Country and small churches were important to my family – as they were to me – on into manhood. But when I finished my undergraduate work at Ouachita and moved to Houston I found myself withdrawing at least intellectually from that which I was seeing and feeling in my native region.
I was well aware of what existed in my home state. My last spanking from my father was for saying “yes Sir” to an African-American man. While I was preaching at the Landmark Baptist Church in Bradley County, one man (whose name I still remember) stood in the middle of my sermon and called me a “nigger lover.” What was working in me – I think – was a half conscious realization that if they knew at the time what I struggled within my own heart, I was probably getting off easy.
It was the year I graduated from high school that the American Psychiatry Association ruled I was not suffering from a disease. But, I knew then as I know in many places now, the Christian churches of my heritage were mired to the eyes in the ancient and alarmingly vital brand of racism that seemed particular to the state of the old Confederacy.
My first church in Houston had me run the buses to pick up children on Sundays. My first enlistments were a pair of African-American twins, named Salt and Pepper. Pepper was much darker. The church loved them. Two families left but God sent many to replace them. My second church was inner city, and the Foy Lane Baptist Church was already well integrated and was a breath of fresh air. But back in Arkansas and probably all America, nothing is whiter than the churches of our country. Thirty-five years after leaving, it remains largely correct to say that no hour is more segregated in most of our country than eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.
My racial qualms came, to a large extent, from what Jesus taught me through his words and the example of his life. But I was a amateur historian, and holocausts and genocides had always been a part of world history and appear apparent for our future.
What I have never lost is a rock ribbed sense that I – like all the world – am the willed creation of a single power whom I, and most Americans, think of as God. I have also persisted in an early ingrained belief that the man Jesus bore a unique relationship to the creator, a relationship which continues to offer me and millions of others both light and meaning.
I can’t help noticing that the mainline churches of America are still – speaking generally now – among the strongest bastions of intolerance and lethal self-righteousness. An hour of fiddling with the radio or TV on a Sunday morning can be a chilling experience, hearing the voices of hate and fear pour out of buildings that claim to be founded in mercy and trust. Maybe I am naive to work for change from the inside out, from the core of the problem in those numerous minds who nonetheless bring themselves regularly into what they think of as the presence of God. I’m invariably confronted by this fairly new American phenomenon – the church as a social Christianity.
Am I bound for Hell in a holey hand-basket? If so, let it ring forth that every race, sexual orientation, gender, and sinner are welcome at Quapaw Quarter UMC. And I, in whatever decency I can muster (which is not enough) in those solitary moments at my keyboard in whatever lonely hours with unabashed tears, will seek the mind of God.