The faith of Sylvester Williams

Sylvester Williams at home. Photo by Bre Bradham

By Bre Bradham

Sylvester Williams wears religion like a strong perfume—an aura you can’t escape for more than a breath. Whether it’s correcting debate moderators who forget his title of “pastor” or signing his emails “in the service of Christ Jesus the Son of the Living God,” Williams makes a concerted effort to ensure that everyone he meets sees the depth of his Christian faith.

When the mayoral candidate welcomed me into his East Durham home on a recent Sunday afternoon, the door had barely opened before I was greeted by a man who was “blessed and in love with the Lord Jesus Christ”—the same salutation that earned him a chiding from human resources during his previous career as a financial analyst. This articulation of religious zeal is deliberate, conspicuous and constant. And, according to Williams, so is his God.

Williams, 62, is one of six candidates competing Tuesday to succeed Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who is not seeking reelection. Williams, who has unsuccessfully run for public office before, is not considered a main contender. He stands out for his consistent mixing of religion and politics and his strident anti-LGBTQ+ rights stance.

A sign to enter the ministry

Williams grew up in Durham as the eighth of 12 children. The son of a pastor, one of Williams’ earliest memories is being a toddler dressed in a onesie entering a church in the arms of this mother. His family attended St. James Holiness Church, where his father preached. While Christianity was a focal point of the Williams family’s life, the youngster did not feel fully engaged.

“Growing up as a child, I knew that my mother and my father loved the Lord Jesus, but I grew up thinking that was something for them, something I couldn’t get,” he said. “We would go to church and they would be praising the Lord and preaching, and I could never really find that connection.”

It wasn’t until he was in his early 20s that he became fully integrated into his family’s spiritual life. When he was about 23, the future pastor had his “first real encounter with God” while walking around a church sanctuary during a service, holding the hand of another congregation member. He began to feel like his “heart was about to explode,” and thought he was in cardiac distress. But then he began praising God and singing.

“After that incident, the Lord started speaking to me more,” he said.

Not long after, he accepted what Williams says he believed was a sign from God to enter the ministry.  Although mission work has since taken Williams around the world—from India to the Ivory Coast—he’s currently the pastor of a non-denominational, multicultural church that meets in the recreation center at a public park near his home.

On the Sunday I sat down with the mayoral candidate his home on a quiet East Durham street, his outfit of choice was an off-white jacket and white pants, paired with a snappy red tie. Sitting on the edge of the large white couch that dominates his living room, Williams appeared self-assured as he talked about his beliefs and goals.

In the white-walled room, where a wooden cross sat on the fireplace mantle and a piano monopolized one corner, the conversation casually drifted between his politics and his religion—a balance he has clearly grown comfortable with. In his mayoral campaign, the two are indistinguishable.

‘That group’

Williams says he regrets that his stance LGBTQ+ rights gets more attention than his platform proposals to address Durham’s poverty. But he makes clear that his anti-LGBTQ+ rights views are based on deeply-held religious beliefs.

He first drew attention in 1998 for a religious-based protest of Durham Public Schools’ teaching of evolution, a subject he also called “racist.”

He later ran unsuccessfully for mayor and a city council seat.

In the current campaign, however, it’s his views on “sexual identity issues” that have thrust him into the spotlight. Williams said he views the issue of LGBTQ+ rights as a “red heron”—a distraction from the more pressing issue of African-American Durham residents living in poverty.

Williams’ discussions of LGBTQ issues are peppered with unfounded rumors and discredited  theories and statistics.

He has rehashed unproven allegations that long-time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was a cross-dresser who “had a homosexual lover.” He claims that every homosexual “that I have talked to in-depth, said that he or she was abused as a child.”

“There is more domestic abuse in the group. There is great rate of suicide in that group,” he said. “I mean you just look at all the statistics across the board—there’s more crime. They are trying to say that these things are happening because of society. No. The reason these things are happening is because they have a lot of deep-seated hurt that they can’t tell anyone about.”

But, like everything else in his life, his position on homosexuality ultimately comes back to his faith.

He says the Bible foreshadows that countries will become accepting of homosexual behavior near the time of Christ’s return, which many Christians view as the end of time. “Our Lord Jesus even said, ‘As it was in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, so shall it be with the return of the Son of Man,” he said, noting that such predictions coming to fruition embolden his belief in the infallibility of God even more.

‘That’s who I am’

For Williams, God is not an abstract concept, but rather the very foundation around which his life is built. His originalist interpretation of the Bible and consistent assertions of his religiosity may brush some people the wrong way, but Sylvester Williams is not crowdsourcing voters’ opinions on theology. He’s offering Durham voters a chance to see his light, to bring a Christian revival to Durham. He’s offering them his God.

“To me, God is the creator of everything,” he said. “Unknowable, infinite. Christ Jesus is His son, who is the very expressed word of God.”

Ultimately, Durham voters will decide if they are willing to accept Williams and his faith as a package deal—because for him, the two are inseparable. “That’s who I am,” he said.

Yoga for Freelon

By Julianna Rennie

Pierce Freelon, a candidate in the Durham mayoral race, stepped inside the converted warehouse, slipped off his sneakers and unrolled his yoga mat.

The Freelon supporters greeted each other and sipped on caffeine-free vegan chai tea. The only indication that the event was a fundraiser for a political campaign was the “$10-20 recommended donation” sign propped beside the sign-in sheet.

When asked about the unconventional nature of the fundraiser, Freelon said, “This felt appropriate to me for a campaign event, because this is what Durham looks and smells and feels like.”

At 6:30 p.m., everyone shuffled back to their mats, which were arranged in a circle. In the middle of the circle, a collection of stones and bronze statues rested on top of a red tapestry decorated with an oriental design. Nina Be, one of four yoga instructors who led the class, explained that the spiritual objects “elevate the energy to support the practice.”

Carson Efird, a yoga instructor and orchestrator of the fundraiser, squatted beside the red tapestry as she introduced Freelon and described the fortuitous evolution of the night’s event, which only formally took shape when Efird struck up a conversation with Freelon at Dashi, a local ramen restaurant.

Although Efird recently felt “disenchanted” with local politics, she was following Freelon’s campaign closely and was excited to partner with him for this event. “That he sits at the noodle shop and listens to what this yoga teacher is saying to him and then actually manifests that into reality is incredibly validating,” she said.

Efird’s resolution to “bring the yoga community to [Freelon]” gained a magical quality when she realized the significance of the date, September 21. “Global Mala, UN International Peace Day, and fall equinox all fell tonight on the first day of early voting,” she said. “What synergy!”

“There couldn’t be a more potent time for us to be here,” she said to the class, eliciting whoops and animal calls from the enthused Durhamites perched on their yoga mats.

Then, Freelon took the floor. He shared a story about one Friday night when students involved with his black youth empowerment organization, Blackspace, spotted a lunar rainbow after they welcomed a homeless man into their creative exercise.

When Freelon returned to his mat, yoga instructor Patrice Graham stepped into the circle to lead the class in the sun salutation ritual. She demonstrated the movement, bowing, lowering her body totally flat on the ground and finally returning to a standing position with her hands together in front of her heart. Participants led by alternating instructors repeated the motion 54 times, in alignment with the traditional Global Mala practice.

Throughout the session, people were encouraged to look out at and connect with other people in the circle. Joshua Vincent, Freelon’s campaign manager, observed that the event was attended by “people from all walks of life, ranges of age, race, religion, sexuality.” He continued, “Every event that we’ve done has been the same way, just this cross-section of identities.”

Kerrington Jackson led the second section of sun salutations. During her instruction, she read “Rise Up,” a poem authored by 15-year-old Royce Mann, who advocated against modern racial injustices. Jackson told the class that she is excited about Freelon’s campaign and his ability to affect real change in Durham. “When I started researching him, my heart just rose up in my chest because he’s the person we’ve been waiting for,” she said.

Efird initiated the third section of repetitions, during which participants broke out singing along to Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.”

Be oversaw the final section. An older woman with short bleach blonde hair and tattoos on her arms and neck, Be supports the increasing politicization of yoga. A lifelong civil rights activist, she is also passionate about African-American political representation. “I think right now this country needs to be run by black folks for the next couple hundred years,” she said. “It’s a ridiculous thing to say, but that’s what I believe in my heart.”

Williams takes a stand against racism – and the LGBTQ community

By Elizabeth Anne Brown

Sylvester Williams, a fiery pastor known for his unapologetically un-PC take on politics, joined fellow Durham mayoral hopefuls at a Sept. 14 candidate forum. There, Williams railed against what he perceives to be the city’s Achilles’ heel—deep-seated institutional racism—and outlined his plans for building a better Durham.

After quickly correcting the moderator during his introduction (“Pastor Sylvester Williams,” not Mr.), Williams faced the audience with a tight-lipped smirk, raising his eyebrows and flashing conspiratorial glances at the front row whenever another candidate made a point he disagreed with—which happened frequently.

Sylvester Williams (campaign photo)

Unlike fellow candidates and city council insiders Farad Ali and Steve Schewel, Williams was unabashedly critical of Durham city government’s handling of racial inequality issues. At the top of his list is the lack of resources and face time with politicians that Durham’s more troubled neighborhoods receive. “We have elected officials who don’t step foot in places without a photo op,” Williams charged.

After a nod to the success of Durham’s recent downtown renaissance, Williams questioned why the city lavished funds and attention on the development of such a small region—especially in light of tremendous need in adjacent Durham communities.

Given that Durham has a higher poverty rate than the state of North Carolina and the United States at large, tax breaks for tapas bars and new brunch spots is absurd, Williams wrote in a candidate questionnaire. During the forum, he objected, “Anytime you consider giving money to poor neighborhoods it’s considered welfare, but the same money going downtown is considered investment,”

Reinvigorating the once-sluggish Durham nightlife scene does little to help the city’s most vulnerable residents and exacerbates runaway gentrification, according to Williams. Rising property values in newly trendy neighborhoods can push out low-income residents and leave them without affordable housing options. Most consider gentrification a tragic product of market forces—but Williams suggested gentrification in Durham is purposeful and fueled by racism.

During the forum, Williams accused realtors of “intentionally [setting] prices high” on downtown property “in order to keep certain people out,” citing conversations with an unnamed but respected real estate insider.

As Durham tackles its billion-dollar infrastructure backlog, racial equity can no longer take a back seat to progress, Williams said. He pointed to the East End Connector as an example of how infrastructure projects, particularly those that invoke eminent domain, are disproportionally placed in low-income, African-American neighborhoods. Everyone reaps the benefits of the project, but it’s poor communities of color that bear the burden.

It’s for similar reasons that Williams staunchly opposes the proposed light rail from Durham to Chapel Hill. Using existing railway infrastructure would only serve to “displace minority communities once again”—and Durham’s urban sprawl makes buses a more natural solution, he said.

Despite his crusade to protect Durham’s racial minorities, Williams has ruffled feathers with his controversial stance on LGBTQ+ issues. In a candidate questionnaire for the People’s Alliance, a left-leaning Durham PAC, he wrote that “civil rights do not apply to the bedroom” (somehow weaving in some shots at J. Edgar Hoover, former FBI director who was rumored to crossdress, as an unconventional stand-in for the queer community). At the forum, Williams largely ducked a question on his ability to work with a sexually diverse Durham. However, he did mention in passing that since “it’s not genetic,” we have yet to identify “what causes those problems.”

Williams’ other public comments on the subject have been more explicit. In another joint appearance on September 18, Williams seemed to mock fellow mayoral candidate Shea Ramirez for having a gay daughter. That same day, a post shared on his personal Facebook page (“Pastor Sylvester Williams”) lamented, “1 of every 2 blacks in Durham is struggling to climb out of poverty. Makes LGBT struggle seem silly, eh? (sic)”.  A September 23 status update included “homosexuals” in a list with “prostitutes… drunkards, homeless, unemployed, [and] gangbangers” that his mayoral campaign helped “[break] under the power of God.”

As much as people hate to admit it, “the preacher is dead on the money most of the time,” said Jackie Wagstaff, a former city council member with a reputation as a firebrand. She said Williams “understands [the] disconnect in Durham between the haves and the have-nots,” and too often “people sit in these seats that don’t really focus on the needs of all the people in Durham.”

Schewel campaigns to make Durham ‘a city for all’

By Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi

With its reputation as a burgeoning hub for young creative professionals, Durham stands out amid the conservatism dominating North Carolina. But for mayoral candidate Steve Schewel, navigating the city’s growth will be pivotal to maintaining its progressive political identity.

Addressing an undergraduate journalism class at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, Schewel outlined his vision to make Durham a “city for all” – especially as its economic revitalization continues.

Steve Schewel, candidate for mayor, speaks to a Duke journalism class.

“Durham is prospering for 80  percent of the people,” Schewel said. “But 20 percent of the people in Durham are not sharing in that prosperity. They are overwhelmingly people of color. So how do we ensure that as we grow, everybody is able to share in the prosperity?”

According to the Durham City-County planning department, the city’s population is projected to increase by more than 130,000 over the next 30 years.

Durham’s recent growth has brought new residents, who are often young white people with higher incomes, into historic neighborhoods. This gentrification has resulted in a spike in home prices and increased rental costs, forcing some longtime residents to leave the city.

Schwel said he will work to ensure that low-income, African-American and Hispanic communities will continue to have access to affordable housing, transportation and employment opportunities.

Schewel also spoke of the need for Durham to assert its progressive values in spite of a conservative state legislature and President Donald Trump’s “reckless” administration. While the city’s role in changing state or national policies may be limited, there are still possibilities for Durham to project its progressive values locally – a tactic Schewel coined  the “Durham workaround.”

One example of this was the city council passing a resolution to support El Centro Hispano’s Faith ID program. Due to state laws, undocumented immigrants cannot obtain driver’s licenses or other government-issued identification, which means that they have no means to verify who they are. In Durham, undocumented residents may obtain and use a Faith ID as a form of identification that is recognized by the Durham’s police department, schools, libraries and other public institutions.    

Schewel’s fight for a progressive agenda has been lifelong. After graduating from Duke in 1973, he worked as a co-director for the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group and advocated for consumers against special interests. He served on the Durham Public Schools Board of Education and is in his second consecutive four-year term as a city council member.

Schewel was endorsed for the mayoral campaign by the People’s Alliance, Durham’s major progressive political action committee. No candidate endorsed by the People’s Alliance has lost since 2007.

Schewel, Farad Ali, a former city councilman and chief executive officer of The Institute, and Pierce Freelon, hip-hop artist and activist, are considered the leading candidates in the mayoral race. The city’s current mayor of sixteen years, Bill Bell, is not seeking reelection.

Schewel’s mayoral platform echoes his 2016 city council re-election platform that also focused on promoting policies that increase affordable housing, employment opportunities and green spaces.

Out of the six remaining mayoral candidates, Schewel is the only white candidate. He strongly objected to the idea that his race would impede his ability to represent marginalized communities he may not be part of.

“I know what [my race] obliges me to do,” Schewel said. “I understand what white privilege is and what that implies about the work I need to be doing all the time and the consciousness I need to bring to it. But I don’t think that being white in Durham means you can’t be mayor or on the city council.”

Durham has a diverse community and the task of the mayor is to bring together people who may disagree or have different values, he said.

A grueling campaign schedule, which includes 25 forums for mayoral candidates, has demonstrated citizens’ enthusiasm for dialogue and political engagement. For Schewel, this is an example of what sets the city apart.

“What you have in Durham is a civic discourse that is second to none,” Schewel said. “It is democracy at work. I don’t know that there’s any other city that can match it.”

 

About this site

Welcome to  Covering Durham: Election 2017, a website produced by Duke University journalism students.

If you have questions about the articles posted here, please contact Bill Adair, bill.adair@duke.edu.