The Sins of Walker Railey

I had to know: Did the minister of the church I grew up in try to murder his wife? I told him I thought he was guilty. “I hear what you’re saying,” he said.

Wife of anti-racist cleric is attacked, I read in the New York Times as I flew home from Los Angeles a few days after Easter. Margaret Railey, the 38-year-old wife of the Reverend Walker Railey of Dallas, was found beaten, choked, and unconscious on the floor of their garage when her husband returned from studying at the library shortly after midnight on April 22, 1987. The police had no leads in the case. “Dr. Railey, who is white, has been an outspoken critic of racial prejudice in this city,” said the Times. According to the executive minister in Railey’s church, Gordon D. Casad, Railey had received a series of threatening letters in the preceding weeks and had preached his Easter sermon wearing a bulletproof vest.

It took a moment for the realization to sink in that this bizarre episode had taken place in my very own church, the First United Methodist Church, on the corner of Ross and Harwood in downtown Dallas. This was the church I grew up in and angrily ran away from and retreated to on several guilty occasions. What I always had hated about my church was its instinctive fear of confronting society, but here was a minister who had spoken out against racial injustice and inequality in a city where such things are rarely said aloud. Here was a man threatened with death in that same sanctuary. And here was a man whose wife was strangled into what the doctors called a persistent vegetative state, for no other obvious reason that that someone wanted to punish Walker Railey for preaching the truth.

Was this Dallas? I asked myself. The open savagery of the Railey tragedy seemed oddly wrong in a city that is deeply preoccupied with appearances. From the beginning there was about the story a vague but haunting discordance.

And yet I was willing to believe that perhaps Dallas had returned to the racial violence of the fifties. Apparently Dallas worried about that too, for the next week the city was on its knees in prayer services and editorial self-reproach. It was a moment when people of various faiths and races stopped to pray for Walker and Peggy Railey and their two young children, Ryan and Megan. “Fight on, Railey family,” cried the Reverend Daryll Coleman of the Kirkwood CME Temple Church in a rare gathering of the races at Thanks-Giving Square. “Fight on, soldiers of righteousness and truth. Thank God for today.” The Baptists issued a statement that “the fact that a minister’s clear stand against racial injustice and bigotry would jeopardize his life is an indicting commentary on our society.” Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman of Temple Emanu-El concluded that the Railey family had been “singled out because of his almost prophetic stance in regard to injustice in any form.”

As Peggy lay in intensive care, hundreds of visitors came day after day to Presbyterian Hospital to pay homage to a woman few people knew well. The traffic was so great that volunteers from the church came to assist. Peggy’s condition, at first critical, settled into an awful stasis. She was neither dead nor alive—it was as if she were waiting for some momentous resolution before she could either die or be released back into life. And as for her husband, his tragedy seemed unbearable. He had been the rising star of Methodism, as some called him, an electrifying preacher who had awakened the slumbering old church and infused it with his own extraordinary vigor. Now he was crushed by some unknown force too vast and heartless to be fended off by faith alone.

On the Sunday after the attack, the congregation of First Church returned to the sanctuary in a state of shock. There was an obvious show of security police, which added to the air of continuing menace. From the pulpit, Casad read a message from Railey, who remained in the hospital to be near his wife. “I do not know why senseless violence continues to pervade society, nor do I understand why the events of this past week took place,” Railey’s message said. “You have proven to me and all of Dallas that our church is a family.… I have been reminded once again that the breath of life is fragile but the fabric of life is eternal.”

It is worth pausing to wonder at a city where a crime might assume such metaphorical power. When I was a child in the First Church, our minister, Robert E. Goodrich, Jr., used to speak about the “climate” of the city. It was one of his favorite sermons, one he turned to on that Sunday after John Kennedy came to town and became the 111th homicide of 1963: “There’s no question about a relationship between physical climate and life. How about the spiritual and cultural climate of a neighborhood, a city, a home?”

In this allusive fashion Goodrich would imply that Dallas was not innocent of Kennedy’s murder. There was something about the climate of the city that generated tragedy, that caused lightning to strike. Dallas is a city distinguished by clean, quiet, well-ordered suburbs; it is a pious town, with more than 1,200 churches and the highest-paid preachers in America. Many of the largest Protestant congregations in the world are in the Dallas—Fort Worth area, including seven of the top twenty churches in United Methodism. But all this piety and bustle hides another Dallas. It is number one among large American cities in the rate of overall crime. It has the highest rate of divorce. Dear Abby surveyed her readers last summer and concluded that Dallas—Fort Worth has more unfaithful spouses than any other regions. One out of every six murders in Texas occurs in Dallas County. These grim figures describe the climate of the city today. Nevertheless, I felt hope and pride in a city that was painfully examining itself. It seemed to me that it was the special destiny of Dallas to have to grow through tragedy.

These were my thoughts until nine days after the attack. Then

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