In a dark high school auditorium in Ferguson, hundreds gather every Sunday to listen to a former St. Louis Ram who has traded in an athletic career for a life of coaching.
Aeneas Williams is specifically interested in coaching souls.
Williams is pastor of The Spirit Church, a congregation that meets every Sunday morning in the auditorium of McCluer South-Berkeley High School.
One recent Sunday, six singers took the stage. Others lined up against the platform, prepared to have those streaming into the auditorium whisper prayer requests into their ears. Up high a screen flashed the words the singers belted: “He loves us.”
And then Williams stepped out. Dressed in a light blue shirt and gray dress slacks, Williams looked professional and athletic — and a little like a savior. With his hands stretched out and his eyes closed, Williams mimicked the words sung.
For his sermon, Williams used the biblical story of the death of Lazarus as a way to focus on a message he says is too often lost: It’s not the faithful’s love of God that is important to remember, but the Lord’s love of everyone.
It’s the kind of good news some would argue Ferguson needs now more than ever, after Darren Wilson, a police officer, fatally shot Michael Brown, a young, unarmed African-American, on Aug. 9, prompting weeks of protests.
While some have been critical of the religiosity often found in American football, Williams sees stepping into his role as pastor as a calling from God he can’t ignore.
Williams, 46, began his 14-year NFL career with the Phoenix Cardinals in 1991 and was traded to the Rams in 2001. He retired after the 2004 season and settled in St. Louis. When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month, Williams spoke publicly about how God tugs at his heart.
“Some people say you got to be a Christian to know God talks to you,” Williams told the audience gathered for his induction. “No! God is talking to us all the time. So I’m telling you pay attention to the signs God’s giving you.”
After announcing that he was thinking about retiring from football, Williams says he was immediately offered a defensive back coaching spot with the Rams but quickly realized the job just wasn’t for him.
“Eventually, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll gravitate to the things you love,” Williams said. “And I’ve always loved being able to share the gospel.”
Williams, who describes what happened to Brown as horrific, says he sees himself as a minister of reconciliation in Ferguson.
“The purpose of the church is to reconcile people to Christ, reconcile people who have different disagreements,” Williams said, referring to the recent havoc in Ferguson. “There were conditions that fostered the environment for something tragic to happen.
“We don’t take sides. We come down the middle and bring sides together.”
Williams believes what’s key for the community in Ferguson is a dialogue that is inclusive of all sides, where the public is given the continued opportunity to listen to answers to questions such as, “What is it like to be a police officer in Ferguson?”
But even before the riots in Ferguson, Williams had big plans for The Spirit Church. Church membership sits at about 400 but has been slow to climb. The first incarnation of the church came in 2007 — in the form of Williams’ basement.
After several stints elsewhere, including the Crowne Plaza in downtown Clayton, Williams felt called to Ferguson and settled into the high school’s auditorium. Although most who attend The Spirit Church are African-American, church officials say they aspire for a multicultural congregation.
As Simeon Williams, assistant pastor at the church, put it, “Heaven is not going to be segregated.”
Some of those who worship with Williams say his celebrity may bring folks through the door, but his preaching style is what keeps them coming.
Tiffany Jackson, 27, a grant writer who lives in Florissant, says she appreciates the way Williams is able to transform the Bible into something that is relevant to her life. There’s also the fact that everyone she bumps into at the church is friendly.
“I have been in church all my life, and this is the most I’ve ever been part of a church,” Jackson said. “This is a church family.” Jackson says she doesn’t mind that the church meets in an auditorium, because the connection to the school helps them unite with the overall community.
As for Williams’ fame as a football player, Jackson says, “It may help. But it’s not what made us want to stay.”
Williams grew up in New Orleans, the youngest of three boys. Although his parents sent him to church, Williams says Christianity didn’t immediately make sense in an environment where you learned if someone hit you, you hit back.
“I really didn’t want to be a Christian. I didn’t like the word love,” Williams said.
Williams spoke about his former indifference to religion at his induction to the Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t understand how God related to everyday life,” Williams said. “When I was growing up, I thought church was a religious deal. You go sin for six days, then on the seventh day, empty your sin bucket and go do it again.”
Then during his junior year at Southern University and A&M College, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, La., he visited a new church in New Orleans, and Christ’s message suddenly clicked.
It wasn’t the only aspect of Williams’ life to change that year. Williams had idolized his older brother Achilles, following in his footsteps and majoring in accounting at Southern University. But then one day, Williams dared to walk on the college football field to play.
Around the same time, Williams met his wife, Tracy — a woman he describes as someone who doesn’t stand for any foolishness from men. The two have been married for 21 years and have three daughters, Saenea, Tirzah and Cheyenne, and a son, Lazarus.
Williams says what set him apart from the other players was his refusal to separate his faith from his work.
“My faith was expressed in my work,” Williams said. “My faith meant being accountable when no one was watching.”
Williams says his commitment to Jesus helped him become a disciplined player and exceed expectations. When he did fail, Williams made a point of admitting he was wrong in front of teammates, asking that they pray for him.
But Williams acknowledges that though his was a relevant faith, it was “not a perfect one, because I still don’t have it down yet.”
“But it was an honest and transparent one, and I use the same transparency as a pastor today.”
It’s a formula that seems to work for many.
Richard Dix, who describes himself as not that big of a football fan, has been attending The Spirit Church for three years. The church’s men’s Bible study — referred to as the Locker Room — first hooked him in, but he was also drawn to Williams’ character.
“What impressed me more is his integrity,” said Dix, a business analyst in south St. Louis.
Patricia Robinson, 57, an X-ray technician in Florissant, says she knows with the recent unrest in Ferguson, The Spirit Church may be in for some tough times.
But she also believes “what’s happening here is bigger than us.” Robinson hopes the tragedy will help bring the country together.
Williams, for his part, says he’s up for the challenge.
“We will continue to play a role in the healing process in the city of Ferguson,” Williams said.
“The great thing about my experience with my parents, my experience in church growing up, my experience at Southern University, a historically black college, or my experience at the pros, is that I can relate to anybody.”
As congregants mingled in the school’s hallways after worship service, Williams summed up his approach.
“Listen with the ear of understanding and not as one who has the answers.”