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Keeping the focus on Jesus

Oh the stories Rev. Byron Williams Sr. can tell, from hurricanes to explosions to … the interview for this article. Williams chatted with Concordia Seminary magazine over Zoom one afternoon in February from the home of one of his parishioners at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Dallas, where he serves as senior pastor. At the time he and his wife, Joyce, had been displaced for a few days during the bitter cold snap that caused widespread power outages throughout Texas including to his Dallas home. “It’s been a mess down here,” he says. Despite the troubles of the day, he wasn’t overly concerned. His faith, you see, has gotten him through much deeper valleys throughout his life.

“I think the secret for us as pastors is we have to get with God and see what God wants to do through us on any given day,” Williams says. “The Bible says there will be times like these. There are going to be difficult days. But Jesus said, ‘Be of good courage. I’ve overcome the world.’”

Williams is a Houston native, the second oldest of seven siblings. He was raised as a Baptist but became a Lutheran after marrying his wife, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter. They have two grown children and four grandchildren.

This year, he is celebrating 25 years as a pastor. Even though a woman in his church told him at age 14 that she believed he would be a pastor someday, ministry was not Williams’ first vocation.

After graduating high school, he joined the U.S. Army and served at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., and in Germany. After completing his military service, Williams took a job with Phillips Petroleum where he worked for 15 years as a machinist. At the time, he also served as a lay minister at Holy Cross and Calvary Lutheran churches in the Houston area, and as the head elder at his home congregation, Mt. Calvary where Dr. Roosevelt Gray was the pastor. “Byron was a man after my own heart. He loved the Holy Scriptures, serving others and leading people,” says Gray, director of Black Ministry for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. “I could always depend on Byron as a thoughtful and reflective leader on the issues in the church and community.”

It was during his time at Phillips Petroleum that Williams was propelled full force into the pastoral ministry.

The pivotal day was Oct. 23, 1989. That’s when a series of explosions erupted at the company’s Houston Chemical Complex where Williams worked in Pasadena, Texas. The initial blast registered 3.5 on the Richter scale, killing 23 people and injuring more than 300. It took 10 hours for firefighters to bring the conflagration under control. “I was singing a song at the time, ‘It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer,’” he recalls. “The Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, you might want to go check this out. And I had to walk, I don’t know, maybe half the length of a football field to get out of the building. When I got out, people were running for their lives and I’m glad I got out. My life was spared.”

Williams continued to work for Phillips Petroleum for another four years but the deadly explosion was a turning point: He felt God was calling him into the ministry and he eventually enrolled at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in a program for second-career pastors. In 1996, he was certified for ministry and was called to serve full-time at Trinity Lutheran Church in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

“You may not be able to trace Him but you can trust Him.”
–Rev. Byron Williams Sr.

“We were doing some amazing things there,” he recalls. “I think we had 72 people in our five choirs. We were the choir that everybody wanted to be like.” He was in his 10th year of ministry in 2005. He had yet to make the first payment on his new home when Hurricane Katrina hit, devastating the Ninth Ward and Trinity Lutheran. Many of Trinity’s members scattered, their homes destroyed. Williams and his wife took temporary refuge in Houston until they were finally able to return to New Orleans two months after the hurricane. Their new home had been spared but Trinity was not so lucky. “The organ was down the street,” he says. “The church had 17 feet, 6 inches of water inside.” The destruction to property and lives was overwhelming. Williams, after much prayer, made the difficult decision to step away from the congregation and the arduous task of rebuilding. He didn’t have the energy to start over. Hurricane Katrina “rocked my world,” he says.

Soon thereafter, he was contacted by St. Paul in Dallas, where several of his members from Trinity had been worshiping after relocating from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. It was the change Williams needed. He was called to be the church’s pastor, where he’s now been serving the congregation of 300 for 15 years. “We’re family,” he says. Under his leadership in 2019, St. Paul opened the St. Paul Christian Academy, a child care center and before- and after-school program. The church is now raising money to build a Family Life Impact Center that will provide space for activities to encourage and strengthen families of faith.

Throughout the pandemic in the last year, St. Paul has had a mix of online, in-person and outdoor services. Williams keeps the Gospel at the center of his messages to his congregation. “I tell them that in the midst of whatever may be going on in our lives, we always have an advocate,” he says. “I always try to keep the focus on Jesus and try to get them to understand that our Lord is not upset when we come to Him. He loves it.”

The pandemic has been difficult, Williams says. But he says his faith in Jesus has helped him keep looking forward to better days. “You may not be able to trace Him but you can trust Him,” he says. “That’s a phrase I use a lot. You should plan and you should put back but at the end of the day, God is sovereign and He’s really the One calling the shots. If you can wrap your mind around that, it’ll do you a world of good.”

Melanie Ave is communications manager at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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