I’ve bumped into some interesting nicknames during my life. Because I was tall and thin, friends used to call me “string bean.” My best friend in high school was known as “Dirty Eddie” – which is a whole other story.
But how would you like to be known as the “Conscience of Alabama”? For many years now, that has been the descriptive nickname for Wayne Flynt.
For nearly 40 years, Wayne has confronted the racism and accompanying poverty in Alabama with a courageous and informed passion.
Using his skills as a historian and a disciplined analytical mind, Wayne has chronicled not only the effects of poverty, but also its sources.
Rooted in an unjust and overtly racist constitution, fueled by powerful vested economic interests, the “least of these” in Alabama have been systematically held in a subservient way of life that is nothing short of embarrassing.
And Wayne has made no small bones about this issue in a so-called Bible Belt state.
He is quick to point out that the Bible has more than 2,500 references to God’s concern for the poor and the needy – the widow and the orphan in our midst.
For a region to claim for itself to be the buckle of the Bible Belt, while at the same time to so egregiously ignore the needs of the needy, well, the conscience of Alabama finds that unconscionable.
Wayne’s memoir, published by the University of Alabama press and which is about to be released, details his pilgrimage through these concerns. The title captures his true motivation: “Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives.”
Having known Wayne for nearly 20 years, and serving as his pastor for the past seven years, I can say with some certainty that his concern for the plight of the poor is almost entirely informed by his faith.
Growing up in poverty, and near poverty, has the effect of creating sensitivity about the pain of poverty. But Wayne took matters a few steps farther.
Not only does he chronicle what it feels like to be poor, but he also discloses the insidious powers that lie behind our economic system that not only create poverty, but that also work to keep the poor in their place.
It is saddening to learn how much the prosperity of some depends on the dearth of others.
Of course, poverty is not Wayne’s only concern as he sketches out the contours of his prophetic and professional career.
He also spends a considerable amount of space detailing the failings of higher education in Alabama, especially as it relates to college sports.
Probably no area more reveals America’s preoccupation with misplaced priorities than does sports. We spend millions of dollars on football and football coaches while highly trained and skilled public school teachers hardly make enough to sustain themselves and their families.
We make millionaires out of sports stars while English teachers have to work summers at department stores in order to pay their mortgages.
Wayne is relentless in exposing the injustice, if not the foolishness, of these values.
His reward, for all these decades of prophetic critique, is to have earned the ire of big business, vested interests and, of course, university luminaries.
The amazing thing for me, in the midst of all this, is to have experienced Wayne’s humility.
For a person who has had the courage to take on the powerful economic interests in Alabama, and the powerful interests of higher education, he remains an unassuming and soulful individual.
Wayne does not fight the battles he fights for personal gain or self-advancement. He fights these battles because he believes these are the battles that need to be fought – especially by people of faith.
Jesus said, apparently on more than one occasion, “Blessed are the poor.” He said these words because the wisdom of his day kept saying that the poor were poor because of their own sin.
That myth continues right into the present. The poor are poor because they choose to be poor.
But Jesus knew it was not true. He knew, as people like Wayne Flynt know, that sometimes people are poor because they are victims of unjust economic systems that favor the wealthy and the powerful in our midst.
And to the extent that we participate in blaming the poor for their poverty, we make it possible for the privileged around us to protect their privilege and keep the least of these in their desperation.
According to Wayne Flynt, it is ordinary people of faith, who keep the faith, who have the best chance of changing this.
It has always been so.
JamesL. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, where Wayne Flynt is a member and Sunday School teacher. Flynt was honored by the Alabama Poverty Project on Aug. 23, 2011, at a special event in Birmingham, Ala.