Greetings from the Moderator FEBRUARY 2023
Each year in February, which our nation sets aside as Black history month, I find myself thinking back to 1963. It was a significant year in history as we moved toward a more inclusive society. In June, Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we commemorate in January, wrote his famous letter from a Birmingham jail. In September, four girls were killed going to Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church. For 15 year-old me growing up 90 miles north in a small Alabama town it was significant when Dr. King’s letter to white ‘sympathetic’ pastors came out in the paper. It was powerful to ride by the bombed out church where those girls had died on my way with the band to see a Broadway musical on the road. It was a year when Black men and women were asking to be served in ‘whites only’ restaurants, to be admitted to ‘public’ recreation centers and pools, and to worship with white people in churches.
For me the most significant day of that year was July 4th. Our neighbor had asked me to take her girls swimming. She dropped us off at the city pool with the agreement that we would call when we were ready to come home. There was no one in the pool when we got there. There were two men in overalls in a station wagon outside and our football coach collecting our quarters. That was odd, but I figured coach had let the usual staff have the holiday off. No one else came swimming. It was boring. After an hour we called the girls’ mother and went home. When I got home, my father was there. He had been gone when I got up, but any of you who are preachers or have had a preacher parent will know that we get called out at unpredictable times. My mother had died a couple of years previously so it was just the two of us at home. My father asked me where I had been and when I told him, he put his head in his hands and groaned then asked me if I would like to know where he had been. He told me that that morning Professor Stallworth, principal of the Rosenwald school (look it up if you do not know what those were) in our town had called to ask him to come help talk some young men out of trying to integrate the pool. I told him a note would have been nice. I never asked our coach why he said nothing though I always wondered. I learned that day from personal experience that none of us are safe until all of us are safe. My father was born a minority, son of missionary parents, in British India. He knew from an early age the rightness of Dr. King’s dream that one day people will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
In recent years, we have come to see better that racial prejudice is not a Southern problem and it is not a problem reserved for the treatment of Black people. Indigenous Americans, immigrants from southeast Asia, from nations where Islam is the dominant faith, people who are perceived to be different in any way all come in for a generous share of prejudice. The recent Chinese New Year’s Eve shooting in Monterey Park, CA is the latest reminder of that. Still, the struggles of Black people for rights in this country since 1619 with the landing of 20 enslaved people in Jamestown are way to far from over. I have commented more than a few times lately that it feels like the ‘60s all over again. In the church, we worship as Lord and Savior, one who stood with the poor and oppressed and was condemned to death for challenging the oppressors. The question I find myself asking as I think about things like Black history or health care or affordable housing or child care or education for all kinds of children is what are we saying in church and society about the value of human life and where do I stand? It’s a question you might want to ask yourself, too.