Saturday, July 28, 2012

Realism, Race, and RUF in Mississippi

Black and White in Mississippi

Black Couple Denied Wedding in White Church

James Meredith
The lead story in today’s Clarion Ledger is about a black couple who were not allowed to have their marriage ceremony at the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs, MS, because of opposition from some church members. The minister of the church conducted the service but in the sanctuary of another congregation, because he did not want “controversy” at First Baptist. But controversy is just what First Baptist has got.

One indication of how far we have come in Mississippi is that local community leaders as well as members of the church have expressed their embarrassment and strongly asserted that what happened is not reflective of Crystal Springs today. The mayor announced a community unity celebration will be held next Monday.

This morning all this stirred memories of Mississippi 35 plus years ago for this soon to be 65 year old minister.

I grew up in the segregated south and fully shared its racial prejudice. In fact I could not have thought of another way to think. I began high school in 1962, the year that Pensacola High School integrated. By “integrated” I mean, if memory serves, one black male and two black females entering a school covered with police.  Later during seminary I spent the summers of 1970 and 1971 assisting the pastor of the black Presbyterian Church in JacksonMississippi.

I was a Presbyterian campus minister at the university in Mississippi whose cheer might have been, “We’re #3! We’re #3!” Among the campus ministries, we were something like the un-cool little brother the Joe Cool older brothers did not know quite what to do with.  Our group was small. We felt good any week we had 40 or more students at our large group meeting, and often we did not have that many. Socially we were a little awkward, coming from the “working” class families - families of school teachers, military members, shop keepers, farmers (not planters). Our students lived in dorms not fraternity and sorority houses. If Garth Brooks had been around we would have lustily sung with him, “I’ve got friends in low places...” Like the school our group carried a collective chip on its shoulder which made victories over in-state football rivals very sweet.

Our group also became integrated. By the end of my seven years black students made up 30+% of those who attended Bible studies. Black students were part of our core group (student leadership). Some of our black students attended one of the local Presbyterian churches sometimes.

Not long ago I saw one of those black students who observed to me, “You were ahead of your time.” That may be the only time this reactionary has been so described. But there was a kernel of truth in his comment. We were “ahead of our time” in that we caused not a little consternation.

On one occasion a church was interested in hiring a part-time secretary who might come from the campus. It was made clear to me that the person could not be black. I pointed that such discrimination might be illegal. The way this unremarkable statement was later reported to me was that I had “called down the fiery wrath of God” on the congregation if they didn’t hire a black.

On another occasion I was asked to meet with some representatives of a local congregation who felt they should see more students from the campus ministry attending their church. I responded that I would be happy to issue invitations on their behalf to attend their church but that it would be extended to all which would include black students. The miffed feelings from that congregation continued, but the pressure to invite did not.

By far the ugliest situation arose when a white student and black student dated. The story could be told much more vividly and poignantly, but for their sakes I do not.  My bottom line position was that the Bible did not forbid interracial marriage. I knew they did and would face a great many problems if the relationship continued, but, when pushed to help break up the couple, I refused. Eventually it became clear that they would marry and one weekend one of them returned from visiting the other who had graduated and informed us that they were now married. Only later did I learn that a person in a ministry supervisory position had gone to them and told them that “for the good of the ministry” they must not ask me to officiate at a marriage ceremony.  I was not pleased then, and I am not now. I was and still am also very sad about it.

Today’s news from Crystal Springs and memories of Mississippi campus ministry days lead to a few observations.

1)    I made a lot of mistakes in campus ministry, but these decisions about race were not among them. There will always be tensions in this world between what is “wise” and what is right, and Christians fool themselves if they think they are free of such tensions. But, there are times you just have to do the right thing, not the prudent one. St. Jude is my patron saint and Don Quixote my sometime model. There are times when it’s necessary to fight battles you are more likely to lose than to win. Pragmatism cannot prevail always.

2)    Mississippi and the churches in Mississippi have come a long way. Those from other places who lack Mississippi’s past and present are in no place to judge the state justly. Mississippi continues to suffer for her own sins (e.g. injustices associated with slavery, segregation, denial of citizenship rights) and the sins of others (e,g. injustices associated with the waging of the War, the plan of reconstruction, the enactment of laws that apply only to the south). The solutions for the severe and seemingly intractable problems that remain are very hard to envision. If they come, they will have to arise among Mississippians and will require all but impossible changes of attitude and practice on the part of her black and white citizens. The Federal Government and do-gooders, as well-intentioned as they may be, cannot fix these things for us. (I use “us” advisedly knowing that you cannot be “from here” if you were not born here.)

3)    There is a new generation of ministers including campus ministers who speak glibly of  African-American (not black) individuals and churches, who support black ministries, who apologize for slavery, and who generally feel themselves quite enlightened compared to an earlier generation. But they have very little understanding, much less appreciation, of what was experienced by members of an earlier generation when Biblical racial views and practices cost things like support by ministry structures, monetary commitments by churches, jobs, and family security. Would today’s ministers pay the dues paid by those who cried in the wilderness of racial prejudice and tried to make the crooked and rough places of Christian racial discrimination a little straighter and little plainer? I am not so sure.

4)    Recognition needs to be given to the students of those campus ministry years. The white students genuinely welcomed the black students. The black students dealt with being the “minority” in a campus group and the stigma of attending a “white” Bible study. None of the students was free of prejudice, known and unknown to consciousness, but they treated one another as Christians called to accept as brothers and sisters those whom Christ accepted. They had and still have courage. They stood for what was right and by and with their campus minister. I am proud of the way they have turned out and am privileged to have a number of them as friends and several as ministerial colleagues. They are much loved by the two old folks who live here. 

5)    It is interesting to stand back and look at oneself in terms of race then and now. My views in today’s context are considered racist by some. I do not believe all intellectual traditions are equal. The western tradition has many flaws and sins, but it is the best the world has produced. I still believe in racial integration and cultural assimilation. I still believe in judging not by the color of skin but by the content of character to which I would add the code of conduct. I think the problems that our society faces now have little to do with color and a lot to do with culture, and that cultural convictions are not the same as racial prejudice.  I don’t see any inherent reasons Reformed theology and worship are not universal. I believe the church is not black or white. I believe the life of the kingdom is lived out in the church, but I don’t believe that means the church is called to “community action.” Like I said, I’m a reactionary.

Realism, Race, and RUF in Mississippi. In black and white.

1 comment:

ClayQ said...

Thanks for sharing this insider's view. Those are few, and I agree we need more of this from those who grew up within it, rather than judgments from outsiders. Too few view the issues as cultural; it's too easy to judge and label it all as racism.