The Beloved Community

I still regret not going to Hattiesburg, Mississippi with Gary Hickok.  Gary and I were the only Presbyterians in our class at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He and Maryjo and Sue and I became friends and when Gary and I graduated and were ordained as Presbyterian Ministers of Word and Sacrament we stayed in touch. Gary accepted a call to a small Presbyterian church in Southern Illinois and I stayed with the congregation in Northwest Indiana that I served as student pastor. One evening in the early days of our ministries Gary called. He said he was going to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to join a voting rights demonstration and he invited me to come along. The only requirement was to come up with a modest sum of money for bus fare and expenses. He said the National Council of Churches would provide bail when we were arrested. Sue and I had two little girls by then, and it sounds silly, but I did not have enough money for expenses and bus fare. So, I told Gary that I was sorry but that I could not go along. Gary went to Hattiesburg, participated in the protest demonstration, got arrested and returned home to discover that leaders in his congregation were not at all pleased with what he had done. In fact, Gary ended up losing his job and, it being the turbulent 1960’s, was not able to find another position. He dropped out of ministry and found a job in business and had a successful career until he retired. A few years later he became ill and died.

I found myself thinking a lot about Gary when John Lewis died recently and the media retold the story of racial conflict, demonstrations, arrests, police brutality in the 1960’s. I experienced new regret that I didn’t go along to Hattiesburg with Gary.

Race was an important factor in my decision to become a parish pastor. The truth is that when I matriculated at Chicago Theological Seminary and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago I wasn’t at all sure about what vocational path of ministry to which I felt called and wanted to pursue: advanced degree and teaching was one option and so was campus ministry or hospital chaplaincy, and always there was the allure of finding a job in business. But then, one Sunday morning during that first fall in Chicago we visited the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago on the corner of 64th and Kimbark, a few blocks from the University. It simply took my breath away. I loved the gothic architecture, the elegant music and the co-pastors – Ulysses Blakley, who was Black, and Charles Leber, white. The congregation was racially mixed, African American and white people, worshipping together. I had never seen anything like it. White flight and the upheavals of the 60’s were still in the future, and in that integrated congregation and co-pastorate I saw something of what the Church of Jesus Christ could be.

So I signed up and accepted a position as Director of Youth Ministry. Or rather, we signed up. Sue and I taught a high school Sunday school class. We had 15-20 students, all African American. I don’t know if they learned anything from us but we certainly learned a lot from them. We talked about racial prejudice, segregation and their personal experiences, and racial justice as a part of Christian hope for society. We gingerly talked about white racism and decided that our class should make a statement, take a stand. I wrote a little skit about racism, presented it to the congregation and a few other primarily white churches in the Presbytery. We even drove to a church in central Illinois to present it to a Presbyterian congregation located there.

My personal experience of white racism in the church came during an interview for a new position which was offering as part of the compensation package a brand new manse nestled in a sand dune on the shore of Lake Michigan and a new Pontiac every year – both of which sounded very good to us. Shortly after the interview began the chairman of the committee asked if I would ever take part in a protest demonstration or lie down in front of a bulldozer as a young Presbyterian minister had done recently in Cleveland. When I said that although I certainly didn’t plan to do that, I could not, in good conscious, promise that I wouldn’t at some point in the future. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. That turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened and I concluded that the Holy Spirit had something to do with it.

I got in trouble years later when I participated in a demonstration and march when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper advocating the removal of one of those hitching posts of a little black boy in a livery outfit. It stood in front of a city fire station on a busy intersection and was apparently much loved by many local residents including several of my members.

Advocating for racial justice, and a vision of the church as a public institution that both advocates for and demonstrates in its own life racial equity has remained at the center of my Christian Faith and my attempt to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Justice, the distinguished theologian, Paul Tillich said, is merely Christian love in action. And so, yes indeed, “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us” as a large banner displayed over the entrance to Fourth Presbyterian Church proclaims, making me proud and grateful.

I am grateful for the Presbyterian Church USA’s steady affirmation of justice for all God’s people, for all Americans, for Presbyterian insistence that racial justice is part of what we mean by the Kingdom of God on earth. I am grateful for the courageous people who continue to march and demonstrate peacefully for accountability in politics, education and law enforcement. I still believe that Congressman John Lewis’s invocation of the lovely vision of the Beloved Community reflects the mind and hope of Jesus. I cannot let go of my own hope for a day of justice for all God’s children. And I’m still sorry I didn’t go to Hattiesburg with Gary.

Comments

  1. Lori Perlman says:

    Your words never fail to move me. With gratitude.

  2. Susan T Redfield says:

    My first job in Chicago was as a social worker with the Florence Crittendon School for pregnant teenagers on 55th and State Street. My supervisor was Ruth whose last name I can’t recall but I remember her husband was David, a tall good looking African American architect with Skidmore Owens and Merrill. They were active with First Presbyterian Church back in the 1960’s and were encouraging of Lee and my joining Fourth, since we lived on Chicago’s north side. Thanks for sharing your memories. Reminding me of why I still love Presbyterians, even though I don’t agree with all the tenets. Hoping you are both well. Susan Redfield

  3. Judy Hoffhine says:

    I am glad for what we did do in those days. And I am grateful to the black women at my Presbyterian college (Wilson), my Presbyterian summer jobs (Ghost Ranch), my Presbyterian teaching position (Menaul High School), and my Presbyterian parents and sister (Hal, Jean, and Marty) and Presbyterian colleagues (John, Gerry, Jerry, Ann, Phil, and so many more) who have educated and pushed me to understand the depths of racism and injustice. Above all, I am grateful for my Nigerian/English daughter-in-law who teaches me, speaks her mind, and is patient.

  4. Thank you John for your thoughtful reflection and emphasis on the Presbyterian Church’s support for racial equity.
    I wonder why do not all Christian denominations also follow Jesus’s teachings the same way.

  5. Susan Rankert says:

    I do remember that little black boy with a dog “lawn ornament” in front of the five points fire station, and the convoluted attempts via vague tales of local lore to justify its presence there.
    An quite selfishly, I am glad that your decisions long ago included that time in Lafayette.

    • Deborah Pettry says:

      Susan speaks for many of us. I have no idea who was on our church’s nominating committee and chose you and your family, John, but I thank them.

  6. bandhdmitchellbmm0226 says:

    Amen and Amen John. And thanks, HD

    On Mon, Sep 14, 2020 at 10:51 AM Hold to the Good wrote:

    > John M. Buchanan posted: ” I still regret not going to Hattiesburg, > Mississippi with Gary Hickok. Gary and I were the only Presbyterians in > our class at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He and Maryjo and > Sue and I became friends and when Gary and I graduated and were or” >

  7. Betty Lou Stull says:

    Amen, John. My husband ,John Stull, would also add a hearty amen. Sadly he died Monday evening, August 31. He had a lot of respect for you, and shared your dream of a more just society. He had so hoped to live to vote in this election, but it wasn’t to be. May we live to see the day when “Black lives matter” is reflected in all aspects of American culture, but especially in our prison, judicial, and criminal justice systems.

  8. Jerold Shetler says:

    Greatly appreciate your sharing. We had similar experiences and regrets John. Greatly enjoy your writing and statement of your convictions. Keep it up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: