Some weeks ago, John Dobbs challenged his readers to post articles in honor of those ministers that most changed their lives. I’ve been heading in other directions — and my life hasn’t really been influenced by ministers as much as by others. That’s nothing against the ministers of my youth — good men all — it’s just that I’m much more the product of other influences.
And, besides, it’s Father’s Day, and I’ve been thinking of a story I’ve been meaning to tell.
It was about 1970 in Russellville, Alabama, my home town — population (at the time) of 7,782 or so. It was just a couple of years after forced school desegregation. Racial integration had gone better in Russellville than in many other communities, but feelings were tense and emotions raw.
I was in high school at the time. My freshmen year had been the first year of full integration. It was culture shock for everyone, and both sides were struggling with the change.
My church had hired a college student from Florence State University (now the University of North Alabama) to serve as youth minister just for the summer. He was a good guy and taught us some new music: “Love, love, love, the gospel in a word is love” and “Humble Thyself.”
It was really cool for us kids to have our own music — music written in the singer/songwriter/folk style that was popular at the time. Songs that didn’t require shaped notes or a song leader to beat time. We felt very revolutionary.
Sometimes our youth minister would invite friends of his from the campus ministry at Florence State to hang out with us at youth events. It was exciting to have college kids from the big city of Florence spend time with us small town kids. One of our minister’s friends was black — which was (what’s the word?) strange. Or foreign, even. I mean, my home church — like every church in town — remained racially segregated. Every congregation in Russellville was all white or all black. If there was a black Church of Christ in the county, I’ve never heard of it. So a black college student stood out.
But we kids had been through integration already, we’d come to know black students as individuals. It was okay. Well, it was okay until the Sunday our youth minister was invited to preach to congregation — and his black friend from college showed up at church to support his friend.
Now, in my home church — like most churches — we all had our own pews. Families sat together, and they always sat in exactly the same place Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. If a visitor unwittingly sat in someone’s favorite spot, well, that would be a problem.
Our youth minister came early, being the preacher for the day, and his friend traveled with him. The minister had his friend sit in a spot not yet claimed by a local family, but near the front, on the left side of the center aisle, to be sure he’d have a good view. And then the congregation showed up — 3 minutes or less before church began, as was our custom.
And no one spoke to the young black man sitting all alone near the front. No one sat near him. Families that had sat on the row in front or behind his row for years found other places to sit. There was a great chasm all around him on all sides. And to regular members, such as myself, the ostracism and separation were painfully obvious. It was as though his blackness might be contagious. There he was on about row 4, on the aisle, right in the midst of where most of the congregation normally sat — and he was all alone.
I grew up in a family with four children, and we didn’t get to church any earlier than the rest of the congregation. The service began as we were sitting down. We had the announcements, the opening prayer, three songs (skipping the third verse each time), and then my dad, an elder and the most prominent attorney in town, got up to lead the “main prayer.” He walked to the front, stood before the church at the podium, and led the prayer.
He then descended the stairs, walked up the aisle where the black friend of the preacher was sitting, reached out his hand, welcomed him to church, shook his hand, asked whether he might sit next to him, and then sat down. And there he sat throughout the service, not with his family and not more than an inch or two apart from our youth minister’s friend.
As I sat there taking in this drama — this performance art — I could hear sobbing throughout the church. When the service ended, the young man was surrounded by greeters and well-wishers, hugs and embraces all around. And many a tear was shed in shame.
So what does it mean to live in “faithful presence with”? Well, it means to live like Jesus.
First, his power was derived from his complete intimacy with and submission to his Father. …
[Second is] his rejection of status and reputation and the privilege that accompanies them. …
[Third,] he endured [those degradations] willingly because of his love for fallen humanity and for his creation more broadly. ..
[Fourth] the social power exercised by Christ was the noncoercive way in which he dealt with those outside the community of faith.
To live like Jesus, you have to hang out with the lepers and publicans and Samaritans of your day, loving them because they need someone to love them — risking name and reputation if need be, because that’s how Jesus did it — trusting God to make it right in the end. Do this, and you’ll change lives.