John Shelby Spong is the controversial former Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, USA. In his autobiography he tells of his days as a student at the University of North Carolina. There he met a man who had a large influence on his life, David Watt Yates, rector of the university Episcopalian church, the Chapel of the Cross. Spong describes him as “a unique human being, and a single man in every sense of the word. A militant low churchman, a courageous, if not always inspiring, preacher, and a man of deep convictions, he was a total abstainer form alcoholic beverages and a dedicated pacifist.” When WW2 ended churches across the country were filled with people giving thanks. Reverend Yates led his congregation not in a  service of thanksgiving but in prayers of repentance for having taken up arms against fellow human beings. Spong comments, “Some people came that night with gratitude in their hearts and left with enormous hostility. David Yates, however, was undeterred.”

Yates’ ferocious integrity also led him to publicly and frequently speak against the evils of racial segregation. This often upset members of his congregation – at that time many churches in America preached that racial segregation was the will of God.

Another influential figure in Spong’s university years was his professor in philosophy, Louis Katsoff. Katsoff was a committed atheist. When Spong told him he had taken philosophy to help prepare him for his goal of becoming a priest Kastoff “conveyed to me that Christianity was a helpless hangover from another age and that I should not waste my life”.

Years later Spong, now an ordained priest, returned to the Chapel of the Cross to speak to a men’s meeting. To his great surprise he saw Professor Katsoff there – no longer an atheist but a baptised and committed Christian. He went to visit Katsoff at the Professor’s home and during conversation asked how it was he’d been converted. “David Yates finally got to me” Kastoff replied. Now Spong was even more surprised. “How could that be?” he asked. “You can think rings around him.”

“David didn’t outthink me” Professor Katsoff replied, “he just outlived me.”

 

Source: reported in John Shelby Spong, Here I Stand (HarperCollins, 2000), pp49-52.

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