Questions of Faith is a series of discussions with Knoxville religious leaders, exploring their viewpoints on faith and spirituality.
Name: Rev. Dr. John Butler
Title: Pastor of Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church
Thoughts on Faith: “My faith leads me to understand ... the one who would be the leader would be the chief servant.”
For the Rev. Dr. John Butler, faith is larger than one person. It encompasses the entire community.
“I think we’re called to carry the cross into the community. When I first came into the ministry one of my mentors said, ‘Your parish is the community,’ and that’s how we’ve always approached our faith commitment—is to understand a community of faith extends beyond the four walls of the church,” he says.
Butler, who is the pastor of Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church, grew up in Greensboro, N.C., and was born right as the civil rights movement took off there. He grew up listening to speakers like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and he listened to preachers at two different churches his family attended at different times (a Baptist church and a Pentecostal church) when he was a child. “I always felt the power of the orator,” he says.
Though he wound up in the AME Zion church by happenstance—his wife preferred it to the Baptist church he was attending when they married—Butler says it is the “freedom church.”
“It’s the church of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. These were people whose faith—it led them in lives of community, even though we call it civil rights. It led to lives of changing the community. That’s really how I saw the church. I grew up in an era where the church was very involved with changing its community, being agents of change and advocates of justice. And that’s how I envision living my life, and here the Lord gives me a vehicle to do that.”
Butler began preaching in the 1990s after completing a training for the AME Zion church, attended Hood Theological Seminary in North Carolina, and led churches in Greensboro and Asheboro, N.C., and, finally, Knoxville. After graduating from Hood in May 2007, he arrived in Knoxville. Two years later, he was appointed the district elder and is in charge of helping nine churches succeed in their ministries.
But before he became a minister, Butler had been a member of the Army National Guard in the 1980s. He then became a social worker in North Carolina, advocating for seniors in Reidsville. In the middle of the Desert Storm operation in Iraq (Butler never deployed), he gave his first sermon on the third Sunday of January 1991. But after speaking at church, he wondered how he could continue to be both a soldier and a spiritual leader. Weeks later, he ruptured at tendon in his knee while playing basketball and was rushed to emergency surgery within a couple hours of the accident. During his recovery, he had an epiphany.
“I was on the couch, and nobody was at home with me. The Lord said to me—and it was an audible voice I heard. When I first told someone, they said it was because I was on pain medication!—the Lord said to me in an audible voice, ‘I want you to lead men to Christ, and not to war,’” Butler says.
But the military was still paying a salary, and the church wasn’t, so it wasn’t until November 1991 that he finally left his job in the National Guard.
Butler’s approach to leading his church effectively has always been one of community involvement, and an issue that hits his community hard is HIV/AIDS.
“I’m currently the chair of the Faith Coalition, which is a group that coordinates the national week of prayer for the healing of HIV/AIDS. We just participated in the Faith Walk, and we’re working to help our community to be receptive and sensitive and love and caring towards those who are infected and those who are affected by HIV/AIDS,” Butler says.
He’s also the head of a local ministerial alliance of black ministers who support each other’s ministry and impact their communities in a positive way. And Butler was just recently named the president of the local NAACP branch.
“There are so many needs that our community has that we try to help, not based on any of the demographics people care about—race, creed, orientation, socio-economic status. We show mercy, we show grace, we seek God’s justice,” Butler says. “God has been so gracious to us, and we treat people as God has treated us. Jesus gave so many stories, but the one I really think about is the prodigal son. That whole text is about the lost and found. That God seeks those who are lost. And the Good Samaritan story—we don’t leave [people] on the side of the road because of what they may have done in their lives.”
Butler doesn’t leave anyone behind. He says he models his daily life on how Jesus lived every day: “Jesus woke up, and said I must be about my father’s business. If Jesus was going somewhere, need found him,” he says. And Butler leads by example. Every day, he addresses the needs he finds in his community by acting as a leader and showing his neighbors and people in authority positions are called to serve just as much as anyone else.
“My faith leads me to understand that the one who would have authority would be the one who would live up to the responsibility of that authority. The one who would be the leader would be the chief servant,” he says.
To Butler, the essence of his faith is devoting his life to serving people. He once heard someone (he can’t remember who) say, “Faith without work is dead. Faith is the plow horse and your work is the plow. A plow horse without a plow is useless. And a plow without a plow horse is ineffective. We have to have faith, but we also have to have work if we want to be useful.”
But at the heart of Butler’s faith and work is grace—God’s grace for him, and his grace toward others.
“By grace, through faith, we are saved. What drives me is God’s amazing grace, so that as I work with, and serve, others, I’m constantly reminded of God’s grace for me. He looked past my faults and saw my needs, therefore it’s not difficult for me to look past others’ faults and see their needs,” Butler says.