Can we talk?
In recent months I have found myself struggling with memories that disturb me to the depths of my soul. The memories are a part of my early life as the son of a Nazarene pastor in Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. The memories are especially poignant relating to those years inMississippi and Alabama where I attended Junior High and High School during the late 1950’s, graduating high school in Tuscaloosa in 1961. I attended Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville from 1961, graduating in 1965. My wife Susan and I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where I attended Nazarene Theological Seminary, graduating in 1968. Our first two assignments after seminary were in Tennessee and Kentucky, home territory to me, and familiar territory for Susan.
If you follow those dates you may be aware that, from the time I entered Junior High School in Mississippi, and through the years of my earliest service as a pastor, I was immersed in the Civil Rights era in the deep South.
Those years were tumultuous for the USA. Brown Versus the Board of Education set in place a new reality for public schools across the nation. The Civil Rights movement was at its most intense. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most visible figures in the nation, and depending on how you viewed the cultural turmoil, he was either the revered leader and spokesman for an oppressed people, or was evil incarnate for his efforts to change the culture of the nation, especially in the South.
Our home was a haven of grace and kindness for my sister and brother and me, and for the people of the churches and communities where my father served as pastor. However, he was also a polarizing figure to some. His support for the civil rights movement, his admiration for MLK, and his willingness to invite African American churches to participate with our churches in revivals and special events drew attention. Black pastors, evangelists, and district superintendents were frequent guests in our home.
Sometimes the attention my father received was appreciative and kind. At other times the attention was threatening and divisive. Among members of the churches were some who applauded his desire to reach across the racial and cultural divide. Some were uneasy, not knowing quite how to respond. And in some cases, the reaction was fiercely opposed to any effort to open doors for relationship with African Americans.
Civil rights was not the only issue creating turmoil and tension during those years. During our sophomore year in college, while Susan and I were having lunch in a little neighborhood restaurant near the Trevecca campus, the owner suddenly brought out a little black and white TV. He sat in on the counter for all to see. We watched in horror as news of the assassination of President Kenedy played out before us on the grainy little screen.
Five years later, while I was a student at NTS, we were stunned by the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two months later, Robert F. Kenedy was killed.
As I watched the “Alt Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, as I have listened to the rhetoric flung about by politicians of every stripe, news outlets of every kind, and social media on every platform, I have had the same agonizing, disturbing, tension producing thoughts and experiences I had as a young teen, as a college and seminary student, and as a pastor in the south.
I recently read again a book written by Dr. Ivan A. Beals, a member of my congregation when I was pastor at KC First. Ivan had served as assistant editor of “The Herald of Holiness” (now “Holiness Today) for many years prior to his retirement. Unknown to many people, Beals was a passionate advocate for racial reconciliation. He spent the last several years of his life meticulously researching and writing a book that was published in 1997, entitled, “Our Racist Legacy: Will the Church Resolve the Conflict?” A year later he wrote, “A Theology of Forgiveness: Towards a Paradigm of Racial Justice”.
To read his books is to be driven to your knees. To see how the Church of Jesus Christ has been complicit in creating the racial divide, and how ineffective it is in addressing the issue, nearly overwhelms me in grief.
The question we must ask is this: Are we willing to face, openly and honestly, the racial divide that has only deepened in the past decade? Are we, as the people of God, ready to grapple with our own complicity, and seek the forgiving grace of God? And are we willing to make the radical changes and sacrifices that will be required of the majority race in the Church and in the culture in order to finally and fully resolve the conflict, to the best of our ability to do so?
Where will the conversation begin? And where will it take us?
Can we talk? Can we talk openly? Can we talk honestly?
Will we talk?
Jesse C Middendorf
November 1, 2018