I’m thankful for the student body at my Alma Mater, Emory & Henry College, for coming together to witness to the ideal that we should practice unity amidst the diversity of people in our world. We need that witness.
Racism and other “isms” have been around a long time. It will take quite a while to eliminate them. In fact, I wonder if we ever will. After all, we live in the era of post-fall-from-grace humanity. The “Adam and Eve after the Serpent’s Temptation” era. This means, try as we might, (and try we’d better, by the way), we will never completely eliminate any sinful part of the human condition so long as we live in this sinful and broken world. Yet, what a wonderful world it would be if we could make just a little more progress, at least.
This month marks the 32nd year since I preached my first sermon. I was invited to preach it in a very small membership church, whose membership was composed of African American United Methodists. There were 8 on the roll, I believe, at that time. The sermon wasn’t much, after all, it was my first attempt. But I was pleased that some 24 people came out to witness it. Among them were friends from the college (I was a sophomore that year), and members of the church choir I was working with at the time from nearby Grace Presbyterian Church. The encouragement I received that day will never be forgotten. The black community in Glade Spring, Virginia is very close-knit, and filled with love and grace.
One of the members of that community was the custodian of Emory & Henry’s Memorial Chapel, where I often went to seek solace from the rigors of academia. I would sit with him while he polished the brassware on the altar. Dan Hounshell was a member of the Mt Carmel United Holy Church of Glade Spring. He was filled with stories and it didn’t take much to get him started telling them. We shared plenty during those years. I remember his advice to me after graduating seminary: “I’ve always said,” he started in his wisened style, “whenever you get more than eight or ten people together, you’ll have problems.”
A member of our Grace Choir, Mrs Virginia Lockhart, was another vital teacher of mine. She broke the racial divide in that small Presbyterian Church when a friend invited her to sing in the choir, along with her granddaughters. A fight ensued in the choir over her presence therein. Things were said like “They have their own church.” My buddy Scott and I stood up for her and said “If she goes, we go.” They relented. Although it wasn’t a piece of cake after that, we had a good alto section! Virginia and I corresponded while I was a student in seminary at Duke. I was enrolled in “Black Church Studies,” which was a requirement for all seminarians there at the time. I told her I was ashamed of the way we white people had treated black folks, as I had been reading about it. She was quick to agree, but also to point out, “Don’t you believe that there aren’t also some black folks who have done evil things too.” I thought that comment helped me a lot in understanding that human nature is broken regardless of the context.
I spent some time in seminary with Will Campbell, the great Civil Rights preacher from Tennessee. His works, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” and “40 Acres and a Goat” were pivotal in my understanding the work of those who have fought for justice during this era of social upheaval. Campbell loved to get under folks’ skin. For it’s beneath the skin that we all look the same. He was the model after whom Doug Marlette, the cartoonist, drew Reverend Will B. Dunn.
There are many things to say about the racial divide. We have a long way toward fixing that in America. I cringe every time I think about how racially divided the church is. I’ve had opportunities to worship where white, black and other ethnicities are present. It seems so much fuller, and more faithfully driven when we’re together. But the church is not the only segregated segment of our world. There are others.
I have tried to befriend people who are different from me. It isn’t always easy. People who have been hurt by others who look like you don’t always want to try to trust another. But that’s the only way we will move forward in this land.
Then I’m reminded as I do genealogy, that at least part of my family are referenced in documents that list people who were enslaved because of their skin color as property. I am convicted of the sinfulness of my ancestors when I read those lists.
I hope the students at Emory & Henry continue to march for unity. I hope many others will join them. Hopefully I can be part of a similar effort here where I live. Because I want to believe that if we work hard enough, we can eliminate the hate and ugliness that so often besets our prideful human life. I hope we can follow the way of our Savior whose act of self-giving was central to how we are to come together.
Until we get there, let’s keep dreaming.