I was born and raised perhaps in the one of the most integrated groups of racially mixed people in our culture during the early 1950s and 60s - the U. S. military! The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines had no room for racism. I’m not saying there was no racism practiced in any of our military branches by many of the officers, rank and file, but, it’s hard to have a racist attitude towards another human when you are fighting for your life, or you are living in similar, if not, exact conditions together regardless of their skin color or race.
,Colored People. Those were the words my mother would use when she spoke of what we now call Black, or African-American people. She wasn’t trying to be racist as some may accuse her of today, but she was trying to be as kind as she knew how. From my earliest memories my mother was a defender of those that were disenfranchised. She always had empathy for them and respected them. I never, ever heard the “N” word come from her mouth. It may have been her Christian background, her parents teaching her love and respect for everybody regardless of skin color, or the fact that she grew up very poor and was often grouped with others that were poor in northern Alabama that happened to be people of color.
It didn’t go unnoticed by me that whenever I was at church there were no African-Americans among the gathered. There were none at my mother’s Peoria home church, the Paris Ave. Church of Christ, and no African-Americans members at the churches I attended growing up in Brunswick, Maine, or Newport, Rhode Island. Even though these former hometowns of mine were heavily populated by military people, one may have expected this to be a very integrated group of people. The reality was that it was still the 1950’s and 60’s. I had plenty of school classmates and neighborhood friends that were Black, but none of my church family were Black.
In the mid-to-late sixties Dr. Martin Luther King was rising to national prominence. I watched the news on TV when he was on, and I was intrigued by this man. I loved to hear him speak. His rhythm, diction, tempo, and articulation were all very powerful and persuasive. What I liked even more about Dr. King was the creative crafting of words and phrases for which he became known. I vividly remember the line, that was spoken by Dr. King, “11 o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.” Even at my middle school age, that really gave me pause… He was so right, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that churches and Christians couldn’t sit in the same room at 11:00 o’clock on a Sunday morning, with somebody of a different race and color.
Roll forward six years to 1974. I was now enrolled at Harding College. I was a double major, and one of those majors was Bible. One Sunday my girlfriend, Donna Losak and I, decided to attend worship at her hometown church which was only about 50 miles away in Hazen, Arkansas. That also meant going to home to her parent’s house after church for lunch. A home-cooked meal from her mom? Yes, please!
We pulled into town and found our way to the church building, the Hazen Church of Christ. It was a small church of about 30-40 people, probably less on most days. They didn’t have a full-time preacher and only had a paid, part-time preacher, who was also an officer in the Air Force, stationed in nearby Jacksonville. After we arrived and found Donna’s mother and aunt Cora, we discovered that the part-time preacher was not going to be there that day. The church had nobody scheduled to preach. Donna’s mother scurried up to two of the primary leaders at the congregation and informed them that her daughter’s boyfriend, me, was visiting from Harding, and that I was a Bible major. A few men looked back and picked me out of the small group of members who had gathered around me and Donna.
When they made eye contact with me, I could tell they wanted to talk to me. After some simple welcome and introductions, one of the men explained they were without a preacher speaker that morning, and would I be willing to speak?
At the age of 20, I was probably too young to understand the magnitude of what they were asking me to do for them. Most men, even Bible majors, would have been terrified by this request. Not me! I lived for moments like this. I was probably a little too cocky and arrogant to think that I couldn’t do this. Plus, one of my Bible teachers recently told me, “Always be prepared, you’ll never know when a surprise invitation to speak will arise!” Wow, was he prophetic. He also said the best way to be prepared for that surprise is to carry some simple notes of a generic sermon in your Bible. I had actually hand wrote them in the back of my Bible on a few of those blank pages that are often in books and Bibles. I just turned in my Bible to those notes and said, “Sure, I can do that.”
I must have done OK, because afterwards there were lots of back-patting, smiles, and warm thank you’s for stepping up. And they PAID me for preaching! As fate would have it, I received a call about 4 weeks later telling me that their young Air Force preacher was being transferred, and asking would I be interested in taking his part-time job on a permanent basis? I agreed, but told them that when I graduated, I wanted to move on to my professional calling – whatever that might be? It was certainly God blessing me at the time because I was flat-broke most of the time.
Now, every week I was leaving Searcy on a Sunday morning, and driving down to Hazen, Arkansas to preach. Of course, Donna, my girlfriend, soon to be fiancé, and then wife came with me every week. We would always eat at her mother’s house for lunch that day. I would preach again that evening before driving back to Harding. We got married the next August and that preaching money was our primary income. I did that for about two years it was a great blessing for me to be able to teach and preach, and for the income that preaching generated. I grew to really love so many people of that congregation many of whom were Donna's relatives.
As the months, weeks, and days drew closer to my graduation I kept reminding them that they needed to start their search for another preacher. “Yes,” they said, they would get right on that. However, they never did anything. Surprise, surprise! My supposed end time of my obligation was getting closer as we approached May 1977. I was ready to move on, and they hadn't started looking for a preacher yet.
I really didn’t want to just give the leaders at the church a date and say, “After May, I’m outta here!” After conversing with a few of the leaders I realized that they had no idea where to start the process of finding a preacher. I knew of several networks of preacher schools, Bible colleges and preachers looking to move on to a new location. I volunteered to help them find them a preacher. They took that as I would do it all, and that I would stay on preaching until I found somebody... and I did – stay on – until I found somebody.
I've found him at the Harding Graduate School of Religion (HGSR), just 90 miles to the east of Hazen in Memphis, Tennessee. The thinking was that if we could get a man from the HGSR he would be higher educated and probably younger. If he was in graduate school, he could live in Hazen and make the trek to Memphis once or twice per week for his classes and still serve us very adequately for our needs. We never deluded ourselves into thinking we were hiring a preacher that would stay for the next 45 years. After having a “Help Wanted Preacher” announcement posted on the bulletin board on the campus, I soon received a call from a young man named Joel who seemed to check all the boxes and, on paper at least, fit what we were looking for.
We brought Joel, and his lovely and sweet wife, over and interviewed him. After we made an offer and it was accepted, the church helped him buy a small house a few blocks down the road from the church building.
A year or so later, after Joel had settled into his new job quite nicely, he called me and said, "I want to have a gospel campaign in Hazen. A campaign that would include a gospel meeting. Would you be willing to come back and preach that gospel meeting?” Of course, I said I would, and I was excited about doing so, after all, it was my adopted Arkansas hometown, (through marriage).
On the day that we were going to have our campaign, and the day before our gospel meeting started, we were going to simply have a door knocking campaign inviting people to the gospel meeting for which I would be preaching. All the volunteers from the church gathered at the building the Saturday before the meeting started. We divided up a little-maps-of-the-town. The maps were supplied by the church matriarch, the wife of the primary leader. There were no elders, so the church managed itself by the default rule of a “Men’s Business Meeting.”
Ms. Matriarch had gone to a lot of work getting maps copied and handed out with highlighter marking to show where each door-knocking team should go. I looked at the map and inquisitively asked, “What about the neighborhood over here to the west of the high school?”
“Oh, that’s where the colored people live. They don’t want to come here, they have their own church,” she said.
“Well, can’t we invite them and let them decide if they just want to come visit us?”
“No, she demanded, they are not to come to our church.”
Joel and I looked at each other completely stunned about what we were hearing. I had only been in Arkansas about three years by then and had not had any direct dealings with racism, especially in the church. Oh, I knew the community all around us was fraught with racism undertones and strife, after all it was the deep south. Maybe I was naïve, but I never expected it in the church for which I was raised.
As everyone headed out the door, Joel and I looked at each other and I could almost hear the words that I was thinking, except they were coming out of his mouth when he said, “Why don’t you and I take that neighborhood?”
I quickly said, “Yes, let’s go!”
I had no idea the turmoil we were setting in motion by defying Ms. Matriarch. This woman never came to the business meetings, but I’m sure she pulled the puppet strings of the primary leader, her husband and had a backdoor vote in every decision that was made relating to finances and church operations.
I found out during the 2-1/2 years I was preaching there that she was absolutely in charge of everything! They had a 40ish year-old son that was mentally challenged and still lived them at home. He also never went to a Men’s Business Meeting although by the unspoken church rules, (of simply being a member, being baptized and male), he qualified to do so if he wanted.
A few months later I heard through my mother-in-law that Joel’s job was in jeopardy and she wasn’t sure why, asking if I knew anything about that? Of course, I gave Joel and a call and found out that the canvasing the black neighborhood was the beginning of what he perceived to be the end of his ministry in Hazen. He didn’t want to leave. Joel and his wife were expecting a baby and he had another year or so of school at HGSR that he wanted to finish while living and working in Hazen. Joel also told me that there was going to be a Men’s Business Meeting to discuss the matter. I wanted to be there to defend Joel. After all, I was just as much to blame as he was, if there was even any blame to be had. I told Donna, “We’re going to Hazen this Sunday to go to church, and visit your mother.”
As the Sunday evening service ended the men started to gather at the classroom where their business meetings were held. I asked if I could sit in on the meeting? They all smiled and said, “Of course, you’re almost one of us.” As I entered the room I saw the usual gathering of men plus to my surprise, the 40 something year old, mentally challenged son of Ms. Matriarch. He had never been to a men’s business meeting in the last three to four years that I had been attending as their part time preacher, or as the husband of one of their young women who was born and raised at that church.
The proceedings started with the usual we had this bill come in and it was paid, needed building repairs that needed to be scheduled… and then it happened. Without ever stating a specific cause, Mister Matriarch's, husband brought up the ill feelings of the church by some of the actions of Joel the preacher. Everybody knew it was about inviting the “wrong” people to worship with us. Much discussion ensued. To be fair, there was a lot of discussion and opinions that supported Joel and his so-called lack of judgement. As the talk continued for what seemed like a long, long time, somebody suggested instead of talking about this that a vote should be taken.
There were ten men in the room. Myself, the preacher, and eight other regular members. A motion was advanced to have Joel let go and a vote followed. Keep in mind that the mentally challenged adult son of Mr. and Mrs. Matriarch was prepared to vote. That’s when it dawned on me as to why he was attending when he never had before. I concluded that Mrs. Matriarch sent him in with her vote. The vote tally was four to let him go, and four to keep him. What to do? Everybody looked around the room and eventually to me. “Steve, what do you think?” Joel and I did NOT vote. I was technically not a member there and according to unwritten church of Christ protocol only male, baptized MEMBERS of the congregation could vote. I simply said, “Well, I’m not a member, but Joel is a member here. Joel, I continued, how do you vote?”
Joel seemed very surprised that I tossed this in his lap, and after an awkward silent pause, a light-bulb went off above his head when he realized what I was doing. He stood up, looked around the room at everybody and slowly said, “Yes, I am a member here. My wife and I have lived here for about two-and-half years now. We live right down the road, here in town. I have never missed a single meeting in all of that time. So yes, I am a member here... I get to vote… and I vote… I stay,” and he sat down!
There was another quiet pause as the men all looked at each other not knowing what to do before I said, “The vote is 5 to 4, for Joel to stay.” Everybody looked around the room again nodded or shaking their heads. And just like that, the meeting was over. The men stood up, made a few comments of small talk about needing to get home, and we all filed out of the room.
Joel and I looked at each and just exhaled… no words were exchanged until Joel simply said, “Wow, I’m glad that’s over.”
I sighed, shook my head and said, “Joel, I am so sorry that had to go through this. And, I have no idea what you should do next.”
“Joel looked at me and bravely said, “At least I still have a job… for now.”
Later I found out that Joel went home that night, dusted off his resume, updated it, and promptly started look for a new place to preach.
That night and still to this day I remember the words of Dr. King, “11 o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.” Unfortunately, that statement is still true.
Years after that night that I call my, “I Vote I Stay,” moment, I have always lamented the lack of diversity we have in my fellowship of the Lord’s church. I have loved, befriended, fellow-shipped, worked with, and otherwise lived life with many different people of color. I have reached out to many people that might be called refugees of our world and in my neighborhood, long before those words became a modern-day political disaster. I have traveled to foreigners lands, and hometowns of those for which I had the privilege to preach, teach and mentor. Eleven different countries, (so far) and hope for many more before my traveling days are over.
Even though I have been a part of a few churches that started to approach an ethnically diverse community of believers, none of them reflected what I thought what heaven will be. In my comfort, or discomfort, about who was sitting across the pew or room with me I always wondered why we were not all together? I hated terms such as the “white church,” “the black church,” “the Chinese church,” or the “Spanish church.”
As I reflect on this demographic make-up of the church’s I have been a member, I have consoled my lack of understanding, with a few conclusions;
To the shame of most Christians in America, the words of Dr. King, “11 o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.” is still true.
Years later another black man, under great duress after being beaten by white Los Angeles police officers, made a statement that still rings true in my ears. Rodney King said in a press conference regarding race relations, “Why can’t we just all get along?” That is my prayer for the Christians who see race as a deterrent to unity.