This Week in Texas Methodist History May 29
One of the most colorful and dedicated laymen in Texas Methodist history was Judge Woodrow Seals (1917-1990), a member of St. Stephen’s UMC in Houston and an active participant at all levels of United Methodism. He could be unpredictable. His speech was colorful, and his imagination for pushing the conference into greater fields of service seemed limitless. No wonder all other conversation stopped when Seals had the conference floor.
As the 1972 Texas Annual Conference convened, Seals was completing a quadrennium as chair of the Conference Board of Christian Social Concerns. The continuing struggle of African Americans for civil rights and the Viet Nam War and the associated peace movement had put the Board front and center during the 1968-1972 quadrennium. On June 3, 1969, three young men disrupted the morning worship at the Texas Annual Conference demanding reparations for African Americans. Woodrow Seals led the negotiating team that defused the situation. Judge Seals’ influence was so great that he was able to secure the entirety of an afternoon business session of the 1971 Annual Conference for debates about abortion and setting a date for withdrawal of U. S. forces from Viet Nam. In addition to the events occurring in the secular world, the United Methodist Church was in the process of ending institutional racial segregation by abolishing the Central Jurisdiction. Petitions submitted to General Conference during the quadrennium reflected the divided state of the church. There were petitions on both sides of practically every contentious issue of the day—civil disobedience, conscientious objection, the right of farm workers to form unions, the pace of racial desegregation, the right of peaceful protest, the war on poverty, boycotts of businesses with unfair labor practices, and more. The church was no ivory tower as some might think. It was in the thick of all these issues as Methodists struggled to find solutions based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For Woodrow Seals church, personal, and professional life were all of one piece. President Lyndon Johnson reluctantly appointed Seals to the federal bench in 1966, and his belief in caring for poor, the outcast, and the marginalized can be found in his decisions. When the state of Texas and several school districts finally started to comply with Brown vs. Board of Education, they sometimes did so by mixing African American and Latino students—and leaving Anglo students in lily-white schools. Seals ruled that Latinos were a distinct group, and true desegregation must take that fact into account. The Supreme Court later upheld his ruling. When Quaker and Mennonite and other Christian pacifist draft resistors appeared in his court for violation of the Selective Service laws, he tried to steer them into alternative service instead of prison.
The Texas Annual Conference convened On May 29, 1972. The printed report from the Board of Christian Social Concerns highlighted two programs that Seals started during the term. He may have been a global thinker on the great issues of the day, but both programs were very personal—the very embodiment of the bumper sticker phrase, “Think Globally—Act Locally”. They were as follows:
Operation Understanding—a program that paired historically African American and historically Anglo churches for informal, monthly meetings. There was no agenda, no program, just a chance to form cross-racial friendships.
Society of St. Stephens—a program to help people who, through circumstances beyond their control, needed help with food, utilities, rent, transportation, or other necessities.
Even though Seals was active at the conference level, he remained active in his local church. Most Saturdays found him, in suit and tie in the Houston heat, knocking on doors near St. Stephens. “I’m Woodrow Seals, if you don’t have a church home, please come to St. Stephens.” When the weather was bad, he would go to a shopping mall and pass out cards inviting strangers to church. When Bering UMC opened its facilities for homeless people on severely cold nights, Seals spent nights there as a volunteer. The number of times he visited churches to promote the Society of St. Stephen can probably never be known. He taught an adult Sunday School class in which almost always the lesson was not taken from Sunday School literature, but from his experiences of the previous week. His circle of friends of all faiths was prodigious. On any given Sunday his class members might hear about Rev. John Osteen of Lakewood Church, the Roman Catholic Bishop’s plans for Houston, or what he had learned from a lunch date with a rabbi.
Perkins School of Theology presents a Woodrow Seals Award annually to a lay person. The Houston Young Lawyers Association also presents a Woodrow Seals Award. His greatest legacy, though, is probably the Society of St. Stephen. The program of helping families in need was adopted by the denomination. Today, there are tens of thousands of persons who know that the United Methodist Church cares about them because of acts of mercy channeled through the Society of St. Stephen.