“Have you ever been fired from a church?” I once asked my dad.
As a pastor, he was subject to the whim of the local congregation whose denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, saw 2,000 ministers fired each year.
My dad paused, as if wondering how much he should tell me.
“Once,” he announced. “I shook hands with a black man on the steps of our Mississippi church. I was fired the next week.”
Last month, as I hung around the National Guard Chaplain’s Conference in Washington, D.C., with Seventh-day Adventist Chaplain Ivan Williams, I realized how far we’ve come in race relations since my dad’s generation.
Ivan is African-American. We’ve been friends for almost 10 years, and during the conference, we ate meals together, shared our hurts and even went shopping together.
Hanging around Ivan is like befriending a true celebrity. People of all colors and persuasions love him. He’s funny. He’s sincere, and he’s extremely caring to people he meets.
On one of our museum outings, when we stood looking at a gallery of previous museum directors, I said to Ivan, “Did you notice there aren’t any people of color among these directors?”
Ivan surprised me when he responded with, “You ask questions other white people won’t ask.”
“Are you talking about how I asked the question about lunchtime in the conference?”
“Nah, man. You know what I mean,” he said.
I did know. So, I asked a few more things.
“Why is it that you make friends wherever you go? And why is it that since I’m a member of a majority race, I have to prove my intentions with folks? Sometimes I’m jealous of you, man.”
I don’t know why, but we always call each other “man.”
We laughed, perhaps a bit nervously as friends breaching the race issue. We both knew race relations had come a long way since rogue policemen let loose the dogs or pushed folks to the back of the bus, or off the lunch counter, but we also knew the subtle questions remain.
I had to wonder what it was about the clerk or waitress of color who’d greet Ivan first and bring that extra ice tea without
asking. Yet I’m sure Ivan also questioned why it was the white people we met would often speak to me as if I was in charge.
There is an interesting little verse in Romans, which says, “God does not show favoritism.” It’s not a particularly profound thought until you analyze the passage in the early manuscripts. Literally, the verse says: “God is not a face receiver.” It means God doesn’t look upon the race of the face, but as the verse says, grants “glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good.”
About the same time that the church fired my dad for shaking hands with a black man, a Biblical scholar named Clarence Jordan founded an interracial farming community called Koinonia based on the question: “Could people who followed the same Lord work side-by-side with people of all colors?”
As you might imagine, they experienced a great deal of opposition to that question, but the community still exists today. (See koinoniapartners.org.)
Jordan believed in questions that could provoke change. And I leave you with one of those questions he asked his own brother. When his brother balked at helping Koinonia Farms with legal representation, Clarence asked him, “Are you a disciple of Christ or merely an admirer?”
Good question for all of us.