Tool for building a habit

It has been over two years since June 17, 2015. Nine people dead at Emanuel AME  Church in Charleston, SC.

The struggle to build relationships across the racial divide began with a resolution to do it.

Then the inevitable distractions take over. How do I organize myself sufficiently to make the calls?
After several attempts, the idea came to use a dedicated memo pad. Surely, I thought, it will need no more than 81 pages, if that.  A page per month for the nine people I am committed to calling. The first of those pages would be a name and cell number listing. The remaining pages would contain a record of calls, with any follow up notes created.
My first memo pad attempt broke down within a week, as the pad I selected was too small and the binding was a glue-in variety, which released pages after a few times of being opened and shut. It did fit in my pocket, and was about the size of my cell phone. The second attempt had a sewn binding, but was too large, I kept leaving it, so it was not readily available when needed.
A friend who loves Moleskine pads triggered a desire to find a conveniently sized pad. It has fewer pages than preferred, but the size (at 3″ x 5″) and binding (64 pages sewn in) are just about right. Surely it will last long enough to get the calling habit in place.
Now the task is to coordinate lists, prayers, call dialings, notes… a simple matter, right? The struggle to get started may be a clue to how important this work can become.

Airline seating is under the control of heaven

Flying constantly to lead seminars and meet with client churches, I prayed for God to arrange the seating on the airplanes.  On one such trip, from my window seat, I watched as my next seatmate placed his briefcase overhead.  When he looked down, he was startled to see who I was.

My fellow traveler was none other than the very pastor who had energetically and publicly attacked me at a pastor’s fellowship meeting seven years earlier.  He protested our opening our church and school to black families and children.  Those were in the closing “separate but equal” days of the Jim Crow South.

He was flustered.  “Brother George, I perceive that God arranged the seating reservations today.”

I thought he was probably right, but I waited quietly, until he continued.

“I owe you a long overdue apology.  Actually, two apologies.  I was wrong to attack you in the manner that I did.  I should have come to you privately, and I regret challenging you the way I did. Please forgive me.”

“The second apology concerns my attitudes about race.  I was wrong.  I went home to face a group of five families in my school who embodied the same attitude I held toward you.  They were so troublesome they took five years out of my life in that next year.  I came to seriously regret what I had said about you, as God dealt with me through them.”

He went on to explain that our host pastor had delivered a strongly prejudicial sermon the night before I spoke, and feared that my remarks were so contradictory that they would create a very damaging schism among his membership.  Vowing to rescue our host, my assailant had mounted the pulpit to obliterate my presentation, which he did quite effectively. Prejudice had found an ally, but it was out of step with history or biblical values.

In the words of my mentor, missiologist Donald McGavran, Christ has sent us to take the Gospel to “ta ethne,” all the people groups, tribes and races of mankind. And He is watching our work.

I had not protested the attack, because I was at peace that we were following a proper course.  But I would never have imagined the resolution as it unfolded.  God had once again shown He takes more interest in our affairs in more ways than I could conceive.

Under observation from heaven

The early ’70’s were turbulent times, mixing war protests, civil rights advances and ugly confrontations on campuses and sometimes in churches. I stumbled into the fray during one of my infrequent addresses to my pastor colleagues. I causally mentioned our ministry among black families. It was a footnote to another point, but it ignited a firestorm.
The speaker who followed me was respected for his energy and the rapid growth of his church and schools. He took issue with my remarks, devoting his entire 45 minutes to a defense of segregation and his declaration that my openness to working with blacks could not be of God.
My seat was on the second row, an awkward place to endure a verbal beating. Mid-sermon, an usher handed me a note: “You have a phone call, please follow me.”
Walking behind him out of the auditorium, I wondered if I might be facing a physical altercation with angry defenders of a threatened way of life. To my relief, he led to the office and handed me a phone. “It’s your wife,” he said.
“What’s the matter, honey?” I asked her, concerned at the unexpected call.. “Is anything wrong at home?”
“God told me to call you. Are you all right?”
Heaven was witnessing the events of that day!
“One of my colleagues is, right now, expressing his strong objection to our work with blacks. Thankfully, your call moved me away from the front of the room. Not a comfortable place to be right now.”
It would be seven years before another encounter pulled back the curtain on that day’s attack.

Accidentally diverse outreach; enduring fruit

My longtime friend, Sam Jones, Jr., with his son, Timothy, who now pastors their church, shared brunch recently in Gainesville, Florida.

Back when Segregation in Gainesville, Florida, was still pretty much in effect, we stumbled into a diverse future. Although I was culturally color blind and most of our university students were also, our community was still being educated in segregated classrooms and few churches were diverse, including ours.
Without intending to do anything about the racial divide, we envisioned a city-wide effort of childrens’ evangelism, whereby we would put a flyer on every doorstep and a chartered school bus at every street corner for a week. The promotional flyers were distributed by teams of collegians, who proudly reported success everywhere, including every white and black home in the area. Bus routes were mapped to cover every corner, regardless of color, and we waited that weekend with some anxiety as to what kind of response we could get. When the buses pulled in, the school director groaned “Oh, no!” I asked why. He said “these buses are almost full and we will double by tomorrow! We have to replan and restock tonight for we’ll be overwhelmed tomorrow.” He wasn’t aware that another factor was also in play – that these children would be experiencing diversity for the first time in their lives, or in the life of any group in Gainesville that we were involved with. They and we survived.
But the challenge didn’t stop when the week ended. Over a thousand children had come, many trusting Christ from their first hearing of the Gospel. How would we ever make disciples of those from black homes, when we knew so little of their families or how the cross-culture factors would impact whatever we did?
Sunday School was our imagined tool for training, but the numbers so overwhelmed our facilities that we had to move everything in our children’s ministry from Sunday to Saturday morning, including buses and classes.
That covered us for the present, but the long term responsibility was still looming. How would we take children into Christian adulthood without parents to help? We had strength enough to transport and teach for the time being, but we knew that effort would be unsustainable for the decades it would be needed.
Prayerfully, Ross Juneau, my intern, and I searched for a strategy that might lead us to a better resolution.
We found a way forward by searching for households in the community in which two parents were present with their children. We reasoned that if those parents found Christ, they could help us raise their own children to be disciples of Jesus. Furthermore, they knew the cultural turf better than we, so they could also help children from other homes that would be beyond our ability to sustain. Within a year, Ross had found more than a dozen families, which he evangelized and organized into a congregation. That church still exists, with forty years of ministry behind it and with the original pastor’s son as the successor pastor!
Our efforts to create a diverse congregation failed, not from our prejudice, but because they preferred to enjoy their own style in worship and teaching. They were invited, but declined. They were always willing to sing or preach for us, however, but felt the energy level in the white church services inadequate for their needs or their taste.
When I complained that we were failing to model the integration I thought they sought, our collegians took me aside and explained that I was behind the times, that true diversity was to be found in respecting and honoring the preferences of the minorities involved, even if their preferences did not align with my expectations. Learning to listen is step one in reconciling races. Noted.

Discovering Wilberforce and the roots of freedom

For a Master’s Recital, I was tasked with writing an original monodrama that I would present in costume, live, onstage. Choosing a character from history who contributed significantly to our current worldview. I considered Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln.
At long last it occurred to me that the American experience with the end of slavery, however significant here, was not an early effort in global emancipation. Nearly fifty years before our Civil War, England had already stopped slave trading, and thirty years earlier had abolished most slavery.
How was it possible that England could do that? It came several years after John Wesley and his Methodist revivals, so was there a connection? John Newton, former slave trader ship captain, later clergyman and author of “Amazing Grace,” had been influenced by John Wesley. But it was a young member of Parliament and close friend of the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, who actually carried the cause forward. William Wilberforce spent over twenty years advocating the end of the slave trade, before the 1807 Act of Parliament passed that abolished it. His call to this cause was profoundly spiritual and fueled by a persistence that made me choose to focus on him. He was vilified and referred to as a friend and patron of black slaves. His life was threatened by commercial interests. He became my hero.
I traveled to Wilberforce University in Ohio, interviewed retired professors there. Everything in print I could find about Wilberforce I collected. No movie about him existed yet, and no biography by such an esteemed author as Eric Metaxas. Ironically, the school in which I was studying was the notoriously segregationist Bob Jones University, more known for Shakespeare than diversity. It was a credit to BJU that not once did I hear anyone say it was strange that Wilberforce would be featured there.
But Wilberforce put me on a path to become aware of what lay behind the Civil Rights Movement here in America.
I was on track to becoming a friend to a people I did not know.

Starting before I began…

When my mentor, Peter Wagner, discovered Dr. Houts’ article about spiritual gifts in a 1976 Eternity magazine article, which included an inventory or test to identify ones gifts, he immediately saw its usefulness. Based on a simple premise, Dr. Houts had asked readers to report their previous experiences, arranged under topics called out in the New Testament as “spiritual gifts.” To the extent they reported positive experiences, readers were asked to examine those areas closely, because what they experiences was the result of unrealized giftedness. Peter Wagner added a few more of the gifts listed by St. Paul, and the Wagner-Houts Questionnaire was born, and with it a host of look alike inventories.
Before we begin to use our gifts, which we recognize to be from God, we have already started using them, consciously or not. My experience with church consulting and racial reconciliation were found working together even before I was conscious of either.
While still in post grad studies at the University of Florida, as a sociology student, I was approached by a black pastor from Ocala, who led a study group of black pastors while he worked on a degree in sociology. Since my church had high visibility, this pastor asked that he be allowed to bring his study group for a time to understand how to lead their congregations more effectively. One of my professors at UF heard of it and strongly endorsed my participating in this way. I took my staff intern, Ross Juneau, and we embarked on a voyage of discovery. We conducted group sessions and also went into the field with these pastors. We had become church growth consultants and racial reconciliation advocates before we knew we were. Those themes continue forty years later. We had stumbled into ministry, unsure of ourselves, but the fruit was good.
Now, using this knowledge – that many gifts of the spirit are experienced before they are recognized – I continually seek to affirm gifted behaviors in rising leaders, knowing that such affirmations can encourage them to become aware of and therefore to utilize their gifts more intentionally in ministering.

I lost my innocence in the Summer of 1959…

…the innocence of a young man who had never been in touch with murderous hatred in the flesh.  It was a summer to hitchhike from Greenville, SC, to New Orleans.  Long on time and short on cash, I grabbed a backpack and stuck out a thumb, heading southwest to the mouth of the Mississippi River.  Along the way, I met some very kind people, until reaching the border of Mississippi.  The old man pulled over his pickup truck.  He was dressed to fit the scene, with canvas overalls, thinning grey hair and a scruffy beard.  After miles of silence, the conversation began and drifted to topics of his choosing.  Between tobacco spits, he boasted of his personal involvement in kicking a black man to death, as he lay on the floor. That portion of my trip is unforgettable.  I had never been exposed to anything or anyone so cruel or so gleeful about making another human being suffer.  Hatred moved from the pages of a dictionary into the stomach wrenching fearful emotion of evil.  I have never been able to regard such meanness with detachment since that day.

Fifty six years passed, until nine black believers met for prayers at Emanuel in Charleston, on June 17, 2015. They came for conversation.  They had no forewarning they would see the face of God that night.  The stranger who entered their room seemed harmless enough, so much so that they welcomed him. Dylan Roof, 21, white supremisist, had come to Emanuel that night, hoping to start a race war.

When news of the racially motivated murders came to me, I was sick at heart. But my pickup truck ride in Mississippi had forced me to recognize that such people could and did exist.  I resolved that day to do something, but didn’t know where to start.  I prayed, I read, I wondered how people on the other side of the race divide were taking this sad news.  I reached for my phone to call someone, anyone, to console them.  I had been living in South Caroline since 2006.  Nine years, and I had no one on my phone to call to talk about it.   I resolved to find someone to talk to.  Someone from the black community.

I met a black lawyer at an art gallery, but he wouldn’t return my calls.  I left a note on his office door, but he didn’t respond.  I tried calling the pastor of a small black church a few blocks from where I had been working. He refused to speak with me on the telephone. Undaunted, I went to his church at the time for the Worship service, hoping to get to meet him in person.  He and I shared the whole service.  The whole congregation were with his wife on a mission trip, leaving him to keep the doors open in their absence.  He gave me the whole service, sermon, hymns, offering, and altar call.  Afterwards, he shook my hand and told me he would speak with me, now that he knew me.  He even offered to introduce me to some of his fellow pastors, if they were available. A small step of progress.

I solicited names from friends, and gathered a list of half a dozen names.  My wife and I spotted a young family with several children eating together in a favorite restaurant. We played forward some birthday money and bought their lunch secretly.  The waitress gave us away, and we met him and his family. He is a bi-vocational pastor and was very friendly.

Finally, my list was beginning to take form.

Nine victims in Charleston.  So, I determined to find nine people of color who would be willing to take my calls and I would dial each one for one time each month, for nine months.  I would not offer them advice.  I would put myself in the place of a learner and ask them for their opinion and their point of view.  I would open a door and attempt to begin building a bridge toward them.

That was the seed idea for this blog.  I would first make and begin using such a list.  Then, I would invite others to join me and make lists of their own.  Once each month I would open a telephone conference line for conversation with whomever might be willing to talk. I would post to a blog, at least once a week, about the adventure of bridge building.

If the idea went nowhere beyond me, so be it.  I would do something, for me, for nine others who might find some encouragement that we were able to talk. And we would pray for one another. That’s it.  Simple, short, but not stuck, not despairing.

If you would like to join me, leave your contact information.

Bridgebuilders wanted.

 

The first of the three themes from a lifetime of experiences: Race

Race, church leadership, spiritual freedom. These themes are a three-fold cord that cover a lifetime.
Let me start with race. It is the topic that prompted me into using a blog format. It was triggered by the Emanuel Nine murders in Charleston, South Carolina. For me, the topic began with a childhood question about fairness in a Jim Crow segregated country.
Growing up in a segregated society in West Miami, I did not see the kinds of radical hatred found in many parts of the true South. Florida was too far south to be considered truly in the South. In the Roaring Twenties, Miami had been a developer’s dream. It had become a economic nightmare after the Crash of ’29. Miami Beach was a Jewish retreat from the snow and West Miami began as a spill over from The Beach during the boom years. We had a Baptist church and a Temple. The Methodists worshiped in next door Coral Gables. Beyond us was the edge of the Everglades, traversed by the Tampa-Miami highway called the Tamiami Trail. Dad and his brother, my Uncle Bill, ran a garage and later a hardware store, where I first pondered the puzzle that a segregated South presented.
In the hardware store were restrooms and a drinking fountain. Blacks (called Negroes in those days) were allowed to use the restrooms if they asked, but the drinking fountain was another matter. A coffee mug was hanging above the drinking fountain, decorated with a metal spring from the hardware shelves, and a note that indicated the blacks could drink from “the spring.” How, I thought, if whites were afraid of Negro germs so much they wouldn’t want to drink after them, how was it fair to make them all drink from the same, unwashed cup? It just didn’t make sense. It felt wrong. But as a child, I had no voice yet, only a wonderment.
Our families were from Ohio and Kansas and Nebraska. I was never exposed to anything recognizable as hatred toward any group. We feared the protection racketeers who drove over from Miami Beach and demanded “insurance” from time to time as they visited our out of the way borough in the forties and fifties, but racial animosity of a violent sort was not part of our scene.
The first person of color I can remember was a Caribbean black who used his machete to open coconuts on the sidewalk in front of our house. Fresh coconut juice and the sweet white meat from inside. A friendly fellow whose help was appreciated by thirsty children.
I did not meet the kind of white people who exhibited racial animosity until after college.