Nashville - Michael Williams passed from this life on March 19, 2018, at the age of 67. He was a pastor in several churches in the Nashville area, most recently West End United Methodist, before retiring last year. He was also a preacher, writer, poet, storyteller, playwright, teacher, singer (after a fashion) of old songs, a lover of cats, and the kindest man many of us ever met, although he could be fierce as an advocate of the poor or oppressed. Quite a few folks knew him as the best friend they'll ever have. He was a mentor to many others. As for everyone else, even if you only met him once, well then, you were Michael's friend, too.
Michael started out life in Murray, Kentucky, but the family "home place" was at Land Between the Lakes. A graduate of Vanderbilt, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Northwestern, Michael had all the degrees, but he was proud of his country heritage and never hid it behind his education. He was a fervent defender of Appalachian culture and the dignity of its residents. His stories and sermons often featured a neighbor known as "Granny" or his Aunt Minerva.
Michael was a talker and seemed to remember everything he had ever read. His wife, Margaret, says he was a savant. She even specified what kind of savant, but there's no need to get into that kind of detail. He could (and would) talk about everything from Aramaic and Torah to poke sallet. He could speak at an exhibit at the Frist on Friday, read poetry in a tavern on Saturday, and teach nursing students how to better listen to their patients on Monday. With his theatre background, he was known to recite long Shakespeare soliloquies, and not just the famous ones, either.
He could listen, too. Michael was like Mr. Rogers with a grown-up vocabulary. Compassion and empathy just flowed out of the man. His hugs were legendary, if a little scratchy. Michael's gentle spirit probably accounts for the fact that kids loved him. That, and the fact that he actually got down and listened to them.
As a preacher, Michael was unique. He could weave together a story about King David, a mobile home, and a mayonnaise jar he dug up behind his garage, and you would still be wondering halfway through Sunday dinner how he transformed those things into a gospel of Christ's unconditional love, mercy, and inclusion. And in a nutshell, that's what he preached every time - that there's room for everyone. Michael walked the walk, too. He fed the hungry, worked for the disadvantaged and marginalized, and loved everyone who wandered into hugging range. If Margaret had ever let him near the debit card, there's no telling how much he would have given away.
Many people around the country know Michael primarily as a storyteller. He was good at it, too, as evidenced by his being the featured storyteller at Jonesborough and winning the liar's contest at Mule Day in Columbia. He became the Storyteller in Residence at Martin Methodist College after his retirement. At least that's what he told us.
Michael authored several books about preaching and storytelling, as well a number of published poems, including a collection of his poems that received the prestigious Academy of American Poets Prize when he was a student at Northwestern University. In the last couple of years, he returned to his early love of poetry, publishing two chapbooks and doing public readings. Quite a few people have read and listened to considerably more poetry than they thought was healthy, because that's what you had to put up with if you wanted to be around him.
And we all wanted to be around him. When someone is that intelligent, creative, and compassionate, he's going to draw a crowd. Gentleness and kindness are underrated these days, and we all depended on Michael to supply them. He'd readily admit his shortcomings, and he'd be embarrassed by all this fuss, but the truth is that he was the best human many of us will ever know. We sure could have used more time with him, and those of us who were counting on him to preach our funerals or marry our kids are going to have to adjust our expectations. If you never met Michael, you'll just have to look for him in the kindness of everyone who loved him.
Michael leaves behind his beloved wife Margaret, his cherished daughters, Sarah and Lizzy, Sarah's fiancé, Sean, as well as a number of bowties, a few thousand books, several partly finished manuscripts and bottles of whiskey, and a host of friends who now must take up his vision of a caring and just world.
Visitation will take place on Monday, March 26 from 5:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. in McWhirter Hall at West End United Methodist Church, 2200 West End Ave, Nashville, TN 37203. Visitation will continue on Tuesday, March 27, at 1:00 p.m. A Memorial Service will follow in the Sanctuary of West End United Methodist Church at 3:00 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the West End UMC Scholarship Fund, Fourth Story Theatre, Miriam's Promise, or Project Transformation.
Published by Tennessean on Mar. 25, 2018.