It would have been easy to get caught up in the moment.
Standing near the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team’s Mobile Ministry Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday night, chaplain Kevin Williams easily could have been distracted by the SWAT teams moving in or the angry protesters now staring directly at him.
The protesters, a diverse group of people with different causes, had shown up for the City Council meeting. It was a tense gathering, during which many called for the resignation of both the mayor and the police chief for their actions in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting. Throughout the meeting, one team of crisis-trained chaplains was inside Charlotte’s city hall praying, while another group—Williams’ team—was outside ministering to passers-by.
Williams was stationed near the Mobile Ministry Center, set up across the street from where the meeting was taking place. About an hour into the meeting, he noticed more than 250 people had mustered. They were chanting and marching the wrong way up a one-way street, the same street Williams and his team of five chaplains were standing on.
Police shouted an order for the crowd to clear the street, but protesters yelled in unison, “No justice! No peace!”
“As they’re marching up, they’re getting closer to us and the police are giving them orders to disperse out of the street, and nobody is complying,” said Williams, manager of emergency response and logistics for the Rapid Response Team. “As they passed [Marshall Park], they get right about where our Mobile Ministry Center is and the leader of the LGBT [group] shouts out as they’re marching, ‘Stop right here!’
“And they all turn.”
The woman looked right at Williams. At that moment, Williams wasn’t paying attention to the protest itself. Nor did he lock in on the SWAT team assembling in the background or the transit buses that had pulled up full of police officers in riot gear.
“For me, it was just such a pretty picture of the cross,” Williams recalled, noting the protesters were surrounded on three of their four sides by police. The chaplains just happened to be on that fourth side. “Right in the middle of all this anger and rage and hurt and trauma and pain and confusion, and they turn to focus on us (carrying the message of Christ). They didn’t care what the lawful orders were.”
Police issued a final order to clear the street, and the protesters complied. The majority of them shifted over to Williams’ side. The woman apparently leading the charge, now practically in Williams’ face, started yelling. She talked about discrimination and unfairness and hate. Williams, a former correctional officer, didn’t get caught up in the heat of the moment. He leaned on the Lord and zeroed in on the pain behind her words.
“Through her hostility and anger, she set the stage. Everyone got quiet,” Williams said. “All the police are on the backdrop just watching. All of the protesters silenced down while she made her point.”
When she was finished, she asked Williams, “What do you have to say about that?”
“I said, ‘Well I’m glad you asked. I just want to tell you and everyone here that for over 60 years the [Billy Graham Evangelistic Association] ministry has only had one message. A simple message that God so loved the world that He gave His only son. Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
She fired back, still angry but softening some. The exchange afforded Williams another chance to share John 3:16 and how it applied to her, too.
“Some of the protesters were slowly walking away, and then finally she just leaves,” he said. “But, what I noticed in her going off was she was a lot more peaceful than when she came.”
By focusing on the simple message of God’s love, the situation had been diffused. The transit buses parked nearby full of riot-ready police weren’t needed. The protesters dispersed, and the police moved in to keep the streets clear for safety.
“I really felt the Lord was saying it was time to go, so we broke down (the Mobile Ministry Center. We got everything set up to leave, and everything was peaceful enough for us to drive through,” Williams said. “In less than 10 minutes, the heavens opened up and it rained. It rained for hours.”