Relationships Break Down Racial Barriers*

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.

A Needed Challenge from a Black Friend

I have been reluctant in recent weeks to add my voice to the plethora of  commentaries on race and white supremacy. Careful listening, honest self-examination, and prayerful reflection have seemed a more appropriate approach.

I’ve tried to be attentive to the voices of the victims of racism and white supremacy. I have also attempted to probe my own experiences for residues of racism and participation in the benefits of being white in this culture.

White privilege has been my lot for almost eighty years, and I continue to reap the advantages of systemic racism.

Extricating myself from these sins has been a lifelong struggle.  I have made progress from my childhood days of segregation and Jim Crow. But, I still have work to do!

In the sermon I delivered at the worship service in which I was received as the bishop in Mississippi in September 2000, I acknowledged my own participation in systemic racism and white privilege. I called racism a diabolical sin from which I want to be delivered. I invited the clergy and laity present to confront me whenever they detected prejudice or racism in my actions, adding, “I may be embarrassed by your confronting me, but I’d rather lose face than lose my soul.”

Following the service, a Black member of the Cabinet pulled me aside. He affirmed my openness and commitment to justice and reconciliation. Then, he added, “But, bishop, we Black people can’t cure your racism. Don’t put that burden on us, too!”

He spoke the truth! Racism is a problem we White folks have created, and we must work diligently to root out this deadly personal and systemic sin.

For too long, we have put the responsibility onto Blacks. If they will only respond, behave, do, act, and believe as WE want or expect, then racism would disappear. Such an expectation or projection is clear evidence of our White privilege and presumed superiority.

A first step toward a solution to racism is for us White folks to humbly acknowledge that WE are the problem. We must get beyond our defensiveness and engage the long process of repentance, turning toward the “beloved community” where reconciliation rooted in justice is possible.

The Cabinet member and friend who refused to take responsibility to overcome my racism contributed to my ongoing healing. I am grateful to him!

I’ll continue to listen, learn, reflect, and repent. Perhaps I will share more about my ongoing journey toward the beloved community. I want to contribute to the solution rather than add to the problem.

 

 

A Decisive Moment

I feel like I’m back in the 1950’s and 1960’s! Hateful crowds shouting racist, anti-Semitic insults! Angry whites accusing blacks of being “trouble makers!” Armed police officers trying to keep order! Torches lighting the dark night! Politicians scrambling to justify their silence or outright support of racism and white supremacy! Pastors struggling to know what to say and do! The upper echelons of the churches speaking out against injustice, while most local churches remain oblivious!

But there is a frightening difference this time: the KKK members don’t wear hoods and white supremacists happily show up in the media espousing their hatred and violence. Hatred, white superiority, and moral bankruptcy have gone mainstream.

The politics of hatred and economics of disparity have formed an unholy alliance. White privilege dominates public policy, including medical care, taxation, voting regulations, criminal justice, education, even drug addiction concerns.

In the name of “personal choice” or “individual freedom,” those with economic and political clout further limit the choices of the politically and economically powerless.

There is no overarching vision being articulated by our political, religious, and civic leaders. Moral leadership has gone by a.w.o.l! Rather than contributing to a common vision, peace, and clear moral direction, the President publicly channels and exacerbates the racism, bullying, and disrespect that are poisoning our society.

Mere condemnation, however, is no solution, although naming the evils is an important component of healing. Deeper self-examination and genuine repentance are called for, especially by those of us who are among the privileged, privilege built on the backs and from the blood of the poor, the enslaved, the exploited, and the vulnerable.

Self-examination and repentance are hard work and costly! Confronting our own complicity in systemic evil and facing our personal demons takes courage and vulnerability.

We white folks have a long history of benefiting from oppression, exploitation, and violence. Our forebears came to this land, claiming to “discover” it and with violence and deception took the land from native peoples. We forced them on “a trail of tears” and onto reservations.

Our predecessors from Europe went to Africa, captured men, women and children, ripped them from their families and cultures, brought them on slave ships to this country, and treated them as mere property subject to abuse and discarding. A whole economy was built on the bent backs and steaming sweat of black and brown people.

Repentance involves facing the harsh truth that we continue to benefit from being white in a country that has “white-washed” its history.

An immediate question before us is this: Will we use our privilege to work for justice, equality, and peace?  Or, will we continue to protect our privileges by remaining silent and complicit in the face of current bigotry, violence, and injustice?

Will we move out of our economic, racial, political, and religious bubbles and enter into solidarity with the marginalized, the powerless, the pushed aside? Or, will be remain in our exclusive enclaves and demonize those who call for inclusion and belonging?

Will we concede to political partisanship and moral bankruptcy of our current elected officials? Or, will we demand truthfulness, justice, and moral character of our leaders?

Will our churches persist in their racial and class segregation and pursuit of what one historian calls “expansion by evasion”? Or, will congregations intentionally reflect the diversity of the human family and become centers of respectful dialogue and advocacy on the issues that threaten our common humanity under God?

Signs of hope seem remote this week. However, Christians affirm that the decisive victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. May we as individuals and congregations be visible signs of God’s ultimate triumph of compassion, justice, hospitality, generosity, and peace!