Zan Holmes looks back on career that influenced many
6/14/2002 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn
NOTE: Photographs are available with this story.
A UMNS Feature By Paul McKay*
By Paul McKay*
In his first year of seminary at Southern Methodist University, Zan Wesley Holmes Jr. was young and ambitious - and so gifted that professors predicted he would go far.
He was also something of an angry young man - so angered by a racist episode that he witnessed on a Dallas street that he vowed he would do all in his power to combat racism in his ministry.
Now 67, he is freshly retired after a 43-year ministry as one of United Methodism's most influential pastors. He has been a powerful voice for justice, a mentor of countless ministers and public figures, and the leader of one of the most dynamic congregations in the church. He is so prominent in Dallas' religious and political circles that he has been hailed by one speaker at a citywide tribute as "not only the great pastor of St. Luke 'Community' United Methodist Church of Dallas, but the pastor of this city, and one of the great pastors in the world today."
Such status is quite an achievement for a man who turned his back on God and the church in his undergraduate years at the traditionally black, United Methodist-related Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas.
"My father was a Methodist pastor, so I was raised in parsonages in Waco and Austin," Holmes recalls in an interview, after making his retirement official at the North Texas Annual Conference in Dallas on June 4.
"I did go through some rebellion when I got to college. I was a musician and got involved with a band in Austin. I stopped being a regular churchgoer. We had big plans for the band."
The Lord, however, had other plans for the preacher's son, who moved to Dallas and enrolled at SMU's Perkins School of Theology right out of college.
Holmes is fond of recalling the story of the first time he preached, an anecdote he included in his book Encountering Jesus, published by Abingdon Press.
"I was doing my internship at St. Paul Methodist in Dallas, and the pastor was a man named I.B. Loud," Holmes says. "His name was quite appropriate. I was sitting by him during the preparation hymn on Sunday morning when he leaned over to me and said, 'It's yours this morning, Zan. You're in the pulpit.'
"I had no idea he was going to have me preach, and I was petrified. My mind went totally blank. I'd been preparing a sermon for a class and I gave what I'd prepared for the class and then I ran out of words to say," he says. "I was angry with Dr. Loud. I was angry at the Lord for even calling me to ministry.
"The funny thing is, the text of the sermon was on Jesus asking God to take the cup from him if it was God's will. I wanted God to take the cup from me!
"But then a lady in the congregation shouted, 'Help him, Jesus!'- and with the congregation's help, I got through it. I've always said I learned my lesson from God, who taught me that you can never finish a sermon without the Holy Spirit. I also learned the value of a congregation's encouragement."
Confronting an 'evil system'
Holmes experienced the episode that would define him and his ministry in the first year of seminary. One night, when he was in his one-room apartment in the segregated, south end of Dallas, he jumped up and rushed to the scene of a nearby traffic accident after hearing the crash.
At the scene of the wreck, he found a black man bleeding to death on the side of the road. Four white men - two ambulance attendants and a pair of police officers - stood idly by. "Why aren't you helping this man?" young Holmes pleaded.
As it turned out, the four whites were waiting for a "black ambulance" to arrive at the scene and take the victim, who died, to a hospital. Local law at that time, in the 1950s, prohibited "white ambulances" from transporting blacks.
"I looked in the eyes of those white men, and I could see the guilt and the shame in the eyes of them all," Holmes recalls. "I could tell they felt bad about it, but we were all bound by the ugly system of racism. I was just as bound by the system as they were, because they couldn't do anything - and I couldn't do anything either. We were all bound by an evil system.
"I felt angry. I felt helpless. I vowed right then that I was going to use my ministry to overcome that ugly sin of racism. That incident has always been the barometer by which I have measured my ministry and measured progress in changing the system. It's the reason I've always been there when changes were being made in the city of Dallas and in the church. It's why I worked so hard for desegregation in Dallas. It's why I've worked against racism in the church. I've been a part of every effort to overcome the evil of racism."
Through the years, numerous black officeholders in local and state positions-including former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk-have found political as well as spiritual formation from Holmes and his congregation at St. Luke "Community" United Methodist. The Dallas Morning News once described St. Luke as "one of the most politically connected churches" in the state.
The Rev. George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, says that when one speaks of Holmes, "you're talking about a wonderful preacher, a powerful communicator of the Gospel and a person who walked with seeming ease through both the corridors of power and the streets of powerlessness. He was a steady presence in the midst of unsteady times socially, racially and culturally in Dallas."
In 1968, Holmes was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the Texas Legislature, and subsequently was elected to another two-year term, on the Democrat Party ticket, without opposition. He was one of only two African Americans serving in the Texas House of Representatives at the time. (Famed Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan of Houston was serving in the Texas Senate.)
After state law was changed to ensure that blacks could have fair and equal representation in the legislature, Holmes returned to Dallas to serve as a district superintendent. In a twist of fate, he was district superintendent over his father, after his father moved to Dallas, and over I.B. Loud.
Building up St. Luke
When Holmes began his career, he set his sights on serving a large congregation.
"I was young and crazy and had an 'edifice complex' when I came out of seminary," he says with characteristic wit. "I had always fully intended to get myself a large church. I mean, I told God he needed to get me a great big church. That's why I say I had an 'edifice complex.'"
Even though there was speculation, and outright expectation, in the city and the local press that he would be the first African-American pastor of the all-white First United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas, Holmes was passed over for the coveted appointment.
What he got instead was St. Luke "Community" - a struggling church with 50 members meeting in what Holmes describes as "a little old run-down building of a church."
St. Luke also had such a money shortage that Holmes had to hustle employment on the side as an associate professor at Perkins to support himself and his first wife, Dorothy Burse Holmes, now deceased. Together with a core of devoted lay members, the couple built up St. Luke, which today has a large sanctuary, 5,000 members and more than 100 ministries.
All the while that he was building up St. Luke, Holmes stayed on at Perkins, where he supervised interns for four years and was an associate professor of preaching for 24 years. He also made his name nationally in the church as the host of the video series in United Methodism's popular and effective Disciple Bible Study.
"Pastor Holmes teaches, preaches and lives out the creed that everyone is welcome at God's table. His daily charge to St. Luke was to be a community of believers who wouldn't let the 'isms' of society - classism, sexism, racism, etc. - repress our ministry to the world," says the Rev. Shonda Jones, assistant pastor at St. Luke and director of student services at Perkins.
"Upon me joining the United Methodist Church from another denomination over six years ago, he quickly became my mentor because he truly lives and embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ in his message of inclusion, justice and peace," she says.
Holmes says he wouldn't trade his 27 years as pastor of St. Luke - a church that stresses a balance of personal salvation and social service - for anything.
"I didn't know at the time, when I was so dejected and depressed at being appointed to little St. Luke and getting rejected for the appointment to First Church downtown, that little St. Luke was the big church I wanted so bad," Holmes says. "I learned something important from the experience - I learned that God has no such thing as a little church."
In his farewell sermon recently at St. Luke, Holmes told the congregation that "when I die, I expect to be brought back to this place, this St. Luke 'Community' United Methodist Church."
Years ago, he warned the congregation in another sermon to guard against the trappings of rapid growth. "When we think of church growth," he said, "we should remember that there is a difference between growing and swelling. One is healthy. The other is dangerous."
Despite retirement from "active" ministry, Holmes is booked for preaching and speaking engagements through 2005. He also plans to write more books, expand his jazz music collection and do some traveling with his new wife, Carrie Holmes. "I've been twice blessed to have had two very wonderful and loving women in my life," he says.
He is passing the St. Luke pulpit on to the Rev. Tyrone Gordon, a much-acclaimed Kansas preacher who was once one of Holmes' students at Perkins. "I don't feel like I'm filling (Holmes') shoes; I can't," Gordon says. "I feel like I'm fulfilling his legacy and taking it to another level. He's made the transition so smooth that it won't be difficult."
The Holmes will divide their time between homes in Dallas and Los Angeles, where they will attend Holman United Methodist Church.
With a grin, Holmes adds: "We might occasionally be putting in some time in Las Vegas in my appointment to the ministry of retirement." # # # *McKay is a free-lance writer living in Dallas.