Monday, January 19, 2015

...walking the lonesome road

In the end
we will remember
not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends.

Dr. Martin Luther King
Born January 15, 1929
Assassinated April 4, 1968

The late Dr. Dow Kirkpatrick was the grandfather of my daughter's friend, Amanda. This is how I knew him. But his legacy reached beyond his loving family, beyond the churches he served. His actions ripple yet and today seems a fitting time to recall him and others whose lives impacted many. His obituary stated that he "preached racial harmony and social justice from the pulpit and beyond, undeterred by threats." And "spoke out on social issues ranging from racial equality to welcoming homosexuals into the church."

He was pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta from 1957-1962 during the turbulent days - and nights - of the civil rights era. His obituary also mentions that "he helped draft the Ministers Manifesto in 1957. That document, signed by 80 Atlanta preachers, is credited with helping the city desegregate peacefully. It is believed that St. Mark was the first white Methodist church in Atlanta, and probably the state, to receive black members."

The Ministers many remember? How many of today's generation have heard of this, understand the risk, the passion, the theology of this? To tell a bit of the story, I draw from a book written by Bob Shand, In My Father's House: Lessons Learned in the Home of a Civil Rights Pioneer:

The pastor of Atlanta's First Baptist Church, Dr. Roy McCain, delivered a sermon, "This Way Please: Facing Life's Crossroads", in October 1957. As described by Shand, he "demanded that Christians step up to their responsibilityto confront prejudice and ended with what would become a catch-phrase. There are times when silence is golden; there are also times when silence is yellow." [1]

His follow-up sermon asked "Who speaks for the South? College professors have been 'realively quiet'. Many of the South's politicians are interested only in getting votes, and the 'pulpits have been paralyzed'."  This was published by The Atlanta Journal and the late Ralph McGill, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, followed up by inviting a number of Protestant ministers to issue position papers about segregation. The paper ran thirteen weeks of those articles. Dr. Kirkpatrick wrote one and became on of the drafters of the Manifesto. The others included Dr. McDowell Richards, President of Columbia Seminary, Dr. Herman Turner, Rev. Milton Wood, Dr. Harry Fifield, Dr. Monroe Swilley, Rev. Robert E. Lee, Rev. Harrison McMains, Dr. Charles Allen, and Dr. Dow Kirkpatrick. Shand wrote that "these mens were chosen because, in most cases, they served the largest congregations in their denominations. At least the largest congregations whose pastor was willing to sign the document." [1]

The climate was deadly. Dr. Bevel Jones wrote, "Almost as important as the document itself was our method of gathering support for it. We decided not to mail it, for our adversaries could get hold of it and sabotage our efforts. Instead, the clergy comprising our core group glued the manifesto to tables at several designated churches. Then we wrote a letter to all Atlanta Area ministers whose addresses we could obtain, asking them to go by and read our manifesto and, if they would support it, to sign their names." [2]

The Atlanta Ministers' Manifesto of 1957 ran on the first page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday, November 3: "Eighty Atlanta ministers have signed a manifesto presenting the first such declaration of beliefs on racial problems to come out of the Deep South." Here is the opening:

  • Freedom of Speech must at all costs be preserved.
  • As Americans and Christians, we have an obligation to obey the law.
  • The public school system must not be destroyed.
  • Hatred and scorn for those of another race, or for those who hold a position different from our own, can never be justified.
  • Communication between responsible leaders of the races must be maintained.
  • Our difficulties cannot be solved in our own strength or in human wisdom...but only through prayer.
Many pastors across Georgia joined in support. Two groups, the Colquitt and Tatnall-Evans Baptist Associations, came out in favor of segregation. And negativity remained among individuals. The fight within the white community had begun.

Fast forward to present day...and my words:
I've been treated with respect by believers and non-believers alike and hope that I return this to others. I've also been treated with complete contempt by representatives of both groups. Labels, in the end, mean little without appropriate actions. Love is a verb or it is nothing at all.

Where are the church leaders now? One of those liberal United Methodist leaders, Dr. John Rutland - whose life was threatened regularly, whose children were threatened with kidnapping, whose front yard regularly displayed burned crosses - often quoted this: the purpose of the church is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. I am blessed to have known the late John Rutland and Dr. John Claypool. To now know people such as a young UMC minister in South Georgia, Arnie Raj, Mike and Barbara Harper and Joe Elmore who ministered to me at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church (and beyond), and an accidental e-friend, Roger Wolsey, Director and Pastor of the Wesley Foundation, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He is the author of a book I highly recommend, Kissing Fish, and one whose story I'd like to share in a future post.

At a national level, though, must we wait for utter desolation for a Dietrich Bonhoeffer to step up? Too many of the voices that once brought us together serve to divide us now. I pray to hear more concerns about human rights than trust funds and taxation. If we don't believe in a greater goodness, in what is best for all...if we don't "live simply so that others can simply live"...then we are well on our way to creating hell on earth. 

1. In My Father's House: Lessons Learned in the Home of a Civil Rights Pioneer by Bob Shands
2. Dr. Lewis Bevel Jones III, (born 1926) is a retired Bishop of the United Methodist Church and currently Bishop in Residence at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.