ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a small-town pastor in North Carolina whose national profile is such that he's said to be the closest anyone in this era has come to Martin Luther King Jr. The Reverend William Barber leads demonstrations to protest poverty and unjust laws. In 2016, he spoke at the Democratic National Convention and was quickly recognized as perhaps the leader of progressive Christians in the U.S. And he has done this while still serving his own congregation, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: When faculty members planned a get-out-the-vote meeting at the historically black Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., they knew exactly who they wanted to keynote the event.
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WILLIAM BARBER: My brothers and sisters, we are going to have to decide in this moment.
GJELTEN: Reverend William Barber told the crowd they had to decide whether to be on the side of love, justice and nonviolence or to be apathetic participants in policies happening right now.
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BARBER: And I don't know if Republicans are going to show up to the polls. I don't know if Democrats are going to show up to the polls. But I will tell you, the sons and daughters of slaves, we better the hell show up to the polls. If we ever needed to vote, we sure do need to vote now.
GJELTEN: It's leadership like this that has Barber being compared to Martin Luther King Jr. This year, he revived King's 1968 Poor People's Campaign. Like King, Barber wanted to organize people to demand an end to poverty and injustice.
But Barber doesn't let this work get in the way of his local ministry. On the morning after his Raleigh meeting, Barber was in the pulpit at his own Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., like any other small-town preacher, asking who in the congregation had a birthday.
BARBER: Any people we missed during the month of October? All right, there it is. What day, the 10th? (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Come on, say it.
GJELTEN: It was a man in the eighth row - a white man. The congregation is racially mixed. There may be a couple-hundred people in the pews this day. Greenleaf is no megachurch. Barber knows many of his members personally.
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: So in that sense, he's grounded.
GJELTEN: Barber's local commitment impresses Marian Wright Edelman, a founder of the Children's Defense Fund. She helped Martin Luther King organize the original Poor People's Campaign.
EDELMAN: Movements come from the bottom up out of community institutions, out of local churches and local day-to-day stuff, not from the top down.
BARBER: The love of Jesus says, come, and eat. If you've been hated...
GJELTEN: Here at Greenleaf, Barber is a pure gospel preacher.
BARBER: I wonder. Is there anybody here that's ever had to sit at the welcome table? Do I have a witness here? I wonder. Is there anybody in here that your soul's been thirsty and your spirit's been hungry and you had to find your way to the table of the Lord? Do I have a witness here?
GJELTEN: Barber is a very large man who moves with great difficulty because of a rare form of arthritis that has left his backbone basically fused. It's hard for him to sit. When he is not preaching, he leans against a wooden stool. When he's driven in a car, he has the passenger seat fully reclined. The Reverend Liz Theoharis is his co-leader in the new Poor People's Campaign.
LIZ THEOHARIS: He definitely is a disabled person. I think it's really painful. And yet he marches himself up stairs, and he stands and preaches for hours on end. And he puts himself in those uncomfortable plane and car seats just to be able to keep on spreading the gospel.
GJELTEN: Barber's determination to keep going in spite of his disability and his growing national importance earned him a coveted MacArthur Genius Award this month. That label, genius, would boost the ego of many people, but Barber says his disability keeps him in his place.
BARBER: There was a time that they thought I'd never be able to walk again without a walker or being in a wheelchair, so every day is a day of grace. I know that any day, my body could shut down, so it's kind of hard for me to get up any morning with a sense of arrogance and pride.
GJELTEN: It helps as well, Barber says, to stay close to the people Jesus called, the least of these. You don't have time to worry about accolades, he says, when you're with people every day who are fighting through so much. Given his physical limitations, the time could come when Barber will have to choose between his local and national ministries. It would not be easy.
BARBER: I do not see any other reason to be alive if I'm not working to address the issue of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war, economy and to challenge this false Christian narrative that says all God is concerned about is hating gay people, for prayer in the school, for gun rights, for tax cuts when I know that's not the gospel.
GJELTEN: What Barber sees as the true biblical message may resonate with many believers, and not just Christians. He paraphrases a quote from the Book of Micah.
BARBER: What's the point of living if you're not going to do justice, if you're not going to love mercy and if you're not going to walk humbly before God? What's the point?
GJELTEN: The Reverend William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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