Monday, June 29, 2009

You're a, a, ah Baptist?

A funny thing happened to me on vacation. I met one of my relatives (by marriage) for the first time. She had been told that: “I was a Baptist preacher.” Living in “the north”—the only thing she knew about Baptists were Reverends like the late Jerry Falwell, Charles Stanley—and a couple of other TV luminaries. She was scared to death. I tried to allay her fears by saying that I was really not rabid (most days), that I would not hit her with a Bible or salivate about the Second Coming. I even whispered that the highlight of my wife’s week was not sitting on the front row of Wednesday night prayer meeting. I told her I felt the same way she did about the kind of Baptists she was afraid of. I think it was H.L. Mencken that used to say about preachers was that the thing he hated most about them was that their goal in life was to make sure that nobody anywhere at any time was having any fun.

Once upon a time when we first started Baptists were freedom loving, not just for their own selfish interests but for everybody. Having lived under the tyranny of Kings who tried to force them into certain molds or else—they were determined to find a better way. When they finally got to this country they found, to their dismay that some folk were trying desperately to bring a little touch of the established church to the new land. That meant only certain kind of services were permitted, only those they deemed qualified could preach, and they had no business thinking they could choose their own worship or even their own hymns.

Early Baptist preachers filled many of the jails “in the north” as well as Virginia in protest. But when our forebears came to write our Constitution and Bill of Rights a couple of Baptists made sure that church and state were separated and people were free to worship—or not to worship at all—as they chose. Contrary to popular opinion, the litmus test for holding office was not tied to religious affiliation. Roger Williams founded the free state of Rhode Island where anybody of any persuasion could come and not be officially harassed.

That’s the kind of Baptist I want to be. I believe in freedom for me and everybody else—including the poor, the gays, the rich, the immigrants, the atheists and the transgendered. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is a true story I heard over 40 years ago when I was in Seminary. A young man who was gay at that time was having a terrible time with his identity. Who could he tell back then? Where could he go for someone just to listen and not judge? He told my friend that he visited every mainline church in a large Tennessee town and he was turned away from every church. Nobody would listen to him or take him seriously. It is no wonder he never went to a church again.

The Baptist Church I believe in may be getting smaller every year. But here and there, thank God there are little battalions of folk who work in their own quiet ways for peace and justice for everyone. Deep in their hearts they really do believe that we shall all overcome some day. I am proud to be a member of that club.

Every once in a while I'll read something and think: "I wish I had written that." I felt that way about Joe Phelps' blog piece.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I Never Sang for my Father

When I first read the play, “I Never Sang for my Father” I remember I cried. What was going on here? I never cry. But something about that sad story of a boy who never got to finish his business with his father brought tears to my eyes. My father has been dead for over 40 years and I still carry around a lot of grief because we never got to finish our business. Maybe that’s where the tears come from. I still have a lot of things I have to say to him.

I would like to tell my father that the tree he planted on the day I was born brings me joy to this day. My parents had been married seventeen years. Doctors told them there would be no children. Then, out of the blue, I came along. And, on the day of my birth, my father knelt in front of the little four-room white clapboard mill house that would always be our home, and planted a tree. It was an oak. I don’t know what he thought as he dug in the ground, carefully placed the sapling, watered the little tree and stepped back. When I visit my hometown I still drive by the old house. I stop the car and look up. Towering above the little house, stretching toward the sky is my tree. I thank my father for that gift.

I wished I had told him how sorry I was that he could not hear. When he was a little boy, way out in the country his ears ruptured. The family lived on a dirt road miles and miles from doctors. They tried home remedies--but nothing worked. Much of my father’s hearing never came back. So he could never hear me easily. Communication was hard for both of us. Often I grew frustrated that he could not understand me. I wonder now how hard it must have been for him to try to decipher sounds that usually came to him garbled and indistinct. I now know why he hated crowds. He just couldn’t hear what was going on in the group. I now understand why he kept to himself and people thought he was a loner. I would like him to know I now understand something of his distance and his solitude.

I wished I had told him how much I appreciated how hard he worked. He moved, like so many others in the deep South from farm to city where he worked in a textile mill. He worked there from age 21 to age 65 in the same mill. I wish I had told him I have wondered how hard it was to get up and go to the same job year after year, decade after decade. Little money. Little appreciation for all those years of hard, tedious sometime twelve-hour shifts. No vacations. Nothing to look forward to but another week and another year in the mill. I wish I had told him how amazing I think it is that he never complained about his lot in life. He never grumbled about what he did not have. He stayed. He brought home his paycheck. He kept the family together. Our little nuclear family would not have made it if he had not done what he faithfully did.

I wish I could tell him how much I appreciated the legacy of lack of prejudice he left to me and to my brother. He was Foreman in the mill in Georgia from the 1930’s through the early sixties. Every black person who worked for him admired Mr. John. They knew he would be fair. They knew he would be honest. They knew he was a man who always treated them with respect. I would like to tell him what a rare gift he gave me—the great gift of looking beneath a person’s skin color. He didn’t learn that in school—he only finished the seventh grade. But he treated every one the same because it was right.

I never told him how much those long walks in the woods on Sunday afternoons meant to me. We had no car. We had little money. The only day he was off work he would take my brother and me up to the hills along the river. We didn’t say much. We just walked and explored the neighborhood. We found strange-colored rocks and arrowheads and caught frogs and watched snakes slither. I still remember those Sunday afternoon walks.

I don’t think I ever told him that I remembered the day his thumb got cut off in the mill. Later when the insurance money came, he bought my brother and me whatever we wanted. I remember I chose my first wooden box of oil paints. I would like to tell him I still have that box high up my closet. It is one of my most favorite treasures.

I know now why I cried when I read the story about the boy who never got the chance to sing for his father. Life slips away from us all. I never got to say some of the things I wanted to say. But on Father’s Day I remember a man named John who was my Daddy. He is gone but I remember the gifts he left behind. There was little of material worth—but a treasure of memories and a legacy of richness that I will take all the way to the finish line.

Hate is not any kind of a Value

The Holocaust Museum shooting and the assassination of the abortion doctor in church just days ago, has brought the specter of hatred back to the surface. Many pundits have said that with the election of President Obama that the hate groups are reforming and coming out of the woodworks. The Southern Poverty Law Center sends out an internet newsletter called Hatewatch. If you are concerned with the rising tide of hate you might check out this website. Rush Limbaugh seems to be fanning the flames of the haters out there whether he intends to do this or not.

Years ago I remember a quote from a novel, A Summer Place by a man named Wilson. He is writing about Ken who is deeply disappointed in his wife, Margaret and her prejudices. This is what Ken says: "When she refused to patronize a Chinese laundry, he learned that she was against the Chinese and, it seemed, all Orientals. The Russians she hated with patriotic zeal. The English she though snobbish, the French immoral, the Germans brutal, and all South Americans lazy. Category by category, she closed humanity out.” I thought of that old quote the other day when I heard Newt Gingrich proclaim: That he “was an American. He was not a citizen of the world.” Hmmm.

Read what Jim Evans said in his article about a former VP of the Southern Baptist Convention praying for the murder of President Obama. It will make your hair stand on end. Another great article on hatred is from Frank Rich of the New York Times.

A Taste for Garbage

I think I have already mentioned that when I saw the movie, The Soloist I was terribly moved. It’s the true story of Steve Lopez, columnist in LA who heard this homeless man on the street playing his violin. His battered instrument only had two strings but Lopez was awed by the music and the man in rags who lived on the streets. Surely, he thought there is a story here. There was more than a story—the homeless man changed Steve forever—and I think this reporter made an indelible mark on the homeless man with his violin. I have just checked out the book and Lopez is a good writer. I recommend.

But the movie had not done all that well. The project cost $50 million dollars to make. It has grossed just $30 million. Unlike me, most of the reviewers were not all that impressed. The frustrated Producer Gary Foster said of the response of the reviewers. “Audiences don’t want to be reminded of the darkness in the world. They want to laugh, get taken to space, watch things in a museum come to life.” The Producer said it well.

John Huston famous Hollywood director, now deceased, spoke about this problem one time. Someone asked him about the difficulty of producing good movies when so much of the public demanded bad or low-grade movies. He told the story of an old man that sat in the doorway with his old hound dog. Another old man shuffling down the street carried a paper bag full of candy. He looked at the man's dog and said, “That’s a mighty nice dog you got there. You think he might want some of my candy?” The man in the door said, “Well, he eats garbage, so he ought to be crazy about candy.” The dog sniffed at the sweets and walked away. Houston drove home his point “Unfortunately the taste for garbage can be developed like the taste for olives.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Face of America

Lessons often come from strange quarters. The National Spelling Bee finals last week taught me plenty. As I looked at those eleven finalists I realized all over again how the face of America has changed dramatically. Kavya Shivashankar an eighth grader from Olathe, Kansas won the competition. The runner-up was Tim Ruiter a seventh grader from Centreville, Virginia. Ten of the eleven who participated in the finals had names that did not date back to the Mayflower. There were no Bills or Harrys or Janes in the final eleven. Anamika, Neetu, Tussah, Ramya, Sidharth, Aishwarya were a few of those who stood on the stage and spelled out the hard words. Two of the participants were home-schooled. One or two went to private schools. But most of them came from public schools.

When I first enrolled in a deep-South school sixty years ago I thought most everyone was Caucasian. Almost all of us were Baptists, Methodists or a few Pentecostal. I never met a Catholic or Jewish student until I went to high school. Even in college there were no African-Americans and only a handful from the Orient. We did not even know the term Hispanic. The word Muslim was not in our vocabulary. We were mostly white and almost all Southern. We had no idea of the discrimination and injustice that lurked close to that old Howard College campus in East Lake.

That quiet settled world is gone. The US Census from 2007 says that 15% of Americans today are from Hispanic descent. That’s 45.5 million people. It is estimated that by 2050 that 30% of our populace will be Hispanic. 1.1 million Hispanics have served our country in the Armed forces. I tried to find other ethnic figures but had no luck.

The spelling bee has taught me that our diversity is not simply found in La, Phoenix, Miami or New York. The spellers on that stage came from San Jose, West Palm Beach, Peoria, Terre Haute, Las Vegas and other places. The whole complexion of the nation has shifted radically.

I was taught all over again that nationality has nothing to do with intelligence. Those spellers were brilliant. Most of us could not begin to spell some of the words those seventh-eighth graders spelled correctly. White supremacy got lost in the shuffle a long time ago and we should rejoice.

President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court came about the same time as the spelling bee. Sonia Sotomayor--I had never heard that name. Where was she from? What was her background? I learned she was 54 years old. That she was born in the Bronx to parents from Puerto Rico. She lived in public housing and her mother raised her two children alone after her husband died when Sonia was nine.

She must have been as smart in her early years as those children in the spelling bee. She graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude and attended Yale Law School where she was the recipient of many honors. For three decades she has worked at almost every level of the judicial system. Her qualifications for Justice on the Supreme Court are strong as any candidate in our long history.

I think our President has made a good choice. We need some Judges with strange names that can speak to the diversity of our nation. Regardless of all the protests about Judge Sotomayor--every Judge makes his or her decisions filtered through the prism of their own particular journey and background. It is impossible for any judge to be totally unbiased. The rulings of the Court through the years certainly underlines this truth.

In a country that is the color of the rainbow I applaud those eighth and ninth graders that represent the richness of our diverse country. And I applaud President Obama’s choice in picking Sonia Sotomayor to be nominated as a Justice to the Supreme Court. In this nomination our President is simply forcing us to struggle with how united we really are. Like those boys and girls in the spelling bee, Judge Sotomayor represents America at its very best. “Liberty,” I believe the document reads, “and justice for all.” Even spellers. Even Judges. Even old white men like me.