I was planning to write this column about public education when I learned about the Dec. 11 death of the Rev. Willis T. Goodwin.
It seems the reverand’s death has been met with relative nonchalance. At first I thought that perhaps I’d been living in some sort of vacuum since I hadn’t heard anything of Goodwin’s passing. Now I don’t think that is the case. In my opinion, the local media just didn’t focus on the story.
And that’s unfortunate because Goodwin’s contribution to this community is immeasurable. The United Methodist Church minister had been at the forefront of every socially progressive initiative in the Charleston area that I can think of.
I was introduced to the Burke High School graduate while on assignment for my first reporting job years ago. My editor wanted a story about poverty on Johns Island. Goodwin was my contact.
I spent a day driving around the island with him. In that pre-development era, poverty on Johns Island was so bad it reminded me of a third world country. I was impressed by Goodwin’s compassion for the people who lived there.
Unlike a lot of handkerchief-head preachers I know, Goodwin wasn’t a guy who only talked the talk; he walked the walk. He was the kind of guy who took action.
Realizing the island’s predominantly black poor needed more than mere attention, Goodwin helped organize Rural Mission Inc., a nonprofit multi-social service agency, in 1969 and later Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corp. to provide health care services to island residents in 1972.
Saving bodies and souls was Goodwin’s trademark. Wherever he went — to churches in Greenville, Bamberg, Easley, Sumter, and Kingstree — he took with him a ministry of social and economic service. While his death may not have gotten widespread media attention, I’m sure it was met with a real sense of loss among the thousands of those whose lives he touched.
The brother was totally committed to helping the poor and disadvantaged in this community. I’ve seen pictures of a youthful Goodwin fresh out of Atlanta’s Gammon Theological Seminary leading civil rights marches in Charleston. He was an active member of the NAACP at a time when membership could cost a black man his job. He often said being paid by the church gave him the freedom to address issues many wouldn’t dare. Years before his retirement in 2001, Goodwin started contacting local farmers and merchants asking for food the poor. He bought a pickup truck to haul donations to folks in the Charleston area.
Goodwin didn’t limit himself to helping local communities. Some 20 years ago Goodwin began an annual pilgrimage to Liberia to help victims in that civil war-torn country.
After retiring, Goodwin continued working as pastor of Washington UMC in Charleston and as a senior advisor at the South Carolina World Trade Center. Unlike some folks I know who are members of various boards and commissions too numerous to ever be effective, Goodwin actively worked in all his affiliations.
Although some current and future generations of Charlestonians may never know of Willis Goodwin, they will reap the benefits of the seeds he’s sown.