Getting Right with Each Other

GroupHandsUnityPB_545x277A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “straight church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men.  “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say.  “Who has bewitched you?  Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?”

I’ve had a good many requests for my sermon from Sunday, June 19, quoted above.  It was number four in a series called “Getting right with God,” based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but as I said in the introduction, it’s not getting right with God that’s the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.

I’ve posted the full text of the sermon below with a link to the video at the end.  I hope you will read it or watch it, and if you feel like sharing please do.  I think there’s some good news here.

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After worship last Sunday someone asked me why I was spending six weeks talking about “Getting Right with God.”  “Isn’t it fairly simple?” he asked.  I’ve been thinking about that question ever since, and I’ve concluded that getting right with God is not the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.

Wasn’t that the problem Paul was dealing with in Galatians?  It wasn’t that God had any trouble welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles into his family; it was that the Jewish Christians had trouble welcoming them into the church.  They thought they should be circumcised first, then they could get their names on the rolls, then they could take communion.  And Paul argued, “No, it’s not circumcision that makes us part of God’s family: it is faith in Jesus Christ.”  That seems so obvious to us now that we could almost fall asleep during a sermon from Galatians.  Until someone comes down the aisle who is not like us.  And then we sit bolt upright in our pews and begin to come up with all sorts of reasons why that person should not be a member of the church.

It happened here on January 3, 1965.  At the close of the 11:00 service two Nigerian students who were attending Virginia Union University came down the aisle to join First Baptist Church.  And why not?  They were the sons of Baptist ministers in Nigeria who had heard about First Baptist Church.  They knew it was the church where the president of the Foreign Mission Board was a member and the former president of the Baptist World Alliance was the pastor.  They encouraged their sons to attend. And so, these obedient boys put on their Sunday best and came to church.  And it must have been wonderful to walk into this place when Dr. Adams was the pastor, and the pews were packed, and the choir loft was overflowing.  These students must have gotten a little giddy from the splendor of it all, and when the invitation was given they came down the aisle.

I don’t know what Dr. Adams was preaching that day.  I doubt that he was preaching from this passage in Galatians that says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  But something that he said or something that those students felt in this place made them believe they would be welcome.  And so they walked down the aisle and asked to join the church.  As I heard the story Dr. Adams, who had traveled the globe in his work as president of the Baptist World Alliance, and who had gotten to know Baptists of every kind, would have been happy to welcome them.  He knew that in Christ there is neither black nor white.  But this was 1965, and this was Richmond, Virginia, and Dr. Adams had the presence of mind to welcome them without promising them membership in the church.  That would be decided a few weeks later, after many long discussions with the deacons and a bitter and painful business meeting that practically split the church.  In the end, by a narrow margin, the congregation voted to welcome those students as members.

It’s interesting that our church history is called “The Open Door.”  1965 was one of those times (and our historian says as much) when the open door was tested.  How open was it, really?  Could we welcome black people, as well as white, into our membership?  The answer was yes, and I’m grateful.  When I think about some of the people I might never have known if this door hadn’t been open I almost weep!  The life of our congregation has only been enriched by its diversity.  We can see that now, looking back.  It’s always easier looking back.  We’ve struggled with other questions since then.  Can women be ordained as ministers in this church?  Can Christians from other denominations join without being immersed?  Can people who are differently oriented be members here?  Again and again the open door has been tested and every time it makes us sit bolt upright in our pews.  So, don’t fall asleep during this sermon from Galatians when Paul is working so hard answer the question of who can be a member of the church and who can’t.

For him the door was open—wide open—and I can almost see him on a street corner in Galatia, inviting people of every description into this new life with Christ.  They might ask, “What do I have to do?”  And Paul might answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus!”  “Is that all?” they would ask.  “That’s all!” Paul would answer.  And then, when they had confessed their faith, they would be baptized, not as a requirement for membership in the church, but as a symbol of their new life in Christ.

In those days, in that part of the world, they would strip off their clothes on the riverbank, symbols of the old life, and then wade out into the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  When they came up out of the water it was like they had been born again, and when they stepped out onto the riverbank they were given a new, white robe to wear, a symbol of the new life.  And then Paul might say to them, as he says here in Galatians, “Listen, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus!”  And then he would move on to the next little town and start all over again.

But apparently someone was coming along behind him, telling those new Christians that believing wasn’t enough, baptism wasn’t enough, that if they wanted to be part of God’s family they would have to become Jews, they would have to start obeying the Law of Moses, and the men among them would have to be circumcised.  You can probably imagine what Paul had to say about that.  But you don’t have to imagine it.  You can read it for yourself in Galatians 2.  Paul says, “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.  And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (vs. 16).  And as far as circumcision goes, Paul reminds us that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, not after.  “He believed God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6), Paul says, arguing that Gentile believers stand in that same tradition.

You might ask, “Then why did the Jews even need the law?” and Paul anticipates that question.  He says that the Law was “added because of transgressions,” and what he means, I think, is that we humans have a tendency to stray, that on our way from the Present Evil Age to the Age to Come we might wander off the path and get lost.  Have you ever seen two teachers walking with a group of preschoolers, where the teachers are holding on to each end of a long rope and the preschoolers are holding on in between?  It keeps everybody safe until they get back to their school, and then the children let go of the rope and run to the door.   I think that’s what Paul would say the Law was like—like a good, strong rope we could hold on to that kept us from going astray.  Until.  Until it brought us to Jesus.  And then we didn’t need the rope anymore.  We were free to run to him.  And as Jesus himself once said, he is the door, the door that lets us in to his Father’s house.

Can anybody go in through that door?  Let’s see what Paul says.

  • In Galatians 3:26 he writes: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”
  • In verse 27 he writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
  • In verse 28 he writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
  • In verse 29 he writes: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the Promise”

Can you picture those children of God, still dressed in their white robes, coming into the Father’s house and sitting down around the family table?  Whatever distinctions divided them before have disappeared; they are all one in Christ Jesus.

And Paul says that’s how it should be in the church, but often that’s not how it is.  A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the straight church.  A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men.  “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say.  “Who has bewitched you?  Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?  I’m telling you he has opened the door, and if you are in him you are in—period!  All you have to do is believe it, to accept the good news that you are accepted.”

And that’s where faith comes in.

Paul uses that word five times in the first four verses of today’s reading.  Count them: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”  Did you get all five?  “Faith, faith, faith, faith, faith!” Paul says.  “That’s what sets us free from the law, that’s what puts us right with God, that’s what makes us part of his family.”  And I want to be careful about how I say this, but I believe that for Paul faith is the new circumcision, the sign of the New Covenant—not some mark in the flesh but a matter of the heart.  So, who can be part of the church?  Anyone who has faith, and the faith that I’m talking about is the faith that God loves us and wants us for his own.  It’s the gospel Jesus preached.  It’s the message Paul proclaimed.  And most of the time the only thing that keeps us from receiving it is our own disbelief:

“How could God love somebody like me?”

But sometimes others keep us from receiving it.  They say, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “How could God love somebody like you?”  That is at least one of the messages that came out of last Sunday’s shooting in Orlando.  It certainly seems that someone judged those people dancing in a gay nightclub and found them worthy only of contempt.  It’s at least one of the messages that came out of last year’s shooting at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston.  Someone judged those people who had gathered for Bible study and found them worthy only of hatred.  They may not have done it with guns and bullets, but there have probably been people along the way who judged you, and found you worthy only of contempt and hatred.  And, God forgive us, there have probably been people we judged, people who don’t come to church here because they believe that if they did they would not be welcome.

Who can be part of the church?  Anyone who has faith.  And who can have faith?  Any one.  Paul would say that it doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  These days he might add some other categories but it wouldn’t change his message: all you have to do is believe that God loves you and wants you for his own, all you have to do is see Jesus standing at the door, begging you to come in, all you have to do is find the courage to take that first step.  “It takes faith,” Paul might say, “but faith is all it takes.  It is the new circumcision, the sign of the new covenant.  It is not a mark in the flesh, but a matter of the heart.”

Have you ever been to one of those conferences where there is a registration table at the front with all the name tags already made up?  They sit there in their shiny plastic sleeves—the names of all those who have registered for the conference.  I sometimes look at them when I ask for my own tag, and sometimes I see the name of someone I know.  “Oh, look!  John is coming to this conference.  Oh, look!  There’s Betty, or David, or Jane.”  But when we take a break for lunch and I walk by that same table, I usually see some name tags that have not been claimed, some people who were planning to come to the conference, but for whatever reason didn’t make it.  If church were like one of those conferences there might be a table out front with everybody’s name tag on it.  Everybody’s.  And when we went out after the benediction we would see the names of all those people who didn’t make it: some who found something better to do, some who weren’t physically able, but some who didn’t believe…they would be welcome.

–Jim Somerville, 2016

 

Watch the video by clicking HERE

 

Racism: Blame it on Linnaeus

LinnaeusIn my last post I mentioned that human beings are 99.9 percent the same, genetically. So where did we get the idea that the .01 percent that makes us different also makes us better, or worse, than our fellow humans?

In a paper called “‘Scientific Racism’ in Enlightened Europe,” Shah Aashna Hossain claims that “the concept of racism did not always exist.” He writes:

In General System of Nature, published in 1735, [Swedish biologist Carl] Linnaeus stated that variations within the Genus Homo sapiens existed as a result of varying cultures and climates. The four main categories of the Genus that he proposed were the following:

1. Americanus. Native American males were supposedly red; had black hair and sparse beards; were stubborn; prone to anger; “free”; and governed by traditions. Thus, this form of Homo sapiens was definitely inferior and uncivilized.

2. Asiaticus. The male Asian was said to be “yellowish, melancholy, endowed with black hair and brown eyes…severe, conceited, and stingy. He puts on loose clothing. He is governed by opinion.” Thus, like the aforementioned type of Homo sapiens, the Asiaticus could only be a mediocre prototype.

3. Africanus. The male of this subset, according to Linnaeus, could be recognized by his skin tone, face structure, and curly hair. This kind was apparently cunning, passive, and inattentive, and ruled by impulse. The female of this kind was also apparently shameless, because “they lactate profusely.”

4. Europeaus. The males of this subset were supposedly “changeable, clever, and inventive. He puts on tight clothing. He is governed by laws.”

In addition to these categories, Linnaeus also suggested there were some more miscellaneous ones that occurred: “‘wild men,’ dwarfs, troglodytes [cave dwellers], and ‘lazy Patagonians’ [South American hunter-gatherers].” Therefore, being the most civilized of the Homo sapiens, the Europeaus was obviously the most superior type in Charles Linnaeus’s view.

Before Linnaeus proposed the ideas mentioned above, “race” had been used to distinguish between different nationalities. But after he proposed the system above, Europeans began to identify themselves with a larger group: “white” people.

And so, because of the “scientific” classification proposed by Linnaeus, “white” people began to think of themselves as “superior.”

Have you ever wondered how things might have been different if an African, or Native American, or Asian scientist had proposed the system of classification?  Is it any surprise that we often end up believing that the “best” people are the ones who are most like us? (take a second look at Linnaeus’ portrait above).  And is there any way we can rid ourselves of more than 250 years of discrimination based on the .01 percent of the genetic code that makes us different from each other?

Hossain says the concept of racism did not always exist.  What would it take to get to the place where it no longer does?

A famous Virginian once wrote that “all men are created equal”–not the same, but equal.  And the Creator himself–after looking on humankind in all its diversity–said that it was good, “very good.”

Today, let’s try looking on all of humankind through His eyes.

KOH2RVA: Day 325

Rodney2Have you ever listened to a black pastor talk about the challenges his people face?

I did yesterday.

I had lunch with Rodney Waller, pastor of First African Baptist Church; one of his deacons, Booker Jones; and two of my deacons, Mary Ann Delano and Bob Palmer. We were talking about Rodney’s challenge from a previous meeting—that our two churches show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.

I’m not sure how it came up, but Rodney told us that most of the people who live in the ghetto want to get out, “they just don’t know how.” He talked about black men who try to succeed and, for any number of reasons, fail (have you ever wondered who was going to get the job when there were three white men and one black man applying?). And then, because they feel like failures, they leave. And then, out there on their own, they shift into survival mode. And then, because they’re trying to survive, they begin to sell [drugs]. And then, to numb the pain of failure, they begin to use.

Rodney also talked about black women whose men have left them to raise children by themselves, and how it is nearly impossible to find the kind of job that will pay for child care and provide enough for their family to live on. Often they collapse into the safety net of social services and find it almost impossible to get out. And then they take a ride out to Short Pump (though not on the bus: it doesn’t go that far), and they see all these West Enders (“West Endians” Rodney called them) strolling through the mall with shopping bags full of high-end merchandise. “They want that kind of life but they don’t know how to get it and it makes them angry.”

Angry?

Yes, angry. Rodney said we need to acknowledge that there are structures of oppression in society that keep black people down, and that most of these date back to the time of slavery. He said, “I believe that many black people carry with them the hidden wounds of slavery, and those wounds keep getting opened up, and it causes pain.”

You can agree or disagree, but that’s pretty honest talk from the pastor of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, and a good way to begin honest conversations that will be ongoing between our two churches. By the end of the meeting we had agreed to form a group of deacons called “The Twelve”—six from each church—who will continue to meet and talk and lead us to that place where we can show Richmond what true racial reconciliation looks like.

I summarized it like this: “Jesus told us to love our neighbors and you are our neighbors, but we can’t love what we don’t know so the first step, always, is to get to know each other.”

And that’s what we’re going to do.

As we were leaving I said, “You know what I’ve always dreamed of? An ethnic food festival, like the Greek Festival or the Armenian Festival. Why couldn’t our two churches get together and host a Baptist Food Festival?” We walked out laughing, trying to imagine what Baptist food would be (Fried Chicken? Sweet Potato Pie?), but it wasn’t a bad way to end a meeting.

It left our mouths watering for more.

KOH2RVA: Day 314

Calvary DC

I’m back!

Back from a vacation that has been both refreshing and renewing—just what I was hoping for. I’ve hiked in Vermont and New York State, read a few books that were on my list, stayed at some charming B&B’s, slept a little later than usual, gone swimming in a creek, eaten some delicious meals, spent lots of time with family, and spotted at least one genuine celebrity.

Perfect.

But re-entry can be difficult, and yesterday as I checked my email at a rest area on the way home I found a message from an African-American member of First Baptist who forwarded an article about the Trayvon Martin decision and said she was heartbroken that she hadn’t heard one word about it from FBC Richmond—her church!

I wrote back right away and explained that I’d been on vacation, but I read the article she forwarded and liked the last line especially in which Jim Wallis of Sojourners said, “The country needs multi-racial communities of faith to show us how to live together.” As I re-enter my regular routine, and our year-long, every-member mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I wonder how we can do that. How can Richmond’s First Baptist Church be part of the solution and not part of the problem?

I think we’ve already started.

Before I left for vacation I reported on a conversation that took place between some of the leaders of First Baptist and First African Baptist Church here in Richmond. I shared the challenge issued by Rodney Waller, pastor of First African, that we “show Richmond what racial reconciliation looks like.” Now a member of First Baptist forwards an article in which the author challenges multi-racial communities of faith to “show us how to live together.” Do you hear that? They don’t want us to tell them; they want us to show them.

So, in a minute, after you read this paragraph, click on the photograph above so you can see it full-size. It’s a picture of my friend Amy Butler’s congregation in Washington, DC—Calvary Baptist. If you take the time to look at all the faces in the photograph you will see that this is a multi-racial community of faith. And if you look at the smiles on the faces you can see that these people are completely at home with each other. They are doing the things we’ve been challenged to do: showing us what racial reconciliation looks like, and showing us how to live together. What do these people have in common, other than the fact that they live in the DC area? Jesus. They have Jesus in common. The one who taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

For them, what happened to Trayvon Martin must have seemed almost personal, because it wasn’t just a 17-year-old boy who was shot when he went out to buy some Skittles: it might have been one of their 17-year-old boys.  And it wasn’t just a concerned neighbor who did the shooting: it could have been one of their concerned neighbors.  When my friend Amy preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan just after George Zimmerman was acquitted she hinted that the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” could be “Trayvon Martin,” but it could also be “George Zimmerman.”  Jesus doesn’t want us to hate the George Zimmermans of the world anymore than he wants us to hate the Trayvon Martins of the world.  It’s not that some people are good and some people are evil; it’s that all people are people.  We struggle with the evil inside us.

Sometimes we lose.

But let’s not lose this vision of a kingdom where people of different races know how to live together in peace.  Look at that picture again.  See the smiles on those faces.  And then let’s do what we can to make sure that’s how it is at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and do what we can to make it so between our church and First African.  Richmond needs a different picture of race relations than the one left behind by the Trayvon Martin decision.

We might just be the ones to show it to them.

KOH2RVA: Day 255

diversityI don’t have a lot of time to blog this morning. I’m speaking at a conference called “Faith, Freedom, and Forgiveness” this afternoon and I’m a long way from being ready. My assignment is to help the audience move toward a theology of forgiveness, especially as it relates to the old wound of slavery.

As I was digging around in my files I came up with these notes from Martin Luther King Week at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2001, when I was (to my great surprise) invited to be the guest speaker. The title of my lectures was, “Living in the Lion Tribe: Confronting the Problem of Prejudice with the Power of Love and Imagination.”

On the first night I gathered with about fifty students in a large, upper room and started with this introduction:

Ken Medema is a blind musician with a remarkable kind of inner vision. I once heard him say something I wish I had written down, because I’m not sure I remember it exactly as he said it, but what I heard him say was something like this: “People don’t change because you tell them to. They don’t change because you shame them into it. People change when they can imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they are living.”

I think that was one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatest gifts—he helped people imagine a different kind of reality than the one in which they were currently living. He talked about a day when racism would no longer exist. He dreamed of a day when black people and white people would join hands and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” It may have been this gift of religious imagination, more than any other, that led to the success of the Civil Rights movement.

He learned it from Jesus, who asked his hearers again and again to imagine a reality he called the Kingdom of God. He learned it from Paul, who talked about the church as the living, breathing body of Christ. He learned it from his father and a host of other black preachers who knew the power of imagination to inspire and change.

And then we moved into a group activity, guided by these notes (written mostly to myself):

Tell the story of Ayla from Jean Auel’s book, The Mammoth Hunters. How she came to a tribe headed by a red-haired giant of a man named Talut who valued difference more than sameness (read the paragraph on page 286). Describe the others in the tribe: Ranec, dark-skinned and handsome; Fralie, angry and bitter, Druwez, a half-breed from the Clan; Tulie, an imposing headwoman. All of them part of the tribe even though some of them made things more difficult and made the tribe less welcome at the large summer gathering.

Talk about how Ayla was welcomed as a guest, and treated as special because she was tall and blonde (that is, different from the short, dark people from whom she had come). Her special abilities were her healing knowledge, her way with animals, her skill with weapons, and her talent for making fire. She was invited to join the Lion Tribe, and on the night she was “adopted” she revealed her fire-making ability to the astonishment of the others, and then gave to each member of her new “family” a piece of firestone and flint so that they, too, could make fire.

Here is a fictional community in which people are valued for what makes them different, not what makes them the same. Let’s take some time tonight to discover our differences and to learn how to value them.

Crane Hearth—blue
Fox Hearth—red
Elk Hearth—green
Bear Hearth—black

Each “hearth” will circle up and take some time to identify the unique contributions of its members. Members will take turns speaking by holding the “speaking stick” (a washable marker). When the hearth is satisfied that someone has a valuable difference to offer, that person will pass the speaking stick to his or her left and be welcomed into the Lion Tribe with its special mark—four, short vertical lines on the right palm. When each hearth is finished the whole tribe will circle up, its members will hold out their right palms, and be dismissed with this blessing:

“That which makes us different makes us valuable.”

I don’t know which of these notes, if any, will end up in my address today, but I hope you’ve found something here that will help you think about how we can work to overcome prejudice through the power of love and imagination. The alternative is to keep our hearts and minds closed, and go on exactly as we have.

And that’s not a good alternative at all.

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.

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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?

KOH2RVA: Day 157

2013-02-12 19.05.10I can hardly believe what I saw in the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church last night. It was as if all the old rules and the old ways had been temporarily suspended.

On one hand it was simply a Henrico County Public Schools Black History Month Mass Choir Concert, but on the other hand it was a demonstration of the power of possibility.

You say black people and white people can’t get along? I saw kids of almost every color standing together, singing together, swaying back and forth and smiling as if they really, really loved what they were doing and who they were doing it with.

You say church and state are separate? I saw kids from public high schools singing songs like “Jordan’s Angels,” and “Praise His Holy Name,” and “Keep Your Lamps” (Trimmed and Burning), and “True Light.” I heard them lifting up the name of Jesus as if we were having church, and not a public school choir concert.

You say you have to behave in church? I don’t know. When the concert was over the three students who were playing drums, bass, and guitar began to jam, just for the fun of it, and people began to move, just for the fun of it too. There was a happy, bubbly, post-concert mood in the air that was contagious. Young people and old people alike were catching it. I caught it, and found myself moving to the music for the second time this week at First Baptist (what’s going on here?).

What is the Kingdom of Heaven like, and with what shall I compare it? It’s like a rainbow-colored public school mass choir singing gospel songs in a church sanctuary until people just have to get up out of their pews and dance. When that happens, heaven comes to earth.

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Tonight in that same sanctuary someone will make the sign of the cross on my forehead and invite me to begin a 40-day Lenten journey with Jesus. The mood will be almost completely different.  We will move from the joyful Mardi Gras of last night’s concert to the sober reflection of Ash Wednesday.

And yet this, too, is how heaven comes to earth.