When a White Republican Teen Invited a Black Pastor to Preach in His Hometown

Two men stand in front of a glowing church, with the silhouettes of protesters behind them
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two men whose lives were altered by a chance encounter. When he was a teenager, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove heard Reverend William Barber II preach, and invited the Black pastor to speak at his majority-white, strongly Republican high school. They fell out of touch for a time, and, when they reconnected, worked together to build a multiracial “fusion coalition” to influence North Carolina politics. They discuss how they connected in spite of their different backgrounds, and the role that friendships like theirs can play in advocating for change and building political movements.

The Friends:

Reverend William Barber II, 57, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit focused on morally driven public policy, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and co-author of The Third Reconstruction. He lives in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, 39, a Baptist preacher, moral activist, and co-author of The Third Reconstruction. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: What was going on in your lives at the time that you met?

Reverend William Barber: A lot.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: I was 17 years old. I had grown up in tobacco country, North Carolina, in an all-white Baptist church. Along with the culture of the place, I associated my Christian faith with right-wing politics. I was an earnest kid, and I wanted to do all I could for Jesus, and I thought that meant I needed to become president of the United States. So I had gone to Washington, D.C., and I had paged in Senator Strom Thurmond’s office in the fall of ’96.

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When I came back, I was very disillusioned. I had been told about how people were representing our values and standing up for Christian faith, and that was not what life in a senator’s office seemed to really be about. It was mostly about lobbyists coming in and saying what their interests were, and trying to keep wealthy people happy.

Reverend William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove march with Poor People's Campaign co-chair Liz Theoharis and Women's March founder Linda Sarsour outside the U.S. Capitol in 2018 (Stephen Pavey / Hope in Focus)

I wanted to find another way to be Christian in public. When I heard Reverend Barber preach at an event in North Carolina—that’s where I first met him—I immediately recognized someone who shared my faith, but who lived it out very differently than I had ever seen.

Reverend Barber: When I was 16, 17 years old, I had attended that same legislative event for young leaders. I was the first African American elected to serve alone as student government president [at my school]. So I had been in that space years earlier, and I was invited back to speak. I don’t remember the totality of the speech. I think that I told a story of the bumblebee.

Wilson-Hartgrove: I remember the bumblebee. “According to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly.”

Reverend Barber: The wings are too short; body’s too big. And yet, he does. And then I’d talk about how communities can rise. We don’t have to remain stuck in places of injustice.

After that, the young folk wouldn’t let me leave. These two guys come up to me—one tall and lanky, and one short—and they introduced themselves as having come from King’s Mountain. And they said they wanted me to speak at their graduation.

Wilson-Hartgrove: There was a tradition of having a worship service before the graduation.

Reverend Barber: The moment that they said where they were from, I knew the history [of the Ku Klux Klan in that area]. So I humored them. I said: “Okay, if you get an invitation, I’d be glad to come.” I had no intention of going. But sure enough, I get a call, and then I’ve got to put up or shut up. I asked my brother to go with me.

It was hot. They didn’t have air conditioning in the gymnasium. I looked in there, and I saw absolutely nobody that looked like me. But Jonathan and [his friend] ran over and hugged me. I’m being nice to them, but I’m cautious.  

Wilson-Hartgrove: Later, I came to understand that Reverend Barber had really risked something in order to respond to that request. I was a little naïve. I thought I was just finding a good preacher to come preach. It didn’t occur to me that he was coming to Klan country, and that that was dangerous.

Reverend Barber: I think I did a piece on the Good Samaritan. I mentioned racism that night, I believe. At the end it was quiet, but also I could feel something. There was something there.

Afterward, Jonathan’s mother said, “I want you to come by the house; I want you to come have a rainbow-bread sandwich.” What in the world is rainbow bread?  That meant we were going to have to stay up there way past dark.

So I went down, and of course she had this colored bread, and she had ham, chips, mayonnaise, and pickles. And then we started talking. I think we ended up staying till about 10 that night.

Beck: After that, you guys fell out of touch for many years, right?

Wilson-Hartgrove: We were out of touch because I was out of the state. After I graduated from high school, I lived in Germany, and then I went to college in Philadelphia. Like many people that age, I was reflecting on my own life. And in that process, I came to realize how important the vision of faith and action in public life was, that Reverend Barber had shared with me. That’s how I ended up joining a Christian peacemaker team and being in Iraq during the Gulf War. Ultimately, my wife and I came back to North Carolina to start a hospitality house. Coming back to North Carolina allowed us to reconnect.

Wilson-Hartgrove and Reverend Barber teach together at the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

Reverend Barber: [Someone came up to me] and said, “You remember Jonathan Hartgrove? He wrote about you in his book.” He wrote about the banquet speech, and what it had meant to him. And then I read about him going to be with Iraqi people when we were bombing them. He was with Muslims, trying to say to them: “All of us don’t hate you.” And then he became my hero. We began to reconnect and go deeper.

Beck: So this could just be the story of a stranger who changed your life, Jonathan, rather than the story of a friendship. After you heard him preach, that could have been it.

Reverend Barber: We were both being changed. The first 30 years of my life, everything I had touched turned pretty much to gold. Then I ended up in the hospital with ankylosing spondylitis. It had done damage to my spine and my left hip. I came out using a walker, and went back to work pastoring. I went through some depression. I heard people say ugly things like: “What is he doing visiting people [at the hospital]? He should be in the hospital himself.”

The night I met Jonathan, it meant a lot that they came up to me and did not see the walker. They didn’t say, “Wow, we’d better leave him alone. Looks like he’s crippled; he might not be able to do it.” They just acted as though I was normal.

I had another disability: I grew up in a family that had to face racism. I know the stories of my mother being called “nigger.” The experiences of my life made me very cautious when it came to my white brothers and sisters. I wonder: What if I had said no [to the graduation invitation]? What if I had given into legitimate caution? In essence, we were both being transformed in ways we did not recognize until many years later.

Beck: What was it like for you to reconnect as adults, since Jonathan was very young the first time you met?

Wilson-Hartgrove: Reverend Barber became the president of the North Carolina NAACP, and in that role, he began building a fusion coalition. Basically, he was proposing a way of changing political life in North Carolina based on what I had seen in his willingness to befriend me. He was saying that Black folks and white folks and brown folks, poor folks, have a lot more in common than we’ve been led to believe, and that we needed to work together to build coalitions that could take control of the state government.

Reverend Barber: In late 2006 we brought together organizations that dealt with education, economic issues, LGBTQ issues, labor issues, and environmental issues, and antiwar activists. We came up with a 14-point agenda, and had a massive people’s assembly to endorse this agenda. Jonathan was there. In a sense, we re-met for real back in the street, building this coalition. We did win the next year—on same-day registration and early voting extension.

Wilson-Hartgrove: The next election came around, and North Carolina voted for Barack Obama—and that broke the Solid South. That really began to change the dynamics, and that’s when we started seeing pushback.

Reverend Barber: Our coalition later became Moral Mondays [a series of protests at the North Carolina state legislature beginning in 2013].

Wilson-Hartgrove: Extremists took control of the legislature and the governor’s office. Then they attempted, in the 2013 legislative session, to completely remake the government. They reformed the tax code; there was a huge voter-suppression measure. They attacked unemployment.

And here was a people’s movement that had been organizing, that had expanded voting rights, and it wasn’t represented by the people who were in office. So we decided that we had to do civil disobedience.

Reverend Barber holds Wilson-Hartgrove's youngest son while signing a list of demands outside the North Carolina state house (Courtesy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

Reverend Barber: Jonathan was in the second group of arrestees for Moral Mondays.

It was a fusion group [again]; it wasn’t just Black folk. I was holding the hand of a white Jewish lady, and I heard one of the white legislators say to another guy, “I thought the NAACP was coming. Where are all these white people coming from?” People began to see interconnections. They said, “Wait a minute—these same people that are going after voting rights, they cut money for education, which is hurting us in these mountain areas.” And so forth and so on.

Wilson-Hartgrove: You couldn’t dismiss it as one group, or as radicals who were angry. It was hundreds and then thousands of people showing up and taking direct action to challenge the legislature. Really a classic southern revival.

Reverend Barber: It continued to grow for four years and was successful. At the end of the four years, not only did we win in the court on voter suppression, but the governor that signed all that stuff, we sent him home.

The lessons that Jonathan and I learned years before helped me get over my fears, and helped him grow. If I had held onto those fears, or if he didn’t grow in some ways, then maybe we would not have been together in this place to see this kind of southern revival with this social-justice connection rise.

Beck: What role do you think friendship plays in re-imagining the world, and what role has re-imagining the world played in your personal friendship?

Wilson-Hartgrove: This year has laid bare many of the inequalities that the coalitions we’ve been part of have been trying to highlight for years. We’ve been talking about systemic racism. Here comes a virus that if you’re Black, you’re three times as likely to get it and twice as likely to die from it. In the richest nation in the world, we’re living with extreme inequality.

Fusion friendships allow people to realize that there are people they’ve been told are not like them who are experiencing very much the same thing, and who want many of the same things. We’ve been helping those people link up. A huge number of people don’t vote at all and have been pushed to the margins of the system. But if they got organized, [that could] make the new world that we can imagine actually possible.

Reverend Barber: Our friendship is not just friendship. This friendship is rooted in faith; it’s rooted in being frank with one another. We talk very honestly about issues. It’s not just “Kumbaya,” and it’s not friendship that ignores reality. It's friendship rooted in a desire to make things go forward. It’s friendship that drills deep into what faith means. What does it mean to be friends in a faith where the ancient prophets say things like: “Woe unto you who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights”? It calls you to challenge the greed and the idolatry of the world even if it means risking your own life.

Our friendship tells us you can’t make assumptions. Just like he couldn’t make an assumption about me, and I couldn’t make an assumption about him when he was 17. It is unlikely to think that someone who was trained by Strom Thurmond would end up being like brothers with me, my father being a civil-rights activist. But also, we are not a novelty. One of the great problems of American society is that we don’t tell that story. We don’t tell the stories about Dr. King and the white pastor that helped him in Montgomery. We don’t tell the story about the two white folks that were deep friends with Rosa Parks, who sent her to be trained before she sat down [on the bus]. And it’s to our detriment.

Wilson-Hartgrove: This kind of friendship also allows for us to defend against what has probably been the most consistent obstacle to transformative change, which is that when people cry out—whether it’s Black Lives Matter, or the issue of poverty, or issues of environmental injustice—there’s always folks in power who will say, “Well, that’s an extreme movement.”

When I hear white people saying that about Reverend Barber’s [message], I’ll go all the way to the mat arguing that my friend Reverend Barber is the most committed advocate for poor white people that I know. It makes it pretty hard to drive that wedge of racial division when you can give evidence that folks are working to lift up everybody.

Reverend Barber: Our friendship says this stuff is not, for lack of a better metaphor, just black and white. It has layers, it has complications, it has twists and turns. But if you hang in there, you can build something that has power and strength and can survive the test of time. You can move from acquaintances to friends to brothers.

My friendship and my family-ship with Jonathan has been of immense importance to my life. I lost a brother: my baby brother. But when he died of colon cancer, I was not without a brother.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.