Originally posted on Vanderbilt News (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt)

Vanderbilt University law professor, vice chancellor, athletics director, and community advocate David Williams, II transitioned February 8, 2019. The eulogy was delivered by ABC President,
Dr. Forrest Elliott Harris, Sr., long-time divinity school professor. 

His Gift and His Glory

Text:  John 16: 20-24, 33

Gail, Erika, David, Samantha, and Nicholas, I first want to recognize the matriarch of this family, Gail’s mother. Her spirit is your spirit and the spirit and strength of the ancestors that comes with her.  To the entire family, and all friends and people here from across the country, we come here today not only as friends of this beautiful family but to help shoulder the burden they carry, while sharing this communal load to celebrate the life of David Williams, II. God is here with us. God is in the very fabric of the humanity we’ve known belonging to David Williams. God is here in the spirit and legacy of our beloved brother’s amazingly well-lived life. We celebrate these glorious expressions of humanity which we all know to be of genuine integrity and love. David Williams was large in life, even larger in death. He is among the finest human beings many of us have ever known.

So much love and emotional energy are in the Temple church today, which is part of the full measure of gratitude to God for who David was among us and what we will miss about him. But, I want to assure all here that death’s invasion into our ranks last Friday did not destroy the spirit of this man, the power of his story, the constellation of sacred memories, and, especially, the immortal gifts and glory of his life.  Our trauma makes us feel what we know of him belongs more to the dead than to the living. But there is a God-bearing reality and truth that says nothing can separate David or us from the love of God.I had lunch with David last November. I shall always treasure those moments. We met to transition the leadership of our Nashville Chi Boule to him. He told me that he spoiled Gail and the children with his love. Gail told me the other day they spoiled David with their love. The truth, on either side of the debate, is the rich fidelity of this beautiful family. David even forced a date and courtship for his sister-in-law, and twenty-some years later, a marriage and four children.

I asked Samantha what she thought was the most significant thing I could say about her Dad. She answered, “There are many things, but the one I think about most is how much he loved my Mom.” I want to talk about The Essence of David Williams, II—His Gifts and His Glory. Everybody has a David Williams story. Someone capturing the impact of David Williams on the many lives he touched requires the writing of several book volumes, and even then, someone’s story would be left out. And the glorious life of this man is still not fully captured. Well, so much for this eulogy. Gail, you are the best eulogizer of the life of your soul mate of 30 plus years.  There is in the Gospel of John, Chapter 16, words biblical interpreters label as the farewell discourse of Jesus to the disciples. The disciples had become disturbed about Jesus’ announcement of His death, and, even more perplexing to them, of having to live in a new life space without Jesus. Here are fragments of what Jesus said to them.

20 Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 22 Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. 23 Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

And then, in verse 33, Jesus speaks a word of rare courage and confidence about His reality:

I have told you these many things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

 Another translation says, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Gail, I courageously deposit what is at best in these words a paradox—good cheer amidst grief, a mixture of pain and good hurting love, trauma, and triumph in this moment of a dark, emotional impasse. But, no matter the thickness and dark night of grief, it does not diminish the essence of David Williams. The shattering construction of death is no match for the humanity and integrity of the life David lived across 71 years. Jesus’ words are not speak-easy escapism from reality.  In them is the liberating victory of an indomitable spirit beginning in Detroit, and, on last Friday, death discovered it could not destroy. We are all trying to figure out how to live in a new life space without this incredible man. Thus, many say: What a tremendous loss.

The disciples of Jesus were perplexed in the same way. Jesus meant so much to them. He gave them the freeing integrity of truth and moral imagination, and vision to guide them to alternatives they could not imagine. Rome, at the time, took up all of life’s spaces. Imperial power covered the social landscape, building barriers to human flourishing.  No one, through the centuries, had come through the line of the prophets with a blueprint for a sustainable life alternative. Jesus stepped into that space with the integrity of God, and the world has never been the same. It is too hard to imagine life spaces without David Williams. As the disciples were unprepared for Jesus’ farewell discourse, it devastates us that we, and especially the people who loved him most, could not say goodbye the way they wished.

But, David left us 71 years of a farewell discourse he has been writing all his life. In his farewell discourse, there is a Detroit chapter of overcoming the hard realities of race and culture and urban contradictions. There is a Gail Williams chapter, a life-partner, and a marriage as deep as love and as long as life. There are Erika, David, Samantha, and Nicholas chapters, the children, in whom he felt there was nothing greater in the cosmos than the God-reality which gave them breath and spirit in the world. David was an undeniable lover of students, an unashamed son of a mother and father who stamped his spirit with sensibilities of Africa and African American heritage. His gifts from them and to us are enormous.

David Williams was an overcomer, a conqueror even over all that sought to defeat the integrity of his life. The public caption of a trailblazer does not capture the essence of David Williams.  A Vanderbilt achiever, among the best in his profession, does not fully capture the essence of this man or the sense of being that characterized him. An evolving and deepening integrity put David Williams on a higher substantial plane than a university secretary or the accolades of an unprecedented sports administrator. He was much more. Gail and the family knew another human genius dwelling in the spirit of David. David was the David who knew how to change life spaces, make them brighter, hopeful, and to bring the best of love out and in them.

There was about him a costly loyalty that could not be bound by race claims, superiority claims, or even narrow cultural or superficial religious claims.  Walking in the integrity of Godly parents, the Christian love of two educators was on display before him, and doing what is right had the greatest claim on his life. No flair. No frills. No flamboyancy. Impressing folk with external decorum was not his thing. Just a simple man who had profound commitments to simple justice and the good he could do for others. I could stop here, but something begs acknowledgment. God notices such integrity. God sees Moses-type integrity. God sees Jesus-type integrity. God notices David Williams-type integrity, notices the costly loyalties of self-sacrifice. People like David deposit love in life spaces and fill those spaces with new being and meaning. The unselfish giving, the love for risks taken for justice in our life spaces is David’s gift from God to us. These gifts were more magnanimous than any of the stages upon which David Williams stood.

God has a sense of humor. God dressing David up in university credentials and intellectual grab, coming to Vanderbilt with Gordon Gee and improving diversity and inclusion. But, hidden in this academic grab is a layman with the character of a social prophet. None of us, or David himself, would put that label on him. David did not talk a whole lot about Jesus, but he sure did act like Jesus. Different than those who talk a good Jesus game but have little to show for justice and mercy towards the least of society. But, David had a giant-sized capacity for operationalizing the integrity of justice everywhere and every place touched by his life.  His gifts left a blueprint for shaping and changing institutional habits with love and justice, making a place for everybody, transforming university environments, SEC sports, and legal cultures. It was a blueprint for how to walk with and in integrity every day. It was a blueprint etched in the DNA and the dignity of black manhood wrapped in divinity.

There was an interconnection of integrity and basic trust that was his commanding presence. When he walked into any room, people intuitively were drawn to notice his presence. Many came to trust his integrity. David was going to tell you the right thing to do. Even at the level of institutional concerns, he had no concern for a hierarchy of power; but he weighed in on a hierarchy of service at every level for justice. Titles did not impress him; justice and service did.  David lived this way because he saw Nicholas, Samantha, Ericka, and his eldest son, David in everything he did. It was all about the kids—creating new life spaces for them so that they could create new life spaces for themselves and others. And, oh, how they turned out to represent the best of him and their mother. And, not only them, a multitude of student witnesses will tell us David Williams was a dad to them.

Earlier, I said David had the character of a lay social prophet. He had a mixture of humility and courage, rage, and righteousness against the wrongs of racism and gender discrimination. There was no compromising of his righteous rage because he knew that racism and gender discrimination destroy the dreams of kids. In the documentary about his life, David said there is a place for everybody, and we need to be about everybody. He talked about Billie Jean Smith, who in high school could run faster than boys on the track team. Those boys went on to college while Billie Jean Smith took a factory job because of unfairness in systems for women athletes. David never forgot Billie Jean Smith. He told her story to teach law students the legal implications of Title IX. Whether they were student-athletes or kids in the public school system, David leveraged his professional genius and passion for justice to work on a new agenda to improve education, cultural competence, life skills, and academic excellence, and to shape and expand the capacities of young people that they might flourish and transform life around them.

It was more than inspiring student-athletes to bring their “A” game to the court or the field. David knew, as Martin Luther King Jr. understood, that character plus intelligence is the goal of education. Now, David came to know what an “A” game really means. He and his high school friend once concocted a story to tell their parents that they did not receive their report cards because both had done poorly. But David’s parents were school teachers and knew differently. Big Dave told little Dave, “You are stupid.” From that moment on, David understood that stupidity and integrity do not go together. This is a life lesson so many need today. David knew his black heritage was a toolkit for educating student-athletes with life lessons of integrity. He took this existential burden into the classroom and the SEC sports culture in order to pass this kind of integrity on to the next generation.

Creating new life spaces is tough business.  Integrity is very serious work. Sometimes you must be subversive. As Jesus instructs, you must have dove-like humility and the wise tactics of a serpent. It involves investing our deepest love and costliest loyalties into what matters. It calls you to look for something to love and to love you, something to value that gives you value, something to honor and respect that has the power to sustain a sense of new being. This is what David Williams was all about. David’s family knew this best about him. All these public accolades are nice; national attention is ok. But the bottom line is, David was David. David was going to be David on any stage, no matter what, loving wastefully and with abandon.

An article about David said that, two years ago, he came up with the idea to take a group of students, faculty, and staff from Vanderbilt on an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day trip at the expense of the Athletic Department. He chartered a plane and took the group to Washington, D.C. to visit the African American Museum of History and Culture. He chartered a bus to Memphis where student-athletes visited the National Civil Rights Museum, and the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The article’s author asked: How many athletic directors would spend athletic department dollars for a day like this, chartering planes and buses to expose student athletes to the sacred memory and history of black humanity?

David did it because he kept close to and never left the integrity of his heritage. But, also, he did it because he did not want student-athletes with a Vanderbilt degree to be stupid about race, the uncritical, complicit candidates for supremacist privilege and values. David had a righteous rage against the masquerading forces of racism. Students found strength in the integrity and love of this man. They sought his counsel and comfort to avert their fears and trusted his wisdom about future possibilities they could not fully imagine.

This is the farewell discourse of David Williams to us. Churches, universities and public institutions ought to take his lead if they are to create new life spaces, as David did.  They must come out of the camouflaged domains of bias, domains of false piety, and the elite domains of privilege, and put justice in the spaces of injustice, equity in the places of inequities, and compassion in spaces where suffering, pain, and injustices are real and block human flourishing for all. This courageous giant of the human spirit felt, perhaps, his most impactful action was the Perry Wallace reconciliation with Vanderbilt, the first black Vanderbilt and black SEC basketball player. Before Perry Wallace died, David brought Perry Wallace back here to help heal the wounds left by that toxic past of racism.  

Jesus said:  In the world you shall have trouble, but take heart. Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world. Well, I say “be of good cheer.” David Williams is an overcomer. He was constantly finding ways to dismantle barriers that separate people from one another, always alert to that which prohibited, blocked, or denied access to our deeper humanity.

Be of good cheer!

He enabled many to see the possibilities of their own humanity. Life defined by love, not seeking to elevate oneself or to justify himself was David. Love freed him to give himself away. A life so open, so free, so whole, and so loving overcomes the world.

Take heart and be of good cheer!

David did not care about praise or enhancement by the praise of others. David neither sought it nor was he diminished by criticism. Integrity of being is not something one does; it is something one is. When we experience that kind of God-bearing life, we want it to be with us always.

Oh, but take heart! Be of good cheer!  

This was his essence; but what of his glory? W. E. B Dubois would put it this way: He was part of “the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history, his heritage reaching back to the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of his mother continent…They descended into Hell; and in the third century they came from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen.”

Take heart! Be of good cheer!

David overcame the political adversity of the Detroit riots, personal vulnerability, yet achieving excellence under the hardest of conditions, finding love and integrity when racial hate paraded streets of the nation, falling in and out of love, cultivating his own novel ways of faith and worship, stressing over the fate and fortunes of his children. David overcame.  

Take heart! Be of good cheer!

Circumstances out of human control got dramatic last Friday. Embarrassed about a retirement party, David did not really want to go, suddenly his body yields to its fate.  But, at that moment, he drops the mantle of his humanity to his children and to us before he took flight for a greater glory. We have had and will have bouts with God about why. But when such qualities of spirit infuse into our life spaces, there is a glory that never leaves. This is what Jesus was saying to his disciples. You will be comforted and find counsel in the divinity My life reveals. I am going, but there is unity, love of God in Me that, though I am absent from the body, I will be present in Spirit. And when that Spirit finds you, it will turn your grief to joy, heartache into victory.

When David Williams responded to questions on how he felt about coming back to his home town of Detroit after many years, he said: “I never left.” In your heart Gail, David says, “I never left.” In your heart Samantha, “I never left.” In your heart, Nicholas, Erika, and David, “I never left.” In the grandchildren, the in-laws, and the matriarch of this family, “I never left.” So, like the ancient patriarch, Joseph, took up the bones of Jacob back his Judean roots, take up the bones of David Williams back to Detroit. And when your heart aches for his presence, when you need the counsel and comfort of the great God of all comfort, He will tell you, “I never left.”        

Eulogy delivered By Dr. Forrest Elliott Harris, Sr.

10th President of American Baptist College (1999 to Present) and Professor, The Practice of Ministry, Vanderbilt University Divinity School; Director, Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the African American Church. At Temple Church, Nashville, TN, on Friday, February 15, 2019. Funeral Service for David Williams, II—former Vice Chancellor for University Affairs & Athletics; Athletic Director, Vanderbilt University