down, this eternal damnation, and this hell…I don’t know what that is. And therefore, since I don’t know what that is, I don’t teach that. I don’t teach a focus on eternal damnation and hell because I believe God has made a way. A way and an access for something greater and something better for the life that you live on this earth, in terms of loving and caring for other people, and then connection with God after one leaves this earth. So if I know that there’s a positive way to go, why would I focus on the negative way?
Me: I don’t remember specifically what it says in the Bible, but I think that those “elect”, it’s through faith that they are able to go be in the presence of God. Is that the case?
Damon: This idea of the elect and the reprobate, now we’re getting into theological—this is stuff nobody agrees on. You’ll find no two people who agree on this. Some theologians would say—and I enjoy the questions, and honestly don’t know the answer—one reading of the Apostle Paul, who wrote about the elect and the reprobate, one reading of it, one interpretation of it, is that God has chosen. Right? Before you were created in your mother’s womb, it is known whether or not Lillie and Damon and Lillie’s parents and Damon’s parents—it is known whether or not we are going to be in the elect, be with God; or the reprobate, be separated from God. The question becomes, what agency do you and I have in that choice? If God already chose, then does that mean nothing that we do can make a difference? Or, did God choose based upon what He knew—God knew, forgive me for using male language for God—but what God knew we were going to do. And that’s kind of the question. And I don’t know. Pastor Williams certainly doesn’t know. I can’t give you one clean answer because it’s not that clean. What I do know is that natural human nature is to be selfish and to think about self. The way that I read the Bible, the hermeneutic of Love that I read the text, says that there is a sacrificial nature that focuses on my neighbor more than myself. And I believe that God makes it crystal clear that if I focus on my neighbor more than I focus on myself, God will take care of me. And so I can be sacrificial to my neighbor and be a neighbor to someone else, as God will bless me for taking care of my neighbor. Now, what’s going to happen after I die? I can’t answer that question. And people want me to. “Pastor, Pastor, tell me. Is Momma who’s in that casket, is she in heaven or hell?” And I tell folks all the time, my standard is, when I’m Dr. Williams on Georgia Tech’s campus, I can tell you, because I know. It either is or it ain’t. I can prove it to you, I can demonstrate it. When I’m Reverend Williams, in the church or on the street, I can’t tell you. Because I don’t know. I can tell you what I believe. What I believe is, God has an expectation that God wants to work with you while you are in this earth to serve your fellow man or woman. Now, the result of that work that God wants to do in you to bless somebody else, whether or not that’s going to send you to heaven or hell? Can’t tell you. Sure don’t know. But I teach folks that as Christians, the goal is to make a decision so that God can work on us to do the best we can while we are breathing in and out. And if I do the possible, if I take care of while I’m breathing in and out on this earth, then I’ll trust God to take care of the impossible, what happens after I die. Because if I spent my life trying to figure out what happens after I die, it’s too late, I’m dead. But I got people I can bless and take care of now. And so that’s where the focus has to be. Because what happens with faith and what happens with religion is we spend so much time thinking about and worrying about a time period upon which we have no control over. The engineer in me says that’s senseless. Right? I could go out here today and get hit by a bus. So I’m going to put all my time and energy and focus to the time where I’m breathing in and out. And after that? I’ll cross my fingers.
Me: I have one final question. For you, what is your relationship with God? How can you conceptualize that?
Damon: So it’s very personal. I pray every day, I study every day, I believe that God has an expectation for how God wants to use me, on this planet. And I do my level best to be faithful to that expectation. I’m human, I make mistakes, I fall short, I’m certainly not all that I’m sure God would want me to be, but I’m pushing, and I’m striving, and I’m reaching. I feel like I’m running a marathon, if you will, since you’re a runner. I’m running a marathon and Lord knows I haven’t crossed mile 13.1 yet—we’re not running a full, it’s just a half—I haven’t crossed mile 13.1 yet, but I’m not at mile 1 either. So the blessing is that I’m not at mile 1 and I’m pushing forward to mile 13.1. The key for me is, God’s relationship with me, this very unique and personal relationship I have with God through His son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, is not independent of the remainder of God’s creation. The same God who created me and loves me is the same God who created every human being on this planet. So I have the responsibility to see the Imago Dei, the image of God, in all of God’s creation, people who believe and people who don’t believe, people who love God and people who hate God, people who are of different faiths and people who don’t think about faith, they’re just trying to get out of Georgia Tech because that’s their responsibility, is to get out of here. So that, to me, is my relationship with God. I’m not an independent agent in this world. I engage and intersect with much of God’s creation. So I want to make sure, it is my goal—I hope I don’t fall short, we’ll see—it is my goal that God is pleased with the interactions that I have with the checkout person at Kroger. With my students at Georgia Tech. It’s a personal relationship, but it’s a personal relationship that is inclusive of the other, and if I can convince others to be as concerned about the other as I am, then I think we wouldn’t try to have a law that puts guns in everybody’s pockets. That’s kind of how I see my relationship with God. Not as a genie.