The Rev. Lee Williams is looking to put some history back into watch night. “At least in my experience, and I've been around awhile in the ministry,” Pastor Williams said, watch night's origin is no longer included in the service, “even one that I preached at watch night in 2002.”
The current practice, Pastor Williams said, is that Dec. 31 watch nights are for “thinking about the next year and thanking God for the blessings and the tribulations that you survive.”
The New Year's Eve religious celebration takes place in many churches. For some, it is an alternative to a party ending one year and beginning the next. Others might honor their faith before having a secular celebration.
At the upcoming watch night service for Search Lite Community Church, Pastor Williams will give attention to watch night's origin as Freedom's Eve, when African Americans in 1862 counted down to the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect Jan. 1, 1863. Watch nights have “testimonies, praise, and worship,” Pastor Williams said. “Typically people go to their knees right before the midnight hour, [praying] individually and corporately, and then of course they rise into the next year.”
The watch night at Search Lite, a church Pastor Williams started, will be held in the main lobby of the Frederick Douglass Community Association, 1001 Indiana Ave., Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., just after the association's observance of the final night of Kwanzaa. Pastor Williams's wife, Sonya Williams, is executive director of the Douglass Association, which will celebrate its 95th year in 2014; Pastor Williams was president in the 1980s and also headed Toledo's NAACP unit in that decade.
In 2002, Pastor Williams was an associate pastor at Southern Missionary Baptist Church, and he couldn't structure the service entirely in the way he wanted. “Now I'm the pastor of my own church,” he said, “so I have the option now to tweak it and change it as an educational piece.” For Search Lite's first watch night service, he is using the same sermon title as in 2002, calling this year's message part two of “Preaching Godly Living in a World Turned Upside Down.”
“My source is just this little book which is coming apart,” An Evening with Lincoln, published in 1907, which was his grandfather's. “I started to read the actual speeches, and the Emancipation Proclamation itself is printed in here, and that gave me insights.”
Pastor Williams's message in 2002 “was about misconception and lies and how so much propaganda, including media, gives misinformation. And some people, including some in the pulpit, just lie or distort the truth. I wanted to try to tell the truth as to evaluating where we are, where we come from, where we needed to go.
“Martin Luther King's last book, Where Do We Go from Here, is one that's quoted often, but nobody ever says where are we and where do we really go from here. The whole thing has a lot to do with the unification of effort, not only with our friends but with our enemies, and the whole thing about prejudice and discrimination and racism is about ignorance, and ignorance is a tool of the devil,” Pastor Williams said.
Pastor Williams was born in Canton and moved to Toledo in 1972 when he was an Army recruiter. “I went to Fort Knox before I left the service, and I came back here and pretty much established a family, whole thing, so I was involved in the community.” Later, he moved to Phoenix. In Phoenix, he was a member of the large First Institutional Baptist Church and was one of about 40 ministers in the church's clergy caucus led by its pastor, the Rev. Warren Stewart, and working in family ministry.
After that experience, he “just didn't fit anymore into the associate minister thing” at Southern, he said, so after he returned to Toledo, in 2007 he asked for the pastor's blessing “to start out on my own,” and he planted Search Lite as a new church. He became staff chaplain at St. Luke's Hospital in Maumee in 2011. As a minister, he also is “one of the founding members of the Toledo Community Coalition, so I'm involved with that and their Changing Minds & Changing Lives forums,” which The Blade cosponsors. And he is the executive secretary of Toledo's Interdenominational Ministers Association.
With that background, he has much to say about “a world turned upside down.”