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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Negative and positive responses to preaching progress from the pulpit

Finlator discusses the response of his congregation and others to his outspoken support for civil rights and economic justice. He confesses that sometimes negative responses to his activism caused him trouble, but he had many supporters as well. He says, with no small amount of irony, that his religious calling gives him a sense of self-importance that buttresses him against criticism.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I know that when you're speaking out on civil rights issues, perhaps early and late, it takes a certain personal toll on a minister and his family when he champions unpopular causes. Talk about that a little bit.
That of course is true. And any minister that becomes involved in issues like these has got to know that there's a price to pay. I have been singularly fortunate through my years in that only for the very last few years in my ministry has my position with the church been at stake. I've always been aware that the people in the congregations have not agreed with me and I've always tried to listen to their grievances. But none of the churches—and this is amazing Jay—in Pittsboro, in Weldon, in Elizabeth City, none of them came to the point where they penalized me in reduction of my salary or asked for my retirement. That never happened. It never happened until I passed retirement age here in Raleigh. But you have to realize that it's a dangerous game to play, putting it in that kind of terminology. It's difficult on your family. To be fired as a pastor of your church is almost to be without hope, because to be fired by a church for your social activities means that very rarely will any other church call you. You have to go into some other field to survive. But on the other hand, you have an obligation to understand the congregation. For most Baptists the race issue was a difficult thing. I've had people tell me that the first time they saw a black person coming into our church they were gone for good. In the churches that I've served the people who ran the industries were on the deacons board. It's unthinkable that they'd support labor unions. To be opposed to war, when you have members of your church who were serving on the foreign field … and to come out and tell the congregation that this was an illegal war and that we ought not to be in it, we ought to get out of it, our country stands in Judgement … these things are terribly hard on a congregation. And through the years you lose members and they don't come back. And it's painful because people whom you lose are your friends as well as your church members. And this is a toll that you have to face.
What about reactions from the non-members of your congregation? Don't you get some reaction from people who are not members of your church?
Oh, absolutely. Every time you do these things you have all kind of response out in the world. The only thing that keeps you going … You must make this concession: ministers are vain critters and we have a high sense of our self-importance and this conflicts with the situation too. But, if you have the feeling, Jay, that you're given to these causes for life, because they're Biblically Justified, because your Christian conscience demands it, then there is an exhiliration in it and the risk taken is part of the fun. And you hope that you'll survive. And you always know that there are people out there—in the church and outside the church—who understand what you're doing and who want to support you. I used to get letters from all over the state, from other churches, in times of great crisis, and they would say to me, "We wish our minister would say what you say. It needs to be said and it needs to be done." So all these things were supportive. But you know that your finance committee will remind you that the contributions are falling off. And you know that your evangelistic committee will tell you that people are not coming to church, you're not getting recruits, they're staying away. Other churches are drawing them and you're not. And you know that people will come and tell you that so-and-so has left us and joined the Episcopal church, the Presbyterian church, or another Baptist church and these are anguishing times. And you really begin to question yourself. You say, "Well, I really am a damned fool after all. I'm a zany."