Only about 200 people typically worship each Sunday at the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., but as many as 40,000 others follow the service via Facebook livestream.
That huge online following reflects the growing fame of the Greenleaf pastor, the Rev. William Barber. A passionate preacher, anti-poverty activist, and civil rights leader, Barber has emerged as perhaps the most important figure in progressive U.S. Christianity, even while serving his small local congregation. This month, he was one of 25 Americans to be awarded a coveted MacArthur "Genius Grant," with a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 over five years.
Barber, 55, has been the senior pastor at Greenleaf since 1993, but it has only been in recent years that he has gained a national following. As the leader of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP, Barber in 2013 launched the weekly "Moral Monday" demonstrations outside the state capitol in Raleigh to protest the enactment of restrictions on voting rights and a ban on transgender people using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity rather than biological sex.
In 2016, Barber electrified the Democratic National Convention with a thundering prime-time speech, calling on activists to be "the moral defibrillator of our time" and "shock this nation with the power of love!"
Princeton professor Cornel West, in a blurb that year for Barber's book The Third Reconstruction, said he was "the closest person we have to Martin Luther King, Jr. in our midst."
Barber himself sees it as his mission to continue King's work. Earlier this year, he and the Rev. Liz Theoharis of Union Theological Seminary revived King's 1968 Poor People's Campaign, organizing nonviolent protests around the country to demand living-wage laws, education equity, voting rights, universal health care, and an end to mass incarceration. On the day he learned of his MacArthur award, Barber was arrested in front of a McDonald's in Chicago, where he was leading a demonstration for a higher minimum wage.
Still a small-town pastor
King gave up his local Alabama ministry in 1960 to devote his energies mainly to national work, though he continued to serve as co-pastor and occasionally preached at his father's church in Atlanta. Barber, meanwhile, attends dutifully to the needs of his own small-town congregation while maintaining his outside activism. Within hours of returning from an anti-poverty demonstration in Kansas, he visited a parishioner in Goldsboro who was in critical condition and facing surgery. The next day he delivered the keynote speech at an "Awakening" meeting in Raleigh, focusing on the importance of voting, only to race back to Goldsboro immediately afterwards to preside at a wedding.
"My doctoral degree was in pastoral care," Barber explains. "I don't know how to be a pastor and not be concerned about the things that impact my own congregation. When I'm fighting for health care, I think about the people in my own congregation who have pre-existing conditions and will die without health care."
Having served his Greenleaf congregation for 25 years, Barber knows the members personally, and his Sunday morning services have an intimate small-church character.
"Is anybody celebrating an anniversary? How about a birthday?" Barber asked as he opened worship on a recent Sunday. When a man in the eighth row stood up, Barber led the congregation in singing, "Happy Birthday."
His local commitment while simultaneously leading a nationwide movement has impressed Marian Wright Edelman, who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the original Poor People's Campaign and then went on to establish the Children's Defense Fund.
"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," Edelman said. "So in that sense, he's grounded."
Living with disability
Barber's activism is all the more notable because he suffers from a debilitating and painful form of arthritis that has basically fused his vertebrae, making movement difficult. He is not able to turn his head from side to side, and he has trouble sitting. When he's driven in a car, he needs the passenger seat to be fully reclined. At a worship service or rally, while waiting his turn to speak, Barber leans against a wooden stool. At 6' 2" and with a heavy frame, he needs a cane to walk.
"He definitely is a disabled person," says Theoharis, his co-chair in the Poor People's Campaign. "I think it's really painful [for him], and yet he marches himself up stairs and stands and preaches for hours on end. He puts himself in those uncomfortable plane and car seats, just to be able to keep on spreading the gospel."
In speeches and conversation, Barber often quotes a verse from the book of Micah: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
For some people, being recognized as a "genius" might make it hard to "walk humbly" but Barber insists that will never be his problem.
"There was a time when they thought I'd never be able to walk again without a walker or being in a wheelchair," he says. "So every day is a day of grace. Every day is a day of humility. I know that any day my body could be shut down. So it's kind of hard for me to get up in the morning with a sense of arrogance and pride."
From his rallies on the national stage to his local ministry, Barber moves smoothly between political and spiritual messages. At the "Awakening" meeting in Raleigh, held at the historically black Shaw University, Barber challenged African-American leaders to mobilize their communities in preparation for the mid-term elections, citing the civil rights struggles carried out decades earlier.
Politics as a spiritual practice
"We've been through too much," he said. "We've fought too much. There are certain moments in time when you just have to say, 'We're not going back.' 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," he hollered. "But I will tell you, the sons and daughters of slaves, we better the hell show up to the polls."
The next day, in his Greenleaf sermon, Barber took a softer, more personal approach, emphasizing the peace that comes through faith.
"The love of Jesus says, 'Come and eat,'" he repeated, over and over. "If you've been broken and need to be fed some restoration, come and eat! If you've been misunderstood and maligned and you need mercy, come to the holy mountain, come to the house of prayer. Come and eat! Come and eat! Come and eat!"
Once finished with his sermon, Barber made his way unsteadily to the side of the sanctuary. He said he could not get to the back of the church to greet the worshipers on their way out, but he invited those who wanted to speak to him to come up to where he sat.
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.
"I do not see any other reason to be alive if I'm not working to address the issues of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy," he says, "and to challenge this false Christian narrative that says all God is concerned about is hating gay people, prayer in the schools, gun rights, [and] tax cuts, when I know that is not the Gospel."
Asked what he plans to do with the MacArthur grant he has just received, Barber says he was told the award was given not for what he had done, but what he had the potential to do.
"I just intend to keep going," he says, and then he returns to the words of the prophet Micah. "Otherwise, what's the point of living, if you're not going to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God? What's the point?"
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "SOUND & COLOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.