In March 1965 in Selma, Alabama, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders preached at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and launched marches across the nearby Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery. Such actions caught the world’s attention and helped to inspire passage of the Voting Rights Act later that summer.
Forty-one years later from the same pulpit, the Rev. Michael Williams Waters (’02, ’06) delivered a sermon, “One More Bridge to Cross,” to SMU students, faculty and staff during the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a spring break trip to historic sites in the South.
Michael and Yulise Waters with their son, Michael Jeremiah, 1, at Greater Garth Chapel A.M.E. Church in Dallas.
During that moment in 2006, Waters said, “Although we have made many strides out of bondage – like the children of Israel who crossed the Red Sea out of Egypt – we still haven’t reached the Promised Land. Poverty, homelessness, limited access to health care, school zones like war zones – these are all signs we have one more bridge to cross to achieve change.”
Since delivering the sermon, Waters and his wife, Dedman School of Law student Yulise Reaves Waters (’02), have worked together to help others cross this bridge to social change, including at Greater Garth Chapel A.M.E. Church in Dallas, where they have served as senior pastor and first lady since November 2006. Michael Waters previously was senior pastor at Tyree Chapel A.M.E. Church in Blooming Grove, Texas, and at Greater Allen Temple A.M.E. Church in Grand Prairie, Texas.
“Greater Garth is in the heart of an impoverished area that suffers from crime, addictions, HIV/AIDS and failing schools,” says Michael, a fifth-generation ordained minister and native Texan. “Our prayer is that we can restore hope and empower this community to bring about needed change.”
Waters and his wife, who met as first-year students in SMU’s Voices of Inspiration Gospel Choir, have led the congregation in developing new programs such as tutoring for youths, young adult and senior groups, and a partnership with Child Protective Services to help young parents resolve issues, along with the church’s ministry to feed and clothe the homeless. They have seen membership grow from fewer than 140 to nearly 200 in the past year and say their congregants are increasingly drawn to service, in addition to worship and Bible study.
“We’re creating new opportunities for ministry and fellowship,” Waters says. “We want to serve as a lighthouse to the community beyond these walls and show a better way.”
The pastor holds a dual appointment in the African Methodist Episcopal Church
as dean of chapel at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, where he also teaches as adjunct professor in the Department of Religion.
“I have the unique opportunity to address the entire campus in weekly chapel services, and in my teaching I hope to uplift students to address the challenges facing our world,” says Waters, who earned his Master of Divinity with certificates in African American Church Studies and Urban Ministry at Perkins. A recipient of the Prothro Promise for Ministry Scholarship, Waters was the first student elected to two consecutive terms as Perkins student body president.
“Although we have made many strides out of bondage – like the children of Israel who crossed the Red Sea out of Egypt – we still haven’t reached the Promised Land. Poverty, homelessness, limited access to health care, school zones like war zones – these are all signs we have one more bridge to cross to achieve change.”
– The Rev. Michael Williams Waters (’02, ’06)
As an undergraduate, Waters, whose parents also attended SMU, earned degrees in political science and religious studies with a minor in history. He served as student body vice president and Student Senate chair, and among his honors was SMU’s highest, the “M” Award, for service to the University.
In addition to her work at Greater Garth, where she coordinates the Sisterhood
Ministry and sings in several choirs, Yulise Reaves Waters is in her third term as president of the North Texas Annual Conference Clergy Spouses. Along with her husband, she has served on the SMU Alumni Board and held leadership roles in the African American Alumni Associates. A Dallas native, she earned her Juris Doctor from SMU in May and plans to pursue a career in family law. She has worked as a clerk for Dallas attorney Gay G. Cox (’78) and is a member of the family law organization Annette Stewart Inn of Court.
“Family is the core of society, and I feel called to help create a framework there so problems can be solved,” says Yulise, who earned degrees in business administration, Spanish and English. She received an upper-class President’s Scholarship and SMU’s Outstanding Senior Woman Award.
Yulise also acted as chaperone during the three Civil Rights Pilgrimages that her husband directed from 2005 to 2007. Michael Waters created the program while a student at Perkins School of Theology and working as chaplain’s assistant in SMU’s Office of the Chaplain during 2004, the 40th anniversary of Freedom Summer. “This history was fading for my generation, which takes for granted the right to eat at any restaurant, sit in an integrated classroom and walk into a voting booth,” he says.
Associate History Professor Glenn Linden teamed up with Waters to develop a
curriculum to accompany the pilgrimage, now offered as a joint history-political science course, “Civil Rights: Our Unfinished Revolution.” The trip makes classroom lessons real for students, Waters says, by introducing them to people and places that played an important role during the civil rights movement. “We reconnect with the past so it can inform our future.”
Waters adds that the experience became even more meaningful for him with the birth of his son, Michael Jeremiah, in 2006. “Each generation has its own bridge to cross, on the shoulders of those who came before.”