In June 1962, when Linda and I loaded our few belongings in a U-Haul trailer in Watauga, Tennessee, and headed to Gaithersburg, Maryland, so that I could begin seminary, racial tensions were intensifying. Politicians fanned the flames of hatred, bigotry, and division.
George Wallace, a staunch segregationist, had just been elected governor of Alabama. He angrily stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama in an attempt to block the admission of two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Racial strife dominated the daily news.
Linda and I grew up in the segregated world of eastern Tennessee. I had no relationships with African-Americans and no experiences across the boundaries of race and ethnicity.
I had been appointed as student pastor of the Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel Methodist Churches while attending Wesley Theological Seminary in the nation’s capital. The two churches were located within 2 miles of one another on Darnestown Road. Hunting Hill was a former Methodist Episcopal Church, and MacDonald Chapel was part of the MEC South. The Methodist Episcopal Church had split into the two denominations over slavery in 1844.
The two denominations reunited in 1939 to form The Methodist Church. As a concession to the MEC South, the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction was formed for Black members.
Located on the same road and between Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel was Pleasant View Methodist Church, whose members were African-Americans.
So within two miles on the same stretch of road, three churches represented the history of the United Methodist Church’s struggle with racism.
As I drove past Pleasant View Church one weekday afternoon, I noticed a car parked beside the Parish Hall. I had not yet met the pastor. Perhaps this was my chance. What followed changed my life and approach to ministry.
I met The Reverend Tom Barrington, the pastor of Emory Grove and Pleasant View Methodist Churches. I was twenty-three years old, a seminary student, and a part-time pastor. He was in his mid fifties with a seminary degree and thirty years’ experience as a full-time pastor.
He greeted me with a warm smile and firm handshake. I learned that he was originally from the South — North Carolina as I recall. I immediately felt at ease in his presence and was impressed with his graciousness. It marked the beginning of my first friendship with an African-American colleague.
Soon, I confronted the institutional racism in The Methodist Church. Even though Reverend Barrington was far more experienced and educated than I and served full time, my annual salary exceeded his by $300!
During one of our subsequent informal conversations, Reverend Barrington mentioned that he wished he had enough boys to start a scout troop. Since we had an active scouting program at Hunting Hill, I suggested that his boys join the troop. His response exposed my naivete.
“Son,” he remarked, “do you want trouble?” “You may get run out of here if you try that. I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
I insisted that I ask the scout master, George Righter, if it would be okay to have the boys from Pleasant View join the troop. Much to the surprise of Reverend Barrington, George and the assistant leaders welcomed the new members of the troop without fanfare and minimum resistance.
Months later the Women’s Society of Christian Service (now United Methodist Women) of Pleasant View invited the women from MacDonald Chapel to a time of conversation and fellowship. Within a matter of weeks, the Methodist Men had a similar gathering. Barriers began coming down as relationships were formed across racial barriers.
Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel entered into a merger agreement during my last year as their pastor in 1965. Included in the agreement was expanded fellowship with Pleasant View and the possibility of them joining in the formation of the new church.
Suggestions for names for the newly formed church were received. I had placed in the suggestion box the name Fairhaven, from Acts 27.
Fair Haven was a temporary safe harbor amid a storm as Paul continued his journey to Rome. The name seemed an appropriate image for a church — a place of nurture and renewal for a community on the journey toward God’s reconciled community of justice and love.
In 1968, a transformative step on that journey was taken when the members of Pleasant View became part of the new church. While racial strife and division dominated the media, three strains of Methodism’s division came together in a congregation on Darnestown Road in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
In September 2008, Linda and I shared in a Homecoming and 40th Anniversary of Fairhaven. Following the service, a woman approached me.
“I want to apologize to you and thank you. You likely don’t remember me, but you may remember my father,” she remarked. After sharing his name, she reminded me that the family left the Hunting Hill Church in disagreement with the merger between Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel and the growing fellowship with Pleasant View.
She added, “I have returned to this church for the very reason my parents left it. My family is part of this church because of its diversity.”
Little did Reverend Barrington or I realize at the time that a small group of Boy Scouts, a women’s meeting, and a gathering of Methodist Men would be seeds from which a flourishing multi-racial congregation would spring forth. What we did realize, however, is that relationships matter!
Fifty-seven years have passed since that fateful day that I drove into the parking lot of Pleasant View and met Tom Barrington. Tom died in 1966. He never knew the impact he had on a young, naïve seminary student from East Tennessee.
Today, Fairhaven United Methodist Church stands as visible testimony to the reconciling power of the gospel when embodied in relationships of compassion, justice, and hospitality.+
September 27, Fairhaven will celebrate homecoming by Zoom with the theme “Through it All God Remains Faithful.” I will be giving thanks that those three small membership congregations demonstrated to a young pastor from the segregated South that relationships across racial barriers are the soil out of which grows new life.
*This is the third in a series as I engage in the coming months on a pilgrimage of remembering sixty years of ministry and life with my deceased wife, Linda. When possible, I will be visiting the communities where Linda and I lived and served.