Editor's Note: The Rev. John Thomas submitted this special summer article in honor of the life of Bill Weber, minister and leader in education in the UCC.
Turning Losers into Winners
Wednesday’s New York Times featured a front page news story about the death of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. The article, lavishly accompanied by several pictures, continued across a full inside page and was followed by an editorial, two op ed pieces, and a couple of human interest pieces by columnists on the sports page. You don’t have to be a New Yorker or a Yankee fan to recognize that this man left a large imprint on the game of baseball, transforming a famed franchise that had lost much of its luster into the dominant sports empire in the country if not the world. Along the way Steinbrenner developed a well earned reputation for vindictiveness and volatility. He was, as the Times headline put it, “the man who hated to lose.” For Red Sox and Indians fans who regularly watched their teams done in by “the evil empire,” he was the man we loved to hate.
Most readers probably paid little attention to a much more modest article on the obituary page noting the death of Bill Webber, United Church of Christ minister and long time leader in theological education at Union and New York Theological Seminaries. During the post-war suburban sprawl of the churches, Bill and his friend Don Benedict (later of Chicago’s Community Renewal Society), founded the East Harlem Protestant Parish which ministered among the poor neighborhoods adjacent to Columbia’s and Union’s more affluent Morningside Heights. Generations of seminarians were introduced to the challenge and reward of urban ministry through this work, many of them going on to influence other seminarians when they moved into their own leadership roles in theological education.
Bill became president of New York Theological Seminary at a time of financial challenge and transition. He recast its mission and its educational model, providing theological education to men and women rarely served by more traditional schools. His most daring innovation was to offer theological education to men incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility north of New York City. Two hundred men convicted of serious crimes earned master’s degrees while in prison. Many have gone on to serve in a variety of church and community based ministries after their release; many others carry out their ministry in prison where they continue to serve life sentences.
Like George Steinbrenner, no one was ever in doubt about where Bill stood. His prophetic voice was clear on the critical public issues of the day whether it be war, racism, or poverty. Unlike Steinbrenner, however, Bill’s judgments were always delivered with his broad, trademark smile, and with a kind of holy playfulness that tried to love us toward our better natures. I suspect George had a kinder and gentler side revealed to family and close friends. Bill’s was always there for the rest of us to cherish. Bill and his wife Helen, a long-time leader in the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, were treasured by many of us as saints who set the moral compass of the United Church of Christ for decades.
In an odd way, George Steinbrenner and Bill Webber shared one core passion. They both were about the business of turning losers into winners. Over the years Steinbrenner made many young men fabulously wealthy, earning them fame and fortune far beyond the expectations of their often modest and sometimes harsh childhoods. I don’t know that Bill ever made anyone wealthy. Seminary presidents really aren’t in that kind of business. But to a man serving a long sentence in prison, including some who will never set foot outside its walls, earning a seminary degree was undoubtedly more important than a championship ring. One of the men graduating in 1993 was quoted in the Times saying, “I’ve come from so very low, and this is very high for me.” Another said, “I no longer consider myself the island that I was.”
Running a successful major league franchise and keeping a small free standing theological school relevant and afloat are not easy tasks. Bill’s leadership serves as encouragement to many of us who struggle to make theological education cutting edge today amid tough financial challenges. More than that, he turned society’s notions of winners and losers on its head in much the same way we see Jesus doing it in the Gospels. If theological educators do nothing more than that, we will have gone a long way toward producing real all stars. Thanks, Bill, for leading the way.
John H. Thomas