Rev. Bill McGill
Speaking from a place of authenticity
When the Rev. Bill McGill talks about the struggles of African Americans, he speaks from a place of authenticity. He grew up in the midst of race riots in the Hough enclave in Cleveland, was abused as a child by a relative, incarcerated as a young man and finally redeemed through his Christian faith. These days, McGill is a powerful voice for reconciliation in Fort Wayne. Find out where he gets his strength as we play 20 Questions.
1. When did you first feel the call?
I was a junior in high school, 16 years old. I felt there was something more that God had given me with this gift for articulation that has been ever present in my life. I talked with my pastor, Rev. Hill at Dunham Avenue Church of Christ, and told him “I’m called to preach.”
2. How did you develop your distinctive speaking style?
It’s clearly just a gift. It isn’t something I inherited from the family. It’s a rhythm that was divinely deposited within me. If there is no alliteration, there’s no preparation – so I quiet myself. That’s how the inspiration speaks to me.
3. You met Dr. Martin Luther King. How did that happen?
In 1963, I was 7. He said, “I see something in you, young man.” I’m sure he said that to a million kids. You’re trying to sow a seed of hope into them, but I clearly remember him saying it. That’s one of the benefits of growing up in an urban area. I was always around political social gatherings and events.
4. Who are your heroes?
Dr. King and Malcolm X have always been the baseline for lives well lived. Both of them assassinated at 39 years of age. The two giants of my life – there’s just no two ways about it. In tactics, polar opposites, but in commitment, equals. They sought to see America live out the premise of its promise. They were about forcing America to get beyond its rhetoric.
5. Who has influenced you the most?
My mother, Geraldine, known as Geri.
6. Why do we still have a race problem?
Because people lack integrity. We have a world that’s filled with intensity but not integrity. We created a Constitution – where allegedly Christian men sat down, had a word of prayer and developed a document that created inequities. It’s systemic, and you can’t fix what you won’t face. One of the things that makes it so difficult is that race is something you can’t erase. Race walks in the room. You can’t not know that I am an African-American man when I walk in. That’s what’s made it so hard for the majority population – soon to be the minority population – to address it. They have no frame of reference.
7. Could Ferguson happen here?
I really don’t think so. There are enough forces of goodwill in our community that it would be nipped as soon as anything began to break the surface. Ferguson became Ferguson because it was allowed to percolate over time. Our political structure is sensitive enough that it would not be allowed to boil to such a temperature. Lethal force really has to be the last thing that comes into our minds.
8. What does “faith” mean to you?
To me it is a lived-out set of principles. It is something that is both consistent and persistent. It is something that never takes a vacation. It is what frames my thinking wherever I am and whatever I’m doing. I’m always conscious that I am a representative of Jesus Christ. It is about elevation. It’s that which builds us up.
9. What does “evil” mean to you?
Evil is anything that diminishes that which is good and healthy and whole. Evil works on elimination. Evil reverses the order of things.
10. What will it take to improve minority voting participation?
I don’t know. First of all, it’s a moral disgrace to have the anemic voting patterns of people of color and specifically African Americans. The hypocrisy of the recent celebration in comparison to voter participation is a moral disgrace. You can’t have a Selma celebration, going to see a movie, and then not participate in the process. That’s appalling. I think African Americans have done a very poor job in passing on the struggle to the next generations. Our elders were so ready to move on and get beyond it that they didn’t embrace how that measure of pain would help our gain.
11. What are you working on now?
I’m meeting with lawyers, and we’re putting together a new group, called CORD - Conquering Our Racial Divisions. We intend at least quarterly to have these kinds of initiatives and activities that force people of a different race into one another’s face and one another’s space.
12. What’s your perfect day?
It starts well rested. I’m a chronic insomniac. My oatmeal is perfect, I get 6 miles in, and my church, Imani Temple, is going well.
13. What makes you angry?
Intolerance. Treat folk as you want to be treated. It’s not rocket science.
14. You experienced molestation as a child. How has that shaped you?
It’s certainly made me more sensitive. Because no matter what you achieve – going from a little guy from the Hough ghetto in Cleveland to doing the invocation for breakfast with the president there’s not many months that go by that I still don’t wrestle with that 10-year-old little guy sitting in a corner, wondering why is my aunt doing this to me? No matter how successful you become, there’s still this empty hole.
15. Has it helped you in a caring profession?
It’s pretty hard for you to shock me with your story. It also gives me a sense of affinity with those who are hurting and how difficult it is for individuals.
16. What do you dream about?
Unity. I’ve spent most of my life working toward reconciliation. I know that people can’t be reconciled because they haven’t got everything filed. We’re continuing to hold onto things that are not helpful for us. Just walking together in harmony and love.
17. What can’t you live without?
Christ in the spiritual and working out in the natural. I really am a fitness nut.
18. What’s your favorite workout?
Oh, I’m the elliptical king. Sixty minutes on the elliptical four times a week.
19. If you could have lunch with anyone, who would you choose?
Well, I’ve had breakfast with President Clinton, so if I could have lunch it would be with Dr. Martin Luther King.
20. What gives you hope?
Incidents like the (Fort Wayne Selma-remembrance) march. Here we are 50 years later commemorating Bloody Sunday, and my daughter tells me that while she and her mom are walking to the march a policeman drives up and offers them a lift. I guess there’s hope that one day we’ll really learn how to cope and start embracing unity’s rope. Little glimmers of humanity show up. The problem is they are too far apart.
First appeared in the June 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.