KOH2RVA: Day 296

David PowersI had a long talk with David Powers yesterday and got an update on his dream.

David heads up the Communication ministry at First Baptist Church, which includes the weekly telecast of our worship services, the development and maintenance of our website, our social media presence, the streaming webcast of Sunday morning worship and Bible study, and the internal and external publicity of events. And those are only the most obvious things.

But for several years now David has had a dream of making a movie based on the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. And for even longer than that David has been studying that parable, peeling back layer after layer in search of its core, which he believes is the very heart of the gospel. It has changed the way he looks at Jesus. It has changed the way he thinks of God.

And so, as we began to talk about this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA he began to dream that within this year the members and friends of First Baptist Church could make a movie. He called his dream “the Prodigal Project,” and spun out scenarios involving hundreds of volunteers and dozens of crew members—an epic film on the order of “The Ten Commandments.”

The first few drafts of the script were essentially re-tellings of the original parable, and they were good, but it turns out someone releases a cinematic version of the Prodigal Son almost every year. I was telling my brother Gray about this last August when we were at the beach together and he suggested, jokingly, that we should make a movie about a church making a movie about the Prodigal Son.

And that changed everything.

The last three or four drafts of the script have used that basic premise in a way that surprises and delights, with a Jewish kid from the Bronx—a graduate of NYU Film School—coming to Alabama to help a Bible-thumping Baptist preacher make a movie about the Prodigal Son. David hired a professional screenwriter to polish it up and work out a few plot problems and yesterday he dropped the finished product on my desk.

So, it might not happen in the next few days, but within a few weeks or months I think we’re going to start shooting a movie. David was telling me yesterday about the money he’s been raising and the cameras he’ll be using and the number of extraordinarily talented people who have agreed to do the sound, lighting, music, and photography.

Suddenly, everything seems to be coming together.

That’s all very exciting, but I remember the reason David dreamed up this project in the first place, and that excites me even more. David was concerned that 20-30-somethings—his children’s generation—were dropping out of church. He began to wonder: “If they won’t come to church, what will they come to?” His answer? The movies. Young people will come to the movies. And if there was a movie that wasn’t too obviously a “Christian” movie they might watch it. And if, in that movie, the radical grace of God could be communicated—the kind that welcomes prodigals, and throws parties, and causes angels to rejoice when sinners repent—then they might decide that they want some of that grace for themselves.

It’s a huge challenge, and nobody—least of all David—knows if he can pull it off. But this is his hope: that someday, somewhere, some young person will watch this movie in a darkened theater and feel his heart breaking open and the tears sliding down his cheeks as he realizes that this grace—the joyous, unrestrained, party-throwing, prodigal-welcoming grace of God—is for him too,

And heaven will come to earth.

KOH2RVA: Day 160

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1850s_jpgOne of the things that keeps the Kingdom of heaven from coming to Richmond, Virginia, is the old animosity between the races. White people used to buy and sell black people on the auction block in this town. That’s not something you get over right away.

It’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but you can sometimes still feel the old guilt and fear and hurt that hangs in the air between the races. If the Kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, we’ve got to clear the air. We’ve got to recognize that we are children of the same Father, and start treating each other like members of the same family.

To that end let me share a story about my father.

I’m planning to drive to West Virginia to see him today because my brother Scott, who lives nearby, thinks he may be down to his last few days. I’m at peace about that, and my dad isn’t in any pain, but because of that he’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I woke up this morning thinking about this story. I think I’ve shared it with you before, but let me share it again in honor of my dad and in the hope of someday achieving true and lasting reconciliation between the races.

—————————————–

I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama. My mother tells me I was the most difficult of all her babies to deliver, and that while she was waiting for me to make up my mind about being born she walked the hallways of that hospital saying the 23rd Psalm over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” My father was the new pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama, 35 miles away, and recently he told me the story of his own labor, there, and of his eventual delivery.

He said that when he was considering a call to that church he asked the committee chairman what the civil rights situation was in Hayneville. Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, resistance to integration had been strong in the South, and sometimes violent. The chairman said, “Well, you’re a good old South Carolina boy, aren’t you? You know what it’s like.” And it’s true. My father had grown up in South Carolina. He probably knew exactly what it was like. But he came anyway. He hadn’t been there very long when a member of the church invited him to say the opening prayer at the next meeting of the White Citizen’s Council. “What is the White Citizen’s Council for, exactly?” my father asked. “Could I look over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws before I give you my answer?” And the man looked at my dad as if he were crazy, or maybe a communist, and said, “Well you know what it’s for: it’s to keep niggers in their place!”

Although I don’t think the Constitution and Bylaws read that way, that is what the White Citizen’s Council was for. According to one of my better sources the WCC was an American white supremacist organization which flourished between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies. With about 15,000 members, mostly in the South, the group was well known for its opposition to racial integration in the South. Headed by Gordon Lee Baum, a St. Louis attorney, its issues involved the so-called “protection” of “European-American” heritage from those of other ethnicities. If my dad had only had Wikipedia he would have known all that. But in answer to the man’s reply Dad said he didn’t think that was his role in the community. He said he thought his role was to share the gospel with anyone who would receive it, black or white, and to make no distinction between the two. “And that,” my father said, “was when he looked at me as if he really did have a rattlesnake loose in his house.”

It was not long after I was born that the leaders of Dad’s church sat down with him to discuss the policies of racial integration being promoted by the denomination. According to some Presbyterians, at least, black people ought to be welcome in the church just like white people. The elders of the church in Hayneville talked about that for a long time and finally decided that black people—“negroes” as they called them in polite company—were welcome to visit the church but not welcome to join it. And then they looked at my dad to see what he thought. He must have been about thirty years old at the time, a young man, sitting in that room with all his elders, trying to be respectful. But finally he said, “This church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to Jesus Christ. And I don’t think he would keep anyone from joining because of their skin color.” And the man who had chaired the search committee looked at my dad and said, “Son, I don’t know what kind of religion they taught you in seminary, but we’ve only got one kind of religion here, and it’s that good old Southern religion.”

Soon word began to get around in Lowndes County that the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hayneville was a “nigger lovin’” preacher. Church attendance began to fall off. Women would stare at my mother in the grocery store. And then one morning while she was fixing breakfast she noticed a string of cars passing by the house, slowing down at the front yard and then speeding up again. One of our neighbors called to ask if we were all right and Mom said, “Yes, why wouldn’t we be?” “Didn’t you know?” said the woman. “Why, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of your house last night!”

Mom hung up the phone and got my father out of bed. He put on his bathrobe and slippers and walked across the front lawn to a patch of burned grass. My mother watched him poke a pile of ashes with the toe of one slipper and when he came back in she said, “Well?” And he answered, almost disappointed: “Sure was a little one.” But after that the threats began to get more serious until my father finally decided he needed to get his family out of there. So, he loaded up his wife and three little boys in a 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a dog house on top with our dog “Lady” and her five puppies inside, nailed a piece of plywood over the opening, and then, under cover of darkness, pulled out of the parsonage driveway and headed up the road toward Southwestern Virginia, where he would try to continue his ministry under happier, friendlier circumstances.

Things were happier there, and friendlier, too. But even though I was just a toddler when we left Alabama those stories, and my father’s courageous example, have shaped my views on race relations ever since. How about you? Who shaped your views on this issue?

Leaving Alabama

book121-aLast week, during the Lenten Luncheon series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, I told the story of how my family left Alabama.  Some of you have asked that I post it here.  This version is a little longer, with a few more details.  I hope it will inspire your thinking on race relations and make you wonder how your own experience has shaped your views on that issue.  Enjoy.

——————————

I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama (for those of you who are still doing the math I am hanging on to my forties by my fingernails).  My mother tells me I was the most difficult of all her babies to deliver, and that while she was waiting for me to make up my mind about being born she walked the hallways of that hospital saying the 23rd Psalm over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  My father was the new pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama, 35 miles away, and recently he told me the story of his own labor, there, and of his eventual delivery.

 

He said that when he was considering a call to that church he asked the committee chairman what the civil rights situation was in Hayneville.  Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, resistance to integration had been strong in the South, and sometimes violent.  The chairman said, “Well, you’re a good old South Carolina boy, aren’t you?  You know what it’s like.”  And it’s true.  My father had grown up in South Carolina.  He probably knew exactly what it was like.  But he came anyway.  He hadn’t been there very long when a member of the church invited him to say the opening prayer at the next meeting of the White Citizens’ Council.  “What is the White Citizens’ Council for, exactly?” my father asked.  “Could I look over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws before I give you my answer?”  And the man looked at my dad as if he were crazy, or maybe a communist, and said, “Well you know what it’s for: it’s to keep niggers in their place!” 

 

Although I don’t think the Constitution and Bylaws read that way, that is what the White Citizens’ Council was for.  According to one of my better sources the WCC was an American white supremacist organization which flourished between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies.  With about 15,000 members, mostly in the South, the group was well known for its opposition to racial integration in the South.  Headed by Gordon Lee Baum, a St. Louis attorney, its issues involved the so-called “protection” of “European-American” heritage from those of other ethnicities.[1]  If my dad had only had Wikipedia he would have known all that.  But in answer to the man’s reply Dad said he didn’t think that was his role in the community.  He said he thought his role was to share the gospel with anyone who would receive it, black or white, and to make no distinction between the two.  “And that,” my father said, “was when he looked at me as if he really did have a rattlesnake loose in his house.”

 

It was not long after I was born that the leaders of Dad’s church sat down with him to discuss the policies of racial integration being promoted by the denomination.  According to some Presbyterians, at least, black people ought to be welcome in the church just like white people.  The elders of the church in Hayneville talked about that for a long time and finally decided that black people—“negroes” as they called them in polite company—were welcome to visit the church but not welcome to join it.  And then they looked at my dad to see what he thought.  He must have been about thirty years old at the time, a young man, sitting in that room with all his elders, trying to be respectful.  But finally he said, “This church doesn’t belong to us.  It belongs to Jesus Christ.  And I don’t think he would keep anyone from joining because of their skin color.”  And the man who had chaired the search committee looked at my dad and said, “Son, I don’t know what kind of religion they taught you in seminary, but we’ve only got one kind of religion here, and it’s that good old Southern religion.”

 

Soon word began to get around that the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hayneville was a “nigger lovin’” preacher.  Church attendance began to fall off.  Women would stare at my mother in the grocery store.  And then one morning while she was fixing breakfast she noticed a string of cars passing by the house, slowing down at the front yard and then speeding up again.  One of our neighbors called to ask if we were all right and Mom said, “Yes, why wouldn’t we be?”  “Didn’t you know?” said the woman.  “Why, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of your house last night!”

 

Mom hung up the phone and got my father out of bed.  He put on his bathrobe and slippers and walked across the front lawn to a patch of burned grass.  My mother watched him poke a pile of ashes with the toe of one slipper and when he came back in she said, “Well?”  And he answered, almost disappointed: “Sure was a little one.”  But after that the threats began to get more serious until my father finally decided he needed to get his family out of there.  So, he loaded up his wife and three little boys in a 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a dog house on top with our dog “Lady” and her five puppies inside, nailed a piece of plywood over the opening, and then, under cover of darkness, pulled out of the parsonage driveway and headed up the road toward Southwestern Virginia, where he would try to continue his ministry under happier, friendlier circumstances.

 

Things were happier there, and friendlier, too.  But even though I was just a toddler when we left Alabama those stories, and my father’s courageous example, have shaped my views on race relations ever since.  How about you?  Who shaped your views on this issue?


[1] From Wikipedia, “White Citizens’ Council”