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Meet Thomas Lane Butts

“I have received a rather large sum of money,” he said, (which is another amazing story—but one that only he can tell!) “and I want my first gift to go to Garrett-Evangelical because the seminary provided me with the tools for effective ministry—and the seminary stood beside me even in my darkest days. I am deeply indebted to Garrett-Evangelical for all it has done for me.”

Thomas Lane Butts, a 1957 Garrett graduate, is a gifted writer, storyteller, and preacher. He was featured more than any other person on the national Protestant Hour radio broadcast. He and his wife, Hilda, reside in Monroeville, Alabama, where he is minister emeritus of First United Methodist Church.

At 83 years of age, Butts is still a powerful preacher, as the Garrett-Evangelical community learned on November 12, 2013, when he came back to preach for the first time in the seminary’s Chapel of the Unnamed Faithful. His sermon, “Celebrate the Temporary,” reminded the congregation that since temporariness and imperfection are characteristic of all human life, we must learn to live with the temporary and the imperfect or perish without them.

“If I were to ask you to tell me the one experience in your life from which you have learned the most,” Butts said, “more than likely you would tell me about one of the most painful and tragic times in your life that you barely survived. But, in time, by some strange alchemy, it became the most saving experience in your life. I believe that faith and patience can transform our pain and loss into a saving experience. I believe that in Christ there is a spiritual alchemy that changes lead into gold. I believe that because I have been there.”

Butts then shared the emotional story of his first year in ministry, how he and Hilda left the comfort of Evanston to go back to Alabama, believing their ministry could make a difference there. When they arrived and learned where they were to be appointed, they eagerly looked for the delegate from that church, whose first words to them were, “We don’t want you. You have been to school up North and you are an integrationist. We have heard that you are a communist sympathizer and may actually be a communist. We don’t want you at our church.” That was their welcome home!

A few months into his ministry Butts joined several clergy colleagues, Black and White, in signing a petition requesting that buses in Mobile be desegregated. The next day the Mobile Press Register listed the clergy names and the churches they served and wrote a scathing editorial chiding the pastors for meddling in matters that were none of their business. “To tell you that all hell broke out in my church is too mild a description of what happened.” 

The first night, the Klu Klux Klan burned a cross on the parsonage lawn; the second night a cross was burned on the church lawn; and the third night the church held a mass meeting to fire their pastor. Butts had to remind them that they could not fire a Methodist minister. They were stuck with him, and he was stuck with them. 

Church members began to withhold their money. The church could not pay the electricity bill, much less his salary—until one day a woman walked across the parsonage lawn, handed Butts an envelope and said it was an anonymous donation to the church. Inside were two $100 bills! Butts drove to a neighboring community to break the big bills into twenties—and each Sunday during the offertory prayer (with every head bowed and every eye closed) he would drop twenties into the offering plates. 

The anonymous woman came every Friday bringing anywhere from $200 to $500, so the total offering each Sunday was now surpassing the offerings before the crisis began! “We paid all the bills and all our conference claims, and no one had any idea where the money was coming from except my wife, the stranger who delivered the money, and me.  We never knew the woman’s name.  I called her ‘my angel on Michigan Avenue.’ She saved my ministry. If she had not shown up I would likely have left the ministry within the next few weeks.”

Butts concluded his sermon with these words:  “In time I came to celebrate that harrowing year, which I survived by the grace of God and God’s good servant, ‘my angel on Michigan Avenue,’ and by the strength I drew from the shadow of Garrett which followed me South. Not all experiences can be celebrated on the occasion upon which they happen. Sometimes it takes years for an experience to come into proper focus and fit in with more obvious and pleasant experiences of celebration and joy. In fact, some of the more satisfying experiences of joy are delayed, and joy comes in the morning, after the dark night, after the storm.”

When Butts attended his 50th reunion at Garrett-Evangelical in 2007, he was inspired to take out a $2,500 gift annuity with the seminary, and he has continued to take out a small annuity every year since.

Last year, however, he indicated he wanted to take out a larger annuity. “I have received a rather large sum of money,” he said,  (which is another amazing story—but one that only he can tell!) “and I want my first gift to go to Garrett-Evangelical because the seminary provided me with the tools for effective ministry—and the seminary stood beside me even in my darkest days.  I am deeply indebted to Garrett-Evangelical for all it has done for me.” 

Garrett-Evangelical is deeply indebted to Thomas Lane Butts—for his prophetic ministry, for his powerful preaching, and for his eight annuities (thus far!) which now total $100,000. May his ministry—and his stewardship—inspire others to follow his example.