In this live recording at FTE’s Christian Leadership Forum, Rev. William Lamar IV recounts his childhood steeped in the deep love of family, embracing a call to ministry as a young person, and finding personal and professional freedom in centering joy. William is pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, and is a graduate of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and Duke University Divinity School. He’s penned articles for the Washington Post, Christian Century, The Anvil, The Christian Recorder, The Afro-American Newspaper, Divinity Magazine, and the Huffington Post.
Patrick: Now I’m excited for the next episode of the Sound of the Genuine. We have Reverend Bill Lamar who recounts his childhood steeped in deep love of family, embracing a call the ministry as a young person and finding personal and professional freedom in centering joy. He is the pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
And what you will hear is a live recording from my conversation with him at the Christian Leadership Forum in May of this year in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m so excited that you get to hear Reverend Bill Lamar’s story on the Sound of Genuine.
Patrick: What’s up everybody! So we are gonna plant in the soil. One of the things that you have on your schedule is how to make meaning. And for me, from my tradition, that goes with story. How do we tell great stories? How do we listen to great stories? So we got a two part thing. One is we’re gonna be doing two live episodes of our podcast, the Sound of the Genuine. We got Bill Lamar here, who’s gonna be our first guest. Let’s give him a round of applause. It’s a live recording so could you be a little bit louder for that please? Like, so that we got that? All right. Thank you!
But I want to give a special instruction before we get started, that listening is a part of the science of meaning making. How do we listen well? So I have a task for the audience. Do we have poets? Rappers? I know we have a rapper in the back. Raise your hand if you’re a poet, if you’re an aspiring poet, we got 3-4 by right here.
All right, tasking. You ready? We saw you raise your hand. Listen and write some poetry, cuz you’re gonna perform at the end of our interview. So what did you hear? What themes, what emerged from the community? No pressure at all! Live recording. And we will cheer for you either way. I even have an applause button in the back for you, right? Bill. What’s going on?
Bill Lamar: Good to see you, brother. Good to see you.
Patrick: I’m glad you’re up here.
Bill Lamar: Glad to be here, man. And good to see you all, good to see you.
Patrick: With all the sound of the genuines, we always say, take me back to the beginning. And I know you as a pastor, as a leader, someone who’s leading the movement, but take me back to when you probably sounded a little bit more like me, a little bit squeakier, you know, like take me back to little Bill.
Bill Lamar: So the first, I would call it, imposed memory I have, I was alive for this, but I don’t recall it because I was a newly born infant. My name is William Lamar, IV - William Herman Lamar, IV. So my father is William Lamar III. His grandfather, William Lamar, Jr., it skipped a generation. I was born in August of ‘74.
Big daddy is my great-grandfather, my father’s father. He died in April of ‘75. He was a World War I veteran born in 1896, died in 1975. My father tells me that when he brought me home, that Big Daddy, who was close to entering the ancestral realm, pulled together two of his granddaughters. They created drums from pots and pans. When my father and mother drove me down into the driveway, that Big Daddy began marching with his granddaughters, welcoming me home. So where I begin is with an ancestral embrace. Where I began is on land where four generations of us loved, learned, failed, got up, worshiped, so I don’t know that there’s ever been a child afforded so much love in the womb of - really what I have shared, I recently eulogized an Uncle - my little portion of Macon, Georgia, just south of here is a transported West African village. And in that space, I was free to grow and to dream and very much I cannot separate the divine from those people, from those sounds, from that reality. And that is the place that continues to nourish me. Those people, many of them no longer here physically, continue to nourish me.
And so I am an extension of that and an extension of the imagination that they gifted me to think, to dream, and then to move, to make possible, the world that we all dream. The world that I think animates the passions of many of those of us who are in this space right now.
Patrick: What were some of those dreams, the ancestral dreams, the communal dreams, for you in particular, growing up? What do you remember elders speaking over your life?
Bill Lamar: Well it’s interesting. So many of you would come from cultures like this, where there was a clear line of demarcation between children and elders. So at the Thanksgiving meal, there was a table for children, there was a table for adults. We were told that children are to stay out of grown folks’ business. But what’s interesting about me is the ancestors early on said he’s been here before. Early on they said that boy is marked. So they would let me come into the room with them when they were talking. What’s interesting is all of my other cousins wanted to play basketball, football, do other stuff. I knew at 2, 3, 4, 5, that there was nothing my cousins were doing that was more interesting than what the elders were saying. And so they allowed me to transgress that border between adult and child, because I knew how to be quiet and I knew how to be respectful. So I think early on, I’ve been given this ability to transgress borders.
And the dream for me was the borders that contained us economically, theologically, racially, sexually, whatever those borders were, I have felt that we are called, that I am called to the sacred work of transgression – to cross borders and boundaries and to say this space is for all of us.
And then recently work that I’ve been doing. I also think the story of Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus is so revealing to me that we’re all called to the sacred work of midwifery. In the midst of those who would kill and destroy. And right now I think the animating reality of our theology and our politics is very similar to what was going on in Exodus 1, it is a demographic anxiety that shows up in political violence, actual violence, theological violence. And so I see the need for those of us who are connected to this just and beautiful world that God is always bringing, that the divine is always bringing, that the ancestors are always bringing, we’re called to transgress and then into the birthing suite - and for me, I imagine the pregnant one is the divine and that we are to attend the divine in the birthing suite. And not to abandon that reality because there are screams, because there is pain, because there is blood on the floor. We are called to stay. And if you google “birthing stool”, you’ll see images of African, Asian, and other birthing stools, the way that they are set up for easy passage in a very difficult reality. I now have an image of the divine ever seated on the birthing stool, waiting for us to engage in the sacred work of midwifery.
Patrick: Take me back to young adulthood. So you got this vision, you know, understand what this call is, when you’re trying to figure out how you’re gonna make a difference in the world. Take me back to young adulthood. Maybe it’s high school, college? I mean, this is a beautiful vision. You’re a little bit older now. Yeah. Take me back there.
Bill Lamar: You know, I had to become comfortable with my own strangeness, to embrace it. Because many of the things that I’ve been thinking about, doing…I mean, when you are an undergraduate and you acknowledge a call to ministry, it’s strange.
It’s strange culturally, it’s strange socially. So as a young person, I think I, again was transgressing. I did not want to surrender my youth to churchiness. One of the things that disturbs me most is when you have little kids who have been in church, little boys, little girls and a church thrust them on stages to preach, to pray, to sing. And I understand and appreciate the gifts but many times what the church is doing is robbing those young folks, after a while, of their youth, of their vitality. I was kind of talking recently to a very well-known Pentecostal preacher, whose a friend of mine, and he’s now in his early sixties, lamenting the fact that the church took away his childhood.
But he’s a 60 year-old man who wants to go back and be a child and that’s tough. So for me, I was learning…and I don’t know why the church, I think Bishop says something profound, the sacred and the secular. What does that mean? I like the text that says, that the earth is the Lords.
It does not say that the sacred is the Lords. It says the earth is the Lords. So thinking about how I could then be fully who I am and embrace ministry, not take on the churches’ Victorian notions of sexuality, or the churches imposed - if you are a preacher, you are to be this, you are to be that.
I tried my best to be as authentic. So as a young person, I was holding those dreams but I still wanted to explore. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to travel. I wanted to try new things. And so really it seemed to me like there was a constriction, some of it imposed by the church, but much of it also was imposed by me. And I wanted to break free of those things, to thrive authentically as who I saw and knew myself to be. And I think that…I’ll be 48 in August, so I think I’m doing better at that. It’s a constant dance and I think I’m doing better at being authentic.
Patrick: What were some of those first things that you broke free to do? The first calls?
Bill Lamar: Ah, interesting. I broke free to know that when the people I served knew that I loved them, I could go off the script I had been given. I could play with texts and theology. I could have studies with young men and we could talk about real situations in their lives, how they were struggling relationally and sexually, economically. That once I was in a space and the people knew that I had come to serve and to be among them then we could be authentic. I learned that I did not have to show up in a place and wear the garments that the church gave me to put on. That I could show up in my own garments. And that that would both, very much like the cross, both repel and attract. Right?
So I think the reason there’s so many communities of faith it’s probably because there are communities that fit the authenticity of so many of us. But I was clear that if I was going to stay in this role and thrive, I had to figure out how to wear my own garments. And so I learned that early on in my first pastoral appointment and Steve, when we were much younger, he visited. It was a church in Monticello, Florida, right outside of Tallahassee, Florida. And those beautiful, loving people, I’ll give you one example about what authenticity looked like.
This was a cane syrup area and by the time I was there, there were still people that had mules and they would grind the sugar cane, boil it, and make syrup. One of the things that the men would do is they would take mason jars, y’all know what mason jars are, and put the froth of the syrup in the mason jar and bury it. And then they would unearth it the next year and it would have become alcohol, an alcohol they called buck. So the old man called me and said, preacher, we want you to come down and have some buck. I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was gonna be eating deer. But we sat around and we drank buck and I laughed louder and it became more difficult to move, but we enjoyed each other. I entered into space with them with authenticity, and those are still some of the best relationships I have.
Patrick: So when you start thinking about how you’re gonna make an impact nationally, I mean, at Metropolitan, you’re leading at a major church. Tell me about that transition from this place where you’re sitting around drinking buck to like, thinking about how do I make a difference on a national scale?
Bill Lamar: So, this is interesting. When I was assigned to Metropolitan, April of 2014, eight years ago, William DeVeaux was the Bishop who assigned me and he had pastored the church. In our tradition, as some of you know, bishops assign, and so when I went to him and said, Bishop, I feel like you just strapped 200 years of history on my back. And he said, “I did and now go do something with it.” Just like Bishop Flunder said, “you’ve got this education now go do something it!” What I realized when I first walked into the space - and if you go into Metropolitan, I welcome any of you if you come to Washington, reach out so you can get a tour - it’s an amazing architectural statement. And one of the things I’ve learned in graduate studies is that architecture is a rhetoric of its own. It communicates. So the grandeur of that building, when it was built in 1887, by many people who have been formally enslaved, it shows their grandiose vision of their God and of themselves.
And they also wrote that we put this space in close proximity to power. So if you walk outside of the front door of Metropolitan, go to 16th Street, you can literally see the White House. You’re about five or six blocks away. So we were called spatially to bear witness to a theological vision antithetical to the American imperial theological vision. And to share this type of unbounded, joy, and humanity for all.
So for me, I had to grow into the space and I’m still growing into the space because what I tell people about Washington is it is everything I love and everything I hate in a very tight…if you spend any time in Washington, you will see both of those things on display. And so when I got there, I found myself listening for where, in my moment, I was called to make a contribution to liberation, to worship, to justice, in the space. And so I found partners and I think this is very important. Everything that we’ve been able to do has been because we have availed ourselves of partnerships. That there has been nothing significant, nothing compelling, nothing noteworthy that has been done without our moving outside of our contained space, without us understanding that we did not own truth, without us understanding that - as the prophet complains to God and God says, “hold on bro, I got other prophets who have not bended their knees,” there are always others with whom we can connect. And so the things that we have been able to do has been precisely because of that.
I was talking with Jordan last night, when I have gone to new spaces, one of the first things I always do is to read a credible biography of the space. So wherever you are sent to serve, find the best biography and learn how that space became ordered as is ordered. Because many of the people who are living there have no idea how the space came to being.
Their assumption is it has always been this way. And many of us sadly believe it will always stay that way. But if you understand the human forces, the political forces, the forces of injustice in many places…in most places, demonic forces, that order things as they are, then we can have a vision of how we can get to the next place. So for Washington, I read three or four books to understand how the place got to where it was and then to pierce the propaganda of the space. So, Bishop Flunder was saying last night, San Francisco purports itself to be liberal. DC purports itself to be liberal, but if you know the history, you know, that’s propaganda. You know that underneath that rhetoric of being liberal is tremendous anti-human forces, crushing folk. And so being able to discern that, in the midst of partnership and ongoing learning, I think opened me and opened us for the work that we do now.
Patrick: So much of that work can be incredibly isolating cause it can wear on you. You just mentioned partnerships. You mentioned ancestors at the very beginning. Yeah. Tell me about friendships, the people in your life who fuel you and keep you going in doing this.
Bill Lamar: This is what I share. And I’ve had to learn this, but I center joy. And I believe that we must all center joy. I center joy because I think about, I grew up around people who were born in the late 1800s. I remember them. And some of you, your ancestral reach of the living, it goes back farther. But these were people of profound joy. They loved, they made love, they made babies, they smoked, they cussed, they fried fish, I mean, they played music, they lived! They lived and I believe that that black joy that I knew, and you must name your own joy, but I’m naming the black joy - man that stuff, it scares the hell outta people. The joy, I think, scares people because they believe that they have broken spirits when they have not. That there are some people who insist living in joy, these profoundly stubborn…there’s an obstinance to the joy.
And so for me, I find co-conspirators in the joy. One of them happens to be, my wife who has helped me to be smarter, more sensitive, more open, more joyful, who calls me on my s!?t.
Patrick: That’s right, right.
Bill Lamar: And you must have s!?t calling friends.
Patrick: That’s right.
Bill Lamar: Right? You gotta have more than a few. Deep relationships, like the one I have with Steve Lewis and others with whom I journeyed through seminary. Family members - one of the most beautiful words, names is Billy. People who knew me growing up, that’s what they, they don’t call me Reverend or pastor. My family calls me, Billy. I get great joy when I call home and my mother answers the phone and she says, “Billy-boy.” That’s joy.
And so I remain connected there. And I love music, I love ideas, books. And I love…many of you, if I see you walking around, tell me your name, tell me your story, connecting with people. And just being caught up in this amazing human thing that we all share, so imperfectly, but I get joy. I get joy just looking out here. I wish that all of you could sit here and get the view that we have of just the beauty in this space. The difference, the possibility, the energy.
Patrick: This is my last question. I’ll ask everyone who comes on this show the same question. How much of your sense of purpose, meaning, life comes from that, those ancestors, the drums, the book, those conversations that you have with friends that you’ve just named, and how much comes from a stirring inside you - your connection with the divine who, you know you to be?
Bill Lamar: I think the ancestors do the stirring. For me, this…and I’m doing some work on this. The church where I grew up, my grandfather and others who were the stewards would kneel at the altar, and this is how they were open prayers: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
Now we know that there are women’s names to be called as well. Right? Sarah and Hagar’s names should be called. Rebecca’s name should be called. But what I have thought is I have never known the divine apart from the ancestral.
Patrick: That’s right.
Bill Lamar: Scripture always, not always, but in many places connects the divine with the ancestors, with those who have gone before unashamedly unabashedly, the divine is connected to ancestors and to land and to space. And for me, that is the case. When I pass into Bibb County, Georgia, I get a feeling that I am home. My ancestors rest in that red clay and… it was K. Monet talking about this last night, my substance is their substance.
And I remember and I’ve written about this, I’m old enough to…how many of y’all remember, if you were of my era or close by, when your family got encyclopedias? I was a big nerd. Man, when those, look we got…y’all I see you. I see the recognition. Yeah, you still got em?
Around…it’s about around 85-86, we got the World Book Encyclopedia. The burgundy one with the gold leaf. All right. You got me. All right. And I would read the encyclopedia. And I would look up African cultures and read about them. And I was like, I think the world book encyclopedia is trying to break my spirit. Because what they would say, these people are ancestor worshipers. They are animus. And then I backed up as I reflected, I said, wait a minute! Every culture is an ancestor worshiping culture. If you have come to Washington, DC, ain’t no more ancestor worshiping city than Washington, DC.
There is no more of an ancestor worshiping culture than that of the imperial United States! The monuments built to Lincoln to Jefferson, these are styled after temples. And so what I had to learn is wait a minute. What they are really saying is we want you to lift up and venerate our ancestors and not your own! And so I have been very clear in my own moments of veneration - even in some Christian communities people are afraid of this language - I am no longer afraid of this language. I embrace and I think the freest among us will embrace ancestors by bond and blood and they will help to set us free.
If I might quote the great prophets from Parliament Funkadelic, here’s your chance to dance your way outta your constriction. Right? I’m trying to get myself out of that constriction to be aware and the ancestors to me are the partners always leading me to dance in the direction of freedom.
Patrick: Bill. Thank you. I mean it’s such a gift to hear this. I have to say thank you for not only just being here doing this live, but my ancestor is grandma Carmen, is sitting with Big Daddy, hopefully smiling down that we’re having this conversation. So thank you. Thank you. Let’s give him one more round of applause.
Hey thanks again for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Reverend Bill Lamar’s story. If you have enjoyed this podcast, please head on over to apple podcasts and leave us a review. Those reviews help these stories get out into the world. I want to thank my team cause they put a lot of hard work to get these stories to you. So our executive producer Elsie Barnhart, who puts these wonderful stories together, Heather Wallace, Diva Morgan Hicks, and as always @siryalibeats for his music. We’ll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.