Several times over the years, the Rev. W.W. Finlator called me after he had read something I had written. Suffice it to say I was always flattered when Bill Finlator took the time to offer kind words of praise and support. Usually, Finlator would end the call with a comment that made me feel 10 feet tall. "Remember, Patrick, I'm on your team," he would say.
For me, Finlator's calls were an affirmation of God's love because in my mind, William Wallace Finlator, who died July 3 at age 93, was a prophet, a man who fearlessly spoke truth to power and did so in a spirit of genuine love.
While Finlator will likely be most remembered for his commitment to justice and peace, for his opposition to war, racism, capital punishment, oppression and sin, I will also remember Finlator for possessing a measure of warmth I have never seen in anyone else. Finlator, who lived through the Great Depression, was always joyful in his activism, far less cynical than my generation of activists. When he met you, Finlator would look you straight in the eyes and smile. He always asked about your family, your work, your life, never speaking about himself. In that moment, Bill Finlator was your best friend.
Last December, I called Finlator to ask him to be an expert witness at the trial of the Aero 14, the peace activists who were arrested last November at the Johnston County Airport in an anti-torture protest. Finlator was apologetic. Frail and unsteady on his feet, the retired Baptist minister told me he wanted to be there, but he just wasn't up to it.
"No problem, Bill," I told him sincerely. About 10 minutes later, my phone rang. It was Finlator calling back. "I have to be there," he told me. Finlator said he talked things over with his wife, Mary Lib, and he was coming to the trial. My neighbor Duane Adkinson, himself the son of a Baptist pastor and a longtime admirer of Finlator, agreed to pick Finlator up and drive him to and from the trial.
When I called Finlator as a witness, Johnston County Assistant District Attorney Ann Kirby, who was prosecuting the case, was delighted. Her father, a Methodist minister, knew Finlator.
"Is Finlator really here?" Kirby asked me excitedly. When I answered "Yes," Kirby said, "If you keep this up, Patrick, I'm going to have to switch sides."
Anyone who knew Finlator probably has a story like that to tell. In fact, that's what a lot of folks did July 7 at W.W.'s funeral at Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, where Finlator served as senior pastor from 1956 to 1982. Pullen was packed with the most diverse crowd I'd ever seen in a church: Christians of every variety, as well as Muslims, Jews, Native Americans and nonbelievers. A video monitor was installed in an adjoining chapel to accommodate the overflow crowd.
After the funeral, a group of more than 150 people returned to the sanctuary to share their memories of Finlator. Wake County Commissioner Harold Webb spoke of the leading role Finlator played in promoting integration in North Carolina's public schools. State AFL-CIO president James Andrews noted that Finlator was the official state AFL-CIO chaplain. Andrews said Finlator's contributions went far beyond delivering the invocation.
"The Rev. W.W. Finlator came into our convention and often set the tone for our convention," Andrews said.
Lena Epps Brooker, the first Native American graduate of Meredith College, told of joining Pullen and forging a lifelong friendship with Finlator. "He hugged me when I graduated," Brooker said. "He said to me, 'You will do good things,' and I believed him."
The Rev. Charles M. Smith, an administrator with the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, recalled a lecture Finlator delivered at Duke Divinity School when Smith was a student there. Finlator, then a leader in the Civil Rights movement, assured the young divinity students they could do "marvelous things" from the pulpit if they won the trust of their congregation.
"The price for it was that you had to be a really marvelous pastor," Smith quoted Finlator as saying.
Finlator was also a great admirer of the late Catholic peace activist the Rev. Philip Berrigan. When Berrigan spent time in jail in North Carolina in 1993 and 1994 stemming from a Plowshares protest at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, I remember Finlator's mad dash to the federal building on Raleigh's New Bern Avenue so he could greet him as the U.S. marshals' van carrying Berrigan pulled up the day of the Plowshares' first court appearance.
Later, Finlator asked me to ride with him to Elizabeth City to visit Berrigan and Berrigan's three codefendants. I treasure the memory of returning with Finlator to the city where he was pastor at First Baptist Church before coming to Raleigh. In fact, First Baptist also held a memorial service for Finlator on July 7, even though Finlator served there 50 years ago.
In his comments about his predecessor, Pullen senior pastor the Rev. Jack McKinney said Finlator was "one of the most loved--and most despised--North Carolinians of his day," as well as "one of the most gracious and decent human beings I have ever known."
Pullen copastor the Rev. Nancy E. Petty praised Finlator as a "man who lived on the edge, who risked all in the name of the Gospel."
Appropriately, the General Assembly passed the minimum wage act during the funeral. The Rev. Martha Henderson of Chapel Hill left Pullen during the reception so she could join a protest against the recent Israeli bombing raids in Gaza, something she said Finlator would have supported.
As Mary Lib Finlator left the funeral, she said to me, "What a joyful thing for my Bill. He was special."
"Yes, indeed," I replied.
W.W. Finlator is now a saint and intercessor from his perch in heaven, and I'm glad to still be on his team.
Patrick O'Neill is a longtime contributor to the Independent Weekly and co-founded the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner.