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?

“I Hate My Body!”

You never know what you might find in a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves, or in a chapter called “Joyous Body: the Wild Flesh,” but I was delighted to find this important corrective to much of what our culture has taught us about our bodies.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:  “My friend Opalanga, an African-American storyteller, is very tall, like a yew tree, and as slender.  I am built close to the ground and of extravagant body.  In addition to being mocked for being tall, as a child Opalanga was told that the split between her front teeth was the sign of being a liar.  I was told that my body shape were signs of being inferior and of having no self-control.

“How amazed I was to hear Opalanga say that as an adult she had journeyed to the Gambia in West Africa and found some of her ancestral people, who lo! had among their tribe, many people who were very tall like the yew trees and as slender, and who had splits between their front teeth.  This split, they explained to her, was called the Sakaya Yallah, meaning ‘opening of God,’ and it was understood as a sign of wisdom.

“How surprised she was when I told her I had also as an adult journeyed to the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and found fome of my ancestral people, who lo! were a tribe with giant women who were strong, flirtatious, and commanding in their size.  They had patted me and plucked at me, boldly remarking that I was not quite fat enough.  Did I eat enough?  Had I been ill?  I must try harder, they explained, for women are La Tierra, made round like the earth herself, for the earth holds so much” (pp. 201-202).

What wonderful pictures of womanhood!  And how wonderfully different from that bosomy, airbrushed and unattainable image on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine month after month, that image so many women keep trying to force their perfectly tall, gap-toothed, or beautifully short, earth-shaped, bodies into.

I wonder…was Adam a balding, bow-legged Semite, with crooked teeth and twinkling eyes?  Was Eve a squat, heavy-thighed helpmate, with lovely gray locks and a voice like running water?  Did God look on his creation in that moment, made in his own image, and say with a smile, “Behold!  It is very good!”?

I don’t know.  I may never know.  And I wouldn’t want to suggest that whatever shape we’re in is the shape we’re supposed to be in.  There is still much to be said for a reasonable diet and regular exercise.  But let me say this: there is a difference, a theological difference, between getting yourself into shape and getting yourself into someone else’s shape.  To do the latter is to deny the goodness of God’s creation.  It is to say that somehow, when God made you, he made a mistake.

That is a lie.

As the psalmist says, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes might say, as you yourself can say without fear of divine contradiction:

“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” (Psalm 139:14).

How Do I Stop My Enemies?

I know that I’m supposed to love my enemies.  Jesus said so (Matt. 5:44).  But on Tuesday morning I was wondering how I could stop my enemies, because they were coming to my town.

Some of the members of Westboro Baptist Church were coming to Richmond to spread their message of hate at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Jewish Community Center, and Hermitage High School.  You may have seen these people before.  Led by Pastor Fred Phelps the members of this widely recognized hate group stage protests across the country and carry signs that say, “God Hates Fags,” “Rabbis Rape Babies,” “America is Doomed,” all the while chanting things like “You’re going to hell!” and “God hates Jews!” 

You get the picture.

I’m a member of the Jewish Community Center, where I work out several times a week.  When I heard Westboro Baptist Church was going to be protesting there I wrote the following letter to Executive Director Jordan Shenker.

Dear Mr. Shenker:

I learned this morning that the Weinstein JCC has been chosen as one of the locations for a demonstration by the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church,” a hate group from Topeka, Kansas.

I am writing to condemn the actions of this group, and to offer the friendship and solidarity of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I assure you that this group has no affiliation with the faithful Christian tradition to which we belong.  We stand with you against such hatred, which we find nowhere in the teachings of Moses or Jesus. 

I am a member of the Weinstein JCC.  I work out in the fitness center there several times per week.  I have received the warmest possible welcome from your staff and from my fellow members.  It grieves me that this group has chosen your center as a place to spread its message of hate.  The only thing stronger, and the only thing with which we can counter such atrocity, is love.

I send this letter in that spirit.

Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church

I followed up with a personal visit on Monday and talked with Mr. Shenker’s assistant.  She thanked me for my concern and assured me that they understood Westboro Baptist Church was not affiliated with “the Baptist Church.”  I asked her what we could do to help and she said they were planning to ignore the protestors as much as possible, to let them be seen for what they are—a tiny band of hatemongers. 

Some of my colleagues decided to participate in counterprotests, to see if the message of love could drown out the message of hate.  I saw them on the news last night and I think they were, more or less, successful.  My friend Wallace Adams-Riley sent a text message that read, simply: “Jesus won.”

But I found myself praying for Fred Phelps, the leader of  this group.  I can only imagine what he has been through—how he has been mistreated, molested, or abused—but I imagine that somewhere along the way Hate had its way with him and made him its disciple.  I found myself praying that Love would have its way with him instead, and he would become its disciple; that he would someday repent on national television and tell the world through tears, “I was wrong!  God doesn’t hate anybody!  God doesn’t even hate me!” 

It’s probably too much to hope for, but that’s how I’m trying to stop my enemies: by praying for them.

Join me, won’t you?