When President John F. Kennedy was shot in his open motorcade 50 years ago on the streets of downtown Dallas, the city immediately reacted. But Dallas’ state of shock, for the most part, differed significantly from the state of shock felt by the rest of the nation.
Americans were grieving; grappling with the disbelief that such a tragedy could come from within this country’s community. In Dallas, however, the city’s perceived insistence on an image of innocence was what Rev. William A. Holmes described as “white wash” and, per national sentiments, “Pollyanna.”
Holmes stood before the congregation of Northaven Methodist Church and preached a sermon calling for Dallasites to awaken themselves to the realities of hate in the city and to hold accountable the community as
“We cannot, month after month, year after year, sow seeds of intolerance and hate, and then, upon learning of the president’s visit, just throw a switch and hope all rancor will disappear,”
Holmes wrote in his personal memoirs recounting the aftermath of his sermon, entitled “One Thing Worse Than This.”
“I proposed that ‘one thing worse’ than the immense tragedy of the president’s assassination would be for the city where the tragedy occurred to be in denial of its own national reputation for incivility and even violence toward certain [elected officials],” Holmes said.
Holmes outlined for his congregation the series of events over the previous years that created “the city’s climate of acrimony and extremism” that allowed the tragedy of an assassination to even become
“I urged those of us who had been part of the passive, silent majority to begin challenging bigotry and intolerance,” Holmes said. “I spoke of a new day in Dallas, with new attitudes toward political debates, and a new civility where persons could disagree without insult or rancor.”
CBS picked up on Holmes’ outlier preaching and requested to tape a repeat of the sermon to air on “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” While much of the country expressed their gratitude for Holmes bringing justice to the assassination and to the host city, some — and many in Dallas — felt vehemently opposite. Shortly after the broadcast, police were knocking on the Holmes family’s front door, informing them of the police protection in place to guard the husband, wife and their two sons from the numerous
Holmes explained in an interview that it was not so much the police guard that was surreal, but rather the fact that the family was being threatened. But even under the added danger of the circumstances, Holmes stood by his message.
“[It was] my decision to allow parts of the sermon to be televised, [and] I never seriously regretted that decision,” Holmes said. “My wife and our two sons have always concurred with me
Darwin Payne, professor emeritus of communications at SMU and a field reporter for The Dallas Morning News during the time of the assassination, explained that the backlash from city residents fell into line with the climate of a community deflecting accountability.
“The threats [Holmes] received represented the initial reaction in the city to chastise those Dallasites who found anything to blame at the Dallas atmosphere at the time,” Payne said.
During a period when the city was struggling with hatred from the rest of the country, Dallasites who spoke against that very community were not welcomed by any means.
“They were basically considered to be traitors to their own city,” Payne said.
Evelyn L. Parker, associate professor of practical theology at SMU, said the political impact a spiritual word can have is often unrealized. Holmes’ sermon is a prime example of his preaching taking on responsibility beyond its
“A sermon that would impact a broader audience…has to be credited to a person’s ability to communicate to a wider audience,” Parker explained. “But [it’s] also the ability to get people to think about complex issues, and to do that with passion.”
Holmes received criticism from several of his colleagues in the Dallas Methodist community — they did not believe a member of the community should stand against his fellow members.
“I simply accepted the nonsupport, or criticism, of some colleagues and knew it was to be expected,” Holmes said.
Parker explained that a true leader of the church “does not see a binary between their religious prophetic life and their
“They see those as intertwined, and they see a responsibility in making those come together,” Parker said. “I think that’s the central piece — to understand yourself as a public theologian.”
Parker said the key to balancing these facets of public ministry comes from a respect that is earned from reciprocity — when respect is shown, respect
“A preacher that is both receptive…and open to receive persons and dialogue lends [himself] to being heard by a broader audience,” Parker said.
Professor of Homiletics in the Perkins School of Theology Brad Braxton explained that with the openness to perception and dialogue exists an inevitable political dimension in nearly every sermon.
“Arguably, any sermon that does not at some point make reference to the political realities of the gospel, in a very profound way, impugns the gospel,” Braxton said.
Referring to sermons as “public pronouncements sermons attempt to explain and explore the good things of God for the world,” Braxton explained. Because of that nature, politics cannot
“Inherently, [sermons] are meant to speak to wider realities, including political realities,” Braxton said.
Holmes’ integrity to providing his just commentary on political issues has accompanied him through his career as the senior minister of the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, from which he retired in 1998.
“I have known through all these years that my anxieties about being controversial — while deeply existential — are only as decisive and controlling as I allow them to be,” Holmes wrote. “I have the choice of either being the victim of these emotions, or transcending them.”
Parker echoed the struggle between fear of consequences and dedication to speaking one’s truth — a challenge and accomplishment facing most anyone with an effective voice to the public.
“It’s not an easy task, but if you feel that what you have to say is important and necessary, then fear is in the background,” Parker said. “The passion and the urgency to speak the truth…pushes you past the fear.”