Working for Something Better

The President’s racism hits me like a body blow. Of course I know that people talk like that, and that both individual and institutional racism remain alive and well. But over the years I have harbored the hope and assumption that progress was being made. The old familiar words for racial minorities are no longer heard in social discourse. We learned, I thought, to stop using the “N” word, first substituting “colored” then “negro”, finally African American which says what needs to be said about origin and identity. Racial quotas and barriers in education, business and the professions slowly came down. And so, at first, I had trouble believing what I was hearing and reading when the President of the United States referred to Haiti and the nations of Africa in the most despicable and vulgar terms possible. That kind of talk, in my home, used to result in the offender’s mouth being washed out with soap – which seems about right for our Commander in Chief.

He has done it before, over and over. He is a racist. And people of good will now should start saying it and demanding and working for something better.

My vocation, my social, political and moral priorities were profoundly shaped by the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. It was the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. that jolted my thinking about the relationship between my faith and the community and world. Happily my church was willing to confront racism on multiple fronts, making it a mission and program priority. We had a national Commission on Religion and Race. Presbyterian clergy and laity were prominently part of public protests and demonstrations. Clergy collars were in the news as minsters were arrested and jailed including our highest officer, Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake who joined a demonstration to integrate a Baltimore amusement park. Many Presbyterians were scandalized, including my own father. But I have never been more proud to be a Presbyterian.

I signed onto the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago as a first year Divinity School student, taught the Senior High Sunday School class, and Sue and I were the sponsors of the Youth Group. When we first attended morning worship what I saw took my breath away: an integrated congregation, half AfrIcan American and half white; and co-pastors, one black, the other white. I had never seen anything like it, never imagined anything like that and resolved that I wanted to be part of it. Our Sunday School class had about twenty regulars, all African American. So we spent a lot of time and got to know them well. We learned about their lives and families, their schools and the daily challenges they faced. We learned about cruel racism and subtle discrimination that were daily realities for them. We learned about their hopes and dreams which were no different from our own. They helped us write and produce a drama on White Racism that we put on for the congregation and it went so well that we put it on for other churches in and around Chicago. It was a life changing experience.

Reinhold Niebuhr said at the time that the Civil Rights Movement saved the Mainline Church from irrelevance. It certainly did so for me. Christians and Christian Churches were on the front lines of the struggle and, as such, were a critical part of a major change in American culture, a good and healthy change in the direction of equal justice and equality: after two and a half centuries, a change in the direction of making good on the brave and precious promise of the Declaration of Independence  that all are created equal.

To hear the President say what he said breaks my heart and makes me angry and newly determined to express my faith in political conviction and action. It was the Civil Rights Movement that cemented in my mind and heart the political, economic and social imperatives of the gospel and convinced me that I, and all followers of Jesus Christ, are called to live out our discipleship in the midst of all the complexities and conflicts of life in this world – as he did.


  1. Susan Rankert says:

    You and the Bethany youth group leaders took us to Chicago, and among other experiences, we heard Jesse Jackson preach at Operation Breadbasket. It had a profound impact on me, and helped to lift me out of my comfortable little bubble.
    I am so disheartened by the rhetoric of today’s politics, especially the words and attitudes of our President. I had foolishly thought those days were in the past.
    As a sign, held by a woman even older than me, at last Saturday’s march put it:
    “I can’t believe I am back out on the street protesting this sh*t”

  2. Sarah Odishoo says:

    Thank you, John, for speaking Truth to power,and
    I do mean small “p”! I can’t believe I’m writing this
    At this time in this country! But perhaps all of us
    Have been taking our Declaration too lightly
    And for granted. Perhaps we have to have its loss
    Front and center to Know its preciousness and
    What it “looks” like? It is scary. But I do think
    Spiritual Guidance is a key to seeing what Christ
    Himself faced when humans betray their Godgiven
    Humanity to each other in speaking the Truth
    To power! Thank God for you and others like you!

    Sarah Odishoo

  3. Barbara Doyle says:

    John, I always enjoy your posts and you say what I’m thinking so much better than I can. Thank you. Barbara Doyle

    Sent from my iPad


  4. Susan Redfield says:

    Thank you for this story. Back in the early 70s I was a social worker at a school at 36th and Michigan in Chicago, for pregnant teens when public schools suspended them for being pregnant. Perhaps I helped some of them find ways to take control of their lives in some ways, including completing their high school education. (Those from the program had fewer 2nd babies and stayed in school longer.) I know they taught me: about family compassion and love, about new recipes I’d never heard of, and about their struggles being Black in Chicago. My supervisor was Ruth Sharp, wife of SOM architect David Sharp, both active at 1st Presbyteriannand both of whom opened my eyes to bigotry in public housing, banking and food shopping opportunities, and of course education and career opportunities. Today as our esteem around the world plummets because of this racist leader, I shudder at the irrevocable damage he continues to promise. What can be done? What should I be doing?

  5. I share your feelings, and I also thought progress was being made. And I still believe that. But unfortunately, our commander in chief is setting such a poor example, people that harbored ill feelings and kept quiet about them, are more now more emboldened to share their racism. It’s a chance for us to re-define our commitment to fairness and equality and diversity. I love hearing what you did in your church, and I hope you keep reminding people. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This is such a hard time to be alive! We all need to support each other and stay strong.

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