Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” –Mark Twain
When the regional headquarters for our denomination asked me to move my family from a large metropolitan area to a small rural community in the far reaches of the Conference, our sensibilities were challenged. My duties were to pastor two small churches (35 miles apart) in a county that was sparsely populated. It seemed like everyone in the town where we lived had a pickup truck with a whip antenna, a dog and a gun rack. Walking through the parking lot to the grocery store was like navigating an obstacle course through dried, and sometimes not-so-dried, wads of chewing tobacco. At times we felt like we had landed on another planet.
One of the things that took some getting used to was the food. The locals ate foods we had never heard of, like Skunk Cabbage—which consisted of Cabbage Palm hearts cooked in a savory concoction that actually tasted pretty good. They were also crazy about sweet potatoes, collard greens, corn bread and black eyed-peas. The people were warm and friendly, and we were determined to fulfill our calling as best we could.
I’m able to look back on that experience now with a degree of fondness that is both instructive and positive. First of all, it was a time of significant personal and spiritual growth. More than any other time in my ministry, I had large chunks of uninterrupted time for study and sermon preparation. It was also a significant time for our family, as our children were small and we were living in a place where we didn’t have any extended family nearby—we were naturally drawn closer to each other.
During the two and a half years we were there, some of the local attitudes tested our patience, and in particular, my call to ministry. One challenge had to do with the racial prejudice that cropped up in one of our church leaders.
Jesse, who was in his 60s, was originally from central Georgia.* He was a deacon in the church, and for a time was actively involved in helping with whatever needed to be done. However, over a period of weeks I began to notice that I hadn’t seen him in any of our services, and I wondered if he and his wife were OK. If your church only has 34 members, it’s really obvious when someone is missing. But, between the two churches, I kept busy with things to do, and several months passed before I realized that Jesse had stopped attending altogether.
When I finally showed up at his door, Jesse seemed a little surprised and hesitant to see me. We chatted for a few minutes about our families and some local news before I mentioned he had been missed at our services. When I spoke of the church, it was obvious Jesse was bothered about something, and he acted like he didn’t want to talk about it.
So we continued our “small talk” for a few more minutes before he abruptly stopped and said, “Preacher, you’ve got n_ _ _ _ _ _ coming to church, and I don’t like it. They don’t belong with us. Further more, the day you baptize one into our church, you can take my name off the books.” I was stunned! I hadn’t realized how strongly Jesse felt about associating with blacks. He really didn’t like it. He said it wasn’t natural. I was blown away.
Regaining my composure I said, “Jesse, when you get to heaven, what are you going to do if you have a black family living next door?” He was quiet for a few moments, then he said, “things will be different up there. The n_ _ _ _ _ _ up there won’t be the same as the ones down here.” Then Jesse preceded to tell me about a time, when he was much younger, that he shot a black man who was walking in front of his house making a lot of noise. But he quickly assured me that he didn’t kill him.
Jesse said, “this black man was walking in front of my house, making a lot of noise. He was drunk and loud. I told him to leave, but he wouldn’t go away. So, I got my shotgun and loaded it with some birdshot and went out to the backyard—far enough away so I wouldn’t kill him, and I shot him. And after that he left.”
I sat there hardly believing what I had just heard. Before I could speak, Jesse continued, “Later that day the sheriff came by and said, ‘Jesse, I heard something about you that I don’t like. Don’t let it happen again.’ Then the sheriff drove away and I never heard any more.”
What do you say to a church leader who believes it’s OK to shoot people that they find annoying; or to exclude people from baptism in their church because they aren’t the right color? It was unsettling, to say the least. I told Jesse that he needed God to change his heart and assured him that our church would be accepting of anyone (regardless of color) who wanted to be part of God’s family.
We integrated both churches while I was there, but I can’t remember that Jesse ever came back! I prayed for his heart to be softened and for him to be able see others through God’s eyes, but by the time I left he had not returned.
When I think about Jesse and others from his generation who were raised in the deep South, I understand where it comes from. There is no excuse for it, but having been raised in the South, albeit, in some of the more cosmopolitan parts, I saw racism and bigotry growing up. But I was not prepared for such a blatant expression of it by someone who professed to be a Christian, let alone an Adventist church leader.
We would like to think we’re not that way anymore; that our world is more civilized and accepting. But all we have to do is turn on the news. And, I still hear evidence of prejudice, selfishness and bigotry in some of our churches.
At times I have wondered if the church is too far gone. How can we ever reflect God’s love in ways that are authentic and true? Will the church ever be the theater of grace that God wants it to be?
More than anything, we need to be stripped of the faulty attitudes that have been handed down to us from previous generations—attitudes that prevent us from seeing one another as God does. We need to stop drinking from the poisonous wells of talk-radio and trash-TV that promote politically driven, anti-Christian sentiments.
God’s promise to ancient Israel extends to those who are part of spiritual Israel today.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities…. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:25-26, NIV).
* The name has been changed to protect his privacy.© 2017 - 2020 Church Support Services. All rights reserved. Click here for content usage information.