Thursday, October 7, 2010

God's Colony in Man's World

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Bill Webber died this summer at age 90. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, the former Helen Barton, as wells as by two daughters and three sons, eleven grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren.

He was one of the greatest of the “greatest generation.”

He went to Harvard on a basketball scholarship. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and planned to go to law school, but World War II intervened and he enlisted in the Navy instead. It was during the lonely night watches as a gunnery officer that he decided to become a minister. After the war he went seminary and then earned a Ph.D. from Columbia.

His wife told the New York Times that he had not been a pious person before he decided to enter the ministry. I don’t think he ever was a pious person, certainly not in any conventional sense. As she told the Times, he went into the ministry to make things better in the world.

He was one of the founders of the East Harlem Protestant Parish in 1948. The church was an ecumenical venture of the Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and other Protestant denominations and undertook a ministry with the people of East Harlem.

His experience in East Harlem led to several books, the most famous of them being, “God’s Colony in Man’s World.” It was a classic (maybe the classic) text on what it means to be the church in a secular world. He went on to become President of Union Seminary for many years and continued an activist ministry. His work in Social Justice led Yale to present him with an honorary doctorate in 1981, citing him as “a prophet for the cause of justice.”

I only met Bill Webber once. One summer Sunday, maybe thirty years ago, he was preaching at the Craigville Retreat Center on Cape Cod. His granddaughter, he said, had challenged him about the title of his famous book. “Did you really write a book called ‘God’s Colony in Man’s World’?” she had asked with all the righteous indignation of an eight year old feminist. He confessed that he should have had a more inclusive title.

When I read of his death, I found myself reflecting on his book.

Now perhaps more than ever, Christians are called to be “resident aliens,” as the book of Hebrews describes us. If we are faithful, our values and ideals will often be at odds with the world. We are called to be outposts of the Kingdom of God. Like our ancestors in the faith, we are called to be independent of party labels, ideology, and even the nation. We are called to be, in Paul’s words, “in the world but not of the world.” We are God’s colony.

In this age of political polarization, when so much of the debate is toxic and the purpose and ministry of the church are so easily misunderstood, we need to remember who we are and whose we are.


  1. One thing law school did for me and likely does for many others is provide an exposure to many things and offers a safety net if their true passion doesn't work out.

    school grants

  2. Aliens only if we dare to love as a central law to what we do, say, and think. Too often the Church has been shaped by the notion of being persecuted. It seems that some teach that the more persecution you bring on yourself the more righteous you are. We should not become a holy bubble in communities. We need to find a way to burst that bubble and spill Gods Kingdom around us. Persecution may come of that but atleast we will have started from the right angle. Once again I think you've hit the nail on the head!