(March 31) The life of the Rev. Canon William Barnwell, a crusading, liberal, Episcopalian priest who died March 27 of (suspected) coronavirus in New Orleans, could teach lessons we all should apply as we respond to the current contagion.

Barnwell was my friend, just as he was a friend to many other conservatives despite political disagreements. He had a rare ability, as described by journalist Jed Horne in a March 29 obituary: “He could read a room — and immediately begin putting together people he thought might be good at energizing each other in common cause.”

He could quickly discern which subjects were ones on which you and he would never agree and push them aside forever. He could figure out which things were negotiable disagreements and bank them in his mind for later, cordial discussion. But with just a few probing questions or suggestions, he would find common ground on other topics and immediately home in. How could that agreement be turned into concrete action — and how quickly? And crucially, how could it be organized and leveraged to be most effective? He wanted discernible results, not merely feel-good fulminations or worthless wheel spinning.

Barnwell had a manner and a voice perfectly suited for social-service organizing. He had a pronounced Southern accent but not of the twangy variety caricatured by Hollywood: It was a soft and erudite-sounding accent, welcoming, combined with a remarkably mellifluous tone.

Also, if Barnwell had the liberals’ habit of too eagerly ascribing evil to systems, organizations, and corporations, he also had the radically Christian insistence on seeing only the good in individuals — even ones who appeared irredeemable. As he said in a sermon using the famous Dostoevsky character as a touchstone: “We are not the vile puppets that the Grand Inquisitor imagines. No: We are creatures made in the very image of God. And we can live the way we were created to live, especially with the help of a loving community.”…

[The rest of the column is at this link.]



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