The Rev. Dr. Willa Fae Williams (MDiv ’93) was honored Tuesday, May 3, 2011, as a 2011 Distinguished Alumna of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She received the award at a luncheon, which was part of the 2011 Festival of Theology and Reunion
events, hosted on the campus, May 1-4.
The award recognizes graduates who have influenced the Church and society through outstanding professional, volunteer, or philanthropic accomplishments while enhancing the mission of Louisville Seminary, and thereby, the Seminary’s contribution to the Church and future seminarians.
“I really thought they had the wrong Williams,” said the pastor of Louisville’s historic Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church in her words of acceptance. “I can tell you very sincerely that I do not think for one second that what has been happening with the Portland Avenue Church and the Portland community ministries is about me.”
“It’s about the people in this congregation opening their hearts and their minds to the needs that are all around them and not hesitating to go and to do and to be whatever God directs them to be.”
That’s the ethic that drives Williams, who has served the church, which is located in one of the poorest and most troubled areas of the city, since 1997. As pastor, she has helped the church lead at least 14 outreach ministries serving the poverty stricken community, believing that “[Portland] is a 21st century American mission field at the most fundamental level.”
This was echoed further by Alumna Deborah Uchtman (MDiv ’04), who introduced Williams and recounted how the congregation of about 85 people also leaned on Williams’ pastoral leadership as it struggled through the loss of its historic church building to fire in January 2009. With vision, Williams has been leading the Portland church back from the brink of destruction. Today, the church is awaiting a new facility that is being transformed out of an old Kroger’s grocery store and will be used for worship and the church’s outreach ministries.
“It’s about God’s much bigger plan for the Portland community,” she said.
Williams knows all too well about the movement of God and the Holy One’s bigger plans. She was in her 50s when she enrolled at Louisville Seminary to prepare for a new career and calling. Williams said she had spent 30 years teaching mathematics, quipping that she was a “living testimony that old ladies do go on and on and on!”
Yet seminary was what God wanted for her, and Williams followed. She fondly recalled several of the professors who aided her in her journey, including W. Eugene March, A.B. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, and Kathryn L. Johnson, Professor of Historical Theology and the Paul Tudor Jones Professor of Church History.
Williams, who also holds a Doctor of Philosophy in music history from Oxford University, England, and a Bachelor’s and Master’s in music from the University of Louisville in organ and music theory, said she would go to any class at the Seminary taught by Dr. March just to hear him pray.
“That experience made my day better. It taught me a lot about prayer,” she said. Also, “I would take any class Kathryn Johnson taught. Kathryn Johnson walks among the greatest teachers there ever were.”
Life-long experience, plus her time at Seminary taught Williams “that if you have a listening heart and your mind in gear at the same time, it really doesn’t matter if you agree with the other person; you have a sound basis from which to start talking.”
That knowledge has served her well with residents in the Portland neighborhood, who include drug addicts and the seriously mentally ill, said Williams, who also has served as a field education supervisor for seven Louisville Seminary students since 2000.
“The world is filled with God’s people, and every person that you meet is carrying a burden and has a need,” she said. Despite the front they may put on, “it’s still there. Stay in the real world.”
“Ministry is about the message and people who need to hear it. It’s so simple; why do we make it so difficult?”
2011 Distinguished Alum awards were also presented to Chaplain Colonel Brenson P. Bishop (’95); The Rev. James H. Brown (’58), and Dr J. Michael Efird (’58).