Sylvester Williams lowers his voice and leans across the booth in the dimly lit basement of Triangle Café. “I’ve had a prophet tell me…” – he pauses – “‘Sylvester, you’re going to be the mayor of Durham.’”
It’s a hopeful prophecy for Williams, who has already run for mayor three times and lost decisively every time. In 2017, he received less than 2% of the vote. And this year, he faces Mayor Steve Schewel, who is expected to win by a large margin.
Why run again? Williams says that as a black man who has spent his entire life in Durham, he understands the plight of the city’s disenfranchised. The black community remains “the face of poverty” in Durham and continues to suffer despite the city’s newfound prosperity.
“Nothing has really changed…the poverty rate hasn’t really changed, the homelessness, affordable housing. Those issues are still at the forefront of life here in the city of Durham.”
Progressive voters would certainly rally behind this call for greater socioeconomic and racial equality. But many of his beliefs would give them pause.
Williams, a former financial analyst and current pastor at The Assembly at Durham Christian Center, represents an anomaly in the liberal city of Durham. As a born-again Christian, he remains faithful to a strict interpretation of scripture that rejects many progressive social mores.
Williams, 64, has come under fire for his staunch opposition to gay marriage, abortion and the teaching of evolution. He has described homosexuality as a path of deviance, argued it is incompatible with Christianity, and linked same-sex marriage to Durham’s crime and gang violence.
Williams insists that he’s not homophobic. He doesn’t hate people in same-sex relationships. They just need “saving.”
“I know that there are some that try to present this false narrative about me… ‘He’s full of hate, he’s homophobic.’ No. There’s nothing hateful that I’ve said, no hateful quotes that I’ve made about anyone, ’cause I realize I’m a son of sin saved by grace too. Had my mistakes, had my issues. I wasn’t always with the Lord Jesus.”
Williams lived a life of “rebellion” prior to turning to Christ. He grew up as the son of a preacher in East Durham but did not devote his life to the “Lord Jesus” until his early 20s.
Since then, Williams has preached living and learning Christ’s word – at least his interpretation of that word. He believes the education system has failed its students by neglecting to include biblical teachings. “Pretty much as I went through the school system, I didn’t hear anything about Christ or God…they brainwashed a whole generation of people believing that there’s no truth to the Christian faith.”
He describes the Bible as a matter of “fact” rather than “faith,” and doesn’t want students to learn about evolution. “There was no science behind it,” he says. “Evolution teaches you one race evolved more than the other race.”
He’s just as fervent when it comes to discussing the issue of abortion. Williams says he would support the Trump administration if the president were to come “at us saying he supports ending abortions.”
While Schewel has a Wikipedia page and a robust website outlining his stances on the issues, Williams primarily runs his campaign through his personal Facebook page.
Still, Williams says that he’s in touch with Durham. “I believe that my message has resonated…a lot of the candidates are just there for PR, they’re not really invested in the community.”
Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal