The festering wounds of racial strife in recent months have reminded me how much I miss my friend Wilmer Tracy Woodfork. Wilmer burst into my life when I was the religion editor of The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s daily morning newspaper. He submitted a book review, and eventually I published it.
Like me, Wilmer was a latter-day baby boomer. He preached a first sermon at age 19, when I was still learning the basic skills of journalism at Louisiana State University. After completing his studies at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Wilmer was ordained as a minister of the United Methodist Church.
What I most remember of Wilmer’s writing is that it often echoed James Cone’s black liberation theology. He showed many sparks of original thinking, and when we negotiated some revisions I recommended, I found a man open to editorial challenge and patient discussion.
Wilmer served briefly as pastor of St. Mark Methodist Church in Opelousas, a small city about 60 miles west of Baton Rouge. Wilmer invited his friend Andrew Young — former mayor of Atlanta, ambassador to the United Nations, and a fellow pastor — to preach at his installation. I remember two things from the day: Young was gracious, and the congregation was shaken, mid-sermon, when a man accidentally walked into a glass door and shattered it.
Wilmer died 29 years ago, stricken by an especially cruel form of cancer. What I remember most vividly about Wilmer is the kindness he showed me.
One weekend I was reeling from a romantic setback that left me uncertain whether I would ever marry. I had rarely felt so vulnerable and broken. Wilmer called me at random to invite me to a family picnic and I demurred because of my distress. He persuaded me to join him. Wilmer’s family made me feel as welcome as a long-lost brother. As Wilmer blessed the food, he asked God to send a measure of grace my way.
I write about Wilmer today because his memory stands in such profound contrast with the strife of 2017. He was born in Plaquemine, a small town across the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, known for decades as the base of a powerful segregationist, Judge Leander Perez. I expect Wilmer recognized prejudice and racism in me when I would have responded with adamant denial of either.
He became my friend anyway. He bound my emotional wounds. He broadened my understanding of his world.
I have only the dimmest memories of classmates at Woodlawn High School who harassed me because they sensed my fear. I do not remember the names of people who have pounced on personal confessions of prejudice, usually during mandated anti-racism workshops.
But I will always remember Wilmer, and his soft-spoken ability to draw me closer to God’s kingdom.