By Rosetta Miller Perry
There are a lot of people who claim to be Christians and/or religious, but whose deeds seldom match their words. Rev. Bill Barnes, who passed away two weeks ago at 86, went far beyond dogmatic zeal in his desire to truly help those in need. He also didn’t limit his service or involvement to preaching and being in the pulpit. He spent the bulk of his career out in the streets ministering to the needs of people, and being both a moral compass and active participant in making things better.
Though affordable housing was a primary cause, Rev. Barnes fought for many other things, notably Civil Rights and social justice, economic inclusion and opportunity, legal fairness and an end to police mistreatment and brutality. He didn’t divide the world into groups and only focus on a select handful. He cared about the plight of all oppressed people, and he didn’t just talk about a heavenly reward in the afterlife, he tried to do everything he could to improve folks’ lives here on earth.
On a personal note, Bill Barnes and I were friends and mutual fighters for justice over 50 years. I teamed with both him and the late Fred Cloud when I was Director of the EEOC in Nashville, and our friendship and battles continued here. As the city continued to grow and evolve from its small town roots, there were those who somehow seemed to forget the importance of seeing everyone included in the process. Rev. Barnes never did. He considered it a central goal to keep the city administration’s focus on the poor, and on ensuring that the concerns of developers, Music Row, and the upper class weren’t given more consideration than the plight of working class people, the homeless and those fighting the ravages of poverty.
He combined all these initiatives into his ministry at the Edgehill United Methodist church. He made that a place that welcomed everyone, and a church where the meaning of ministry and worship extended much further than Sunday morning services. Edgehill was and remains thoroughly involved in the surrounding community and the city at large, and indeed will remember Rev. Barnes most vividly through its mission of becoming a sanctuary church.
In an era where an American President openly courts and embraces the absolute worse elements in this society, the lesson and example of Rev. Bill Barnes has never been more important or relevant. He stood against virtually everything that the Trump administration champions, especially its message that certain types of immigrants are not welcome here, or that those who fight and oppose hatred and bigotry are equally as bad as those who endorse and advocate it.
This city and nation will greatly miss Rev. Bill Barnes. The Tennessee Tribune will especially remember his counsel, bravery, wit and willingness to stand against injustice and to always be ready to fight with us for the things that mattered most. When others were celebrating more condos and franchise restaurants, Bill Barnes wondered why it was a good thing for some many communities to look the same. He saw generations of poverty and children locked into a cycle of hunger and pain and asked why ending this wasn’t and isn’t more important than Nashville being featured in magazines and on TV as “The It City.”
When Mayor Barry says she’ll miss his “thoughtful counsel” and “spirit of service, advocacy and activism,” we hope she’ll keep that in mind and start including more Black men in positions of power and authority in order to inspire the children that Rev. Barnes constantly spoke about needing role models and support. We also hope that she’ll start to see the need for affordable housing in the same way that he did, a critical issue and one directly tied to economic opportunity and increasingly displacement and gentrification in too many neighborhoods.
Rev. Bill Barnes is gone now, but his memory and accomplishments will always be remembered. Now the Tribune hopes that those in power do more than just pay lip service to Rev. Barnes’ legacy. Let’s see some actions that prove you truly did and do value the causes that fueled his life.