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.
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.