BY JEREMY SHERE, PHOTOGRAPHY BY DIRK SHADD
The phone rang just after 4 p.m.
The Reverend Ernest Butler, longtime pastor of Second Baptist Church in Bloomington, put down his paintbrush and picked up the receiver. Even though he was painting someone else’s house — one of the many odd jobs he did to supplement his pastoral salary — Butler somehow knew the call was for him. It wasn’t unusual, after all, for his secretary to call him on a job with news of someone who needed help or a situation that required “Rev’s” immediate attention.
“A black boy, a former IU football player, has been shot and killed by the police,” his secretary said, her voice quavering.
“You tell them I’ll be there,” Butler replied calmly. “Tell them I’ll be there right away.”
When he arrived at the Bloomington Police Department on that fateful day in 1983, Butler got law enforcement’s side of the story. According to the police, former IU middle guard Denver Smith, 24, had been reported causing a disturbance on the street near his home at Henderson Court Apartments, where he lived with his wife, Cynequa, and newborn daughter, Ambrosia. According to witnesses, the shirtless and muscular 245-pound Smith was standing in the middle of the road on this hot September day, brandishing a tire iron, stopping traffic, and threatening to damage cars. When three policemen arrived on the scene, Smith reportedly punched one in the face and ripped his gun from its holster. Convinced Smith was about to shoot, another officer shot him twice in the back and, when the bullets seemed to have little effect, struck him hard on the back of the head with the butt of his gun. Still undaunted, Smith advanced, whereupon the third officer shot him in the chest, killing him.
At the station, Butler met his friend and political ally Mayor Tomilea “Tomi” Allison. Together, they went to pay their respects to Smith’s suddenly widowed young wife. Although understandably inconsolable, Allison recalls, Smith’s widow was at least comforted by Butler’s presence and reassuring words. He told her to look after her little girl and that he would look after everything else.
“Ernie somehow made it OK,” Allison says. “He had an innate understanding of the human thing to do, of how to reach out and touch people in their greatest time of need.”
For Allison, Butler’s role in the Denver Smith tragedy showcased what made him so effective. He was famously and unfailingly kind and available to those in need but also uncompromising and fearless when it came to saying and doing what he believed to be right. When Allison spoke at Second Baptist on Martin Luther King Jr. Day a few months after the Smith shooting and was heckled by agitators who had passed out flyers urging those at the church to protest the mayor’s handling of the case by walking out, Butler kicked out the protesters and branded them “cowards” for not identifying themselves on the flyers.
Three decades later, the incident still resonates in the local African American community and beyond, where questions about the use of lethal force remain. Would a white man have been confronted in the same way? Was it possible that Smith, often characterized as a “gentle giant,” was angling for a spot in the NFL and using steroids, the new body-mass builders, and exhibiting behavior later to be dubbed “steroid rage?” While highly critical of the outcome of the police action, Butler worked hard to defuse a potentially explosive situation.
During his 43 years as pastor of Second Baptist and as the most prominent leader of the local African American community, Butler’s accomplishments changed the very nature of Bloomington.
Reverend Butler’s Last Sermon
Through Faith I Have Come To Know Him
Philippians 3:1-2110 & 21 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made comfortable to His death. Who shall; change our bile body, that it may be fashioned like His glorious body according to the working whereby He is able to subdue all things to Himself.
I could go back to Adam for he was the first rebel according to scripture. When he was told not to eat, he rebelled and did eat. You know the rest. The children of Israel rebelled and found themselves captive again and again. Daniel rebelled and was tossed into the lion’s den. But, I am not talking about any of them. I am talking about the rebel, Jesus Christ — the Son of the Living God.
Mary had a baby, but God sent His only begotten Son who came to save that which is lost. You do know the story of Jesus’ birth, baptism, temptation, mission and teachings. Let’s check the parable of the mustard seed. The smallest of all seeds, but as time passes, it becomes a large tree. The birds of the air can nest on its branches. The lame man (with no name at the pool at Bethesda) waits 38 years to be healed, but Jesus just said, “…take up thy bed and walk.” Then think of the blind man crying, if he was the Son of Davis, help him to receive his sight. Mud on the eyes and the command to go wash, now what do you see? I see men as trees walking. Jesus touched his eyes again and the picture changed. Far too many people see others as something they can use, trees walking.
Paul, the Apostle writing to the Ephesians, gave the church instructions and some information. According to the scriptures, you know that Jesus was mistreated, misunderstood, went through a mock trial and was convicted to die on the cross. Paul says that the same Jesus who was crucified and died is the same Jesus who ascended into heaven to be with the Lord that He might fill all things. Now, Paul says that He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the Saints, for the work of the ministry, and for the edifying of the body of Christ. Then, to the Galatians, if you be led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. They that live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
After the resurrection of Jesus, it is my desire that I may know the power of His resurrection. It is the resurrection power that drives individuals to do the good under difficult situations. I don’t know if you really understand resurrection power. When you give the best of your service, and are misunderstood, He’ll understand and say well done. When you stand for that which is right all by yourself and are forced to your knees, that’s when resurrection power comes into play, and He raises you up to a new level of faith and another challenge. When one is sick and restored to good health, this is resurrection power. Oh, that I may know the power of his resurrection … He wakes me up each morning and sends me on my way. When one is beaten down so that they have to reach up to touch the ground, persecuted, but not forsaken, if it is not one thing it is another. You know if it is not the lion, it is the bear. You know when trouble comes, and it will to all of us at one time or another. When death comes and takes a loved one’s home, there is a void, but Jesus is able to take care of the hurt through resurrection power.
Oh — that I may know the fellowship of His suffering. Remember when He looked over Jerusalem and cried, “Oh Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem, how I would comfort but you would not.” When something hurts bad enough for one can you imagine how hurt he was when his family came to take Him home because they thought he was overworked. He identified his mother, brother and sister as all those who do the work of my father. If you want to be a part of the Kingdom of God, then you must suffer, not for you sins but because of the sins of others. Well, when I see folks living in indecent housing, when I see more Black boys in prison than in school, when I look at the dropouts from school and from life because they have no hope, when I see families disrupted and destroyed because of alcohol and drugs, it hurts. I suffer with Him. When I see children having babies and others out of marriage and know the difficulties the child faces, I suffer. When I see people prepared for a good life and to give life abundantly, yet, I still ask to know the fellowship of His sufferings. There is a reason. I want to know the power of His Resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings because He lives. All of those things will pass.
I also want to know that “…I am conformable unto His death,” which gives me the assurance that I too will go through the grave, but that is not the end. Yes, He died. However, this is not the end of his ministry. In His case, there was the empty grave. Many notable people have died and are buried. This is evidence that they are still held in the grace, name them if you please. But, none of them rose from the hold of the grace. “Oh death where is thy sting, and grave where is thy victory?” “Oh how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.” Think about it … because He lives! He is coming after me one day when my work is done. I shall get home, but in the meantime, I shall work until my work is done relying on His Spirit that I may know Him in the resurrection.
Final Sermon as Pastor
Second Baptist Church
Rev. Dr. E. D. Butler, Pastor
Sunday, October 20, 2002