From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Zan Holmes looks back on career that influenced many

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Fri, 14 Jun 2002 13:42:51 -0500

June 14, 2002 News media contact: Linda Green7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE:  Photographs are available with this story.

A UMNS Feature
By Paul McKay*

In his first year of seminary at Southern Methodist University, Zan Wesley
Holmes Jr. was young and ambitious - and so gifted that professors predicted
he would go far.

He was also something of an angry young man - so angered by a racist episode
that he witnessed on a Dallas street that he vowed he would do all in his
power to combat racism in his ministry.

Now 67, he is freshly retired after a 43-year ministry as one of United
Methodism's most influential pastors. He has been a powerful voice for
justice, a mentor of countless ministers and public figures, and the leader
of one of the most dynamic congregations in the church. He is so prominent
in Dallas' religious and political circles that he has been hailed by one
speaker at a citywide tribute as "not only the great pastor of St. Luke
'Community' United Methodist Church of Dallas, but the pastor of this city,
and one of the great pastors in the world today."

Such status is quite an achievement for a man who turned his back on God and
the church in his undergraduate years at the traditionally black, United
Methodist-related Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas.

"My father was a Methodist pastor, so I was raised in parsonages in Waco and
Austin," Holmes recalls in an interview, after making his retirement
official at the North Texas Annual Conference in Dallas on June 4. 

"I did go through some rebellion when I got to college. I was a musician and
got involved with a band in Austin. I stopped being a regular churchgoer. We
had big plans for the band."

The Lord, however, had other plans for the preacher's son, who moved to
Dallas and enrolled at SMU's Perkins School of Theology right out of

Holmes is fond of recalling the story of the first time he preached, an
anecdote he included in his book Encountering Jesus, published by Abingdon

"I was doing my internship at St. Paul Methodist in Dallas, and the pastor
was a man named I.B. Loud," Holmes says. "His name was quite appropriate. I
was sitting by him during the preparation hymn on Sunday morning when he
leaned over to me and said, 'It's yours this morning, Zan. You're in the

"I had no idea he was going to have me preach, and I was petrified. My mind
went totally blank. I'd been preparing a sermon for a class and I gave what
I'd prepared for the class and then I ran out of words to say," he says. "I
was angry with Dr. Loud. I was angry at the Lord for even calling me to

"The funny thing is, the text of the sermon was on Jesus asking God to take
the cup from him if it was God's will. I wanted God to take the cup from me!

"But then a lady in the congregation shouted, 'Help him, Jesus!'- and with
the congregation's help, I got through it. I've always said I learned my
lesson from God, who taught me that you can never finish a sermon without
the Holy Spirit. I also learned the value of a congregation's

Confronting an 'evil system'

Holmes experienced the episode that would define him and his ministry in the
first year of seminary. One night, when he was in his one-room apartment in
the segregated, south end of Dallas, he jumped up and rushed to the scene of
a nearby traffic accident after hearing the crash.

At the scene of the wreck, he found a black man bleeding to death on the
side of the road. Four white men - two ambulance attendants and a pair of
police officers - stood idly by.
"Why aren't you helping this man?" young Holmes pleaded.

As it turned out, the four whites were waiting for a "black ambulance" to
arrive at the scene and take the victim, who died, to a hospital. Local law
at that time, in the 1950s, prohibited "white ambulances" from transporting

"I looked in the eyes of those white men, and I could see the guilt and the
shame in the eyes of them all," Holmes recalls. "I could tell they felt bad
about it, but we were all bound by the ugly system of racism. I was just as
bound by the system as they were, because they couldn't do anything - and I
couldn't do anything either. We were all bound by an evil system.

"I felt angry. I felt helpless. I vowed right then that I was going to use
my ministry to overcome that ugly sin of racism. That incident has always
been the barometer by which I have measured my ministry and measured
progress in changing the system. It's the reason I've always been there when
changes were being made in the city of Dallas and in the church. It's why I
worked so hard for desegregation in Dallas. It's why I've worked against
racism in the church. I've been a part of every effort to overcome the evil
of racism."

Through the years, numerous black officeholders in local and state
positions-including former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk-have found political as
well as spiritual formation from Holmes and his congregation at St. Luke
"Community" United Methodist. The Dallas Morning News once described St.
Luke as "one of the most politically connected churches" in the state.

The Rev. George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, says
that when one speaks of Holmes, "you're talking about a wonderful preacher,
a powerful communicator of the Gospel and a person who walked with seeming
ease through both the corridors of power and the streets of powerlessness.
He was a steady presence in the midst of unsteady times socially, racially
and culturally in Dallas."

In 1968, Holmes was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the Texas
Legislature, and subsequently was elected to another two-year term, on the
Democrat Party ticket, without opposition. He was one of only two African
Americans serving in the Texas House of Representatives at the time. (Famed
Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan of Houston was serving in the Texas Senate.)

After state law was changed to ensure that blacks could have fair and equal
representation in the legislature, Holmes returned to Dallas to serve as a
district superintendent. In a twist of fate, he was district superintendent
over his father, after his father moved to Dallas, and over I.B. Loud.

Building up St. Luke

When Holmes began his career, he set his sights on serving a large

"I was young and crazy and had an 'edifice complex' when I came out of
seminary," he says with characteristic wit. "I had always fully intended to
get myself a large church. I mean, I told God he needed to get me a great
big church. That's why I say I had an 'edifice complex.'"

Even though there was speculation, and outright expectation, in the city and
the local press that he would be the first African-American pastor of the
all-white First United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas, Holmes was
passed over for the coveted appointment.

What he got instead was St. Luke "Community" - a struggling church with 50
members meeting in what Holmes describes as "a little old run-down building
of a church."

St. Luke also had such a money shortage that Holmes had to hustle employment
on the side as an associate professor at Perkins to support himself and his
first wife, Dorothy Burse Holmes, now deceased. Together with a core of
devoted lay members, the couple built up St. Luke, which today has a large
sanctuary, 5,000 members and more than 100 ministries.

All the while that he was building up St. Luke, Holmes stayed on at Perkins,
where he supervised interns for four years and was an associate professor of
preaching for 24 years. He also made his name nationally in the church as
the host of the video series in United Methodism's popular and effective
Disciple Bible Study.

"Pastor Holmes teaches, preaches and lives out the creed that everyone is
welcome at God's table. His daily charge to St. Luke was to be a community
of believers who wouldn't let the 'isms' of society - classism, sexism,
racism, etc. - repress our ministry to the world," says the Rev. Shonda
Jones, assistant pastor at St. Luke and director of student services at

"Upon me joining the United Methodist Church from another denomination over
six years ago, he quickly became my mentor because he truly lives and
embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ in his message of inclusion, justice and
peace," she says.

Holmes says he wouldn't trade his 27 years as pastor of St. Luke - a church
that stresses a balance of personal salvation and social service - for

"I didn't know at the time, when I was so dejected and depressed at being
appointed to little St. Luke and getting rejected for the appointment to
First Church downtown, that little St. Luke was the big church I wanted so
bad," Holmes says. "I learned something important from the experience - I
learned that God has no such thing as a little church."

In his farewell sermon recently at St. Luke, Holmes told the congregation
that "when I die, I expect to be brought back to this place, this St. Luke
'Community' United Methodist Church."

Years ago, he warned the congregation in another sermon to guard against the
trappings of rapid growth. "When we think of church growth," he said, "we
should remember that there is a difference between growing and swelling. One
is healthy. The other is dangerous."

Looking ahead

Despite retirement from "active" ministry, Holmes is booked for preaching
and speaking engagements through 2005. He also plans to write more books,
expand his jazz music collection and do some traveling with his new wife,
Carrie Holmes. "I've been twice blessed to have had two very wonderful and
loving women in my life," he says.

He is passing the St. Luke pulpit on to the Rev. Tyrone Gordon, a
much-acclaimed Kansas preacher who was once one of Holmes' students at
Perkins. "I don't feel like I'm filling (Holmes') shoes; I can't," Gordon
says. "I feel like I'm fulfilling his legacy and taking it to another level.
He's made the transition so smooth that it won't be difficult."

The Holmes will divide their time between homes in Dallas and Los Angeles,
where they will attend Holman United Methodist Church.

With a grin, Holmes adds: "We might occasionally be putting in some time in
Las Vegas in my appointment to the ministry of retirement."
# # #
*McKay is a free-lance writer living in Dallas.

United Methodist News Service
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