Respect Trumps Conflict
In 1957 I accepted an appointment as Minister in Charge of a Methodist parish in Alabama. The night I was ordained Brother Pickard, a retired pastor said, “Max, most folks will not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Little did I know then, how that would play out in the years ahead.
I was the Minister in Charge by the appointment of the Bishop. I would become a pastor in the real sense only when and if I felt the people's pain, mourned their losses, and shared in what made them happy. I was tested by the conflict that arose when my preaching challenged their prejudices. Remember this was 1957 in asegregated Black Belt Alabama and I was pastor to an all white congregation. I preached, as best I knew how, of God's love that knows no bounds and I challenged the age-old separate and unequal segregation of the races. The stage was set for conflict. The drama would unfold.
And unfold it did – from the first day we moved into the parsonage. That very night, a man knocked on the door. He said he was a member of one of the churches in my charge and just wanted to welcome me. He also said, almost as an aside, that there had been talk that the Klan had planned to burn a cross in front of the parsonage as a protest against the liberal preacher who preceded me. I knew that the county had a high Ku Klux Klan membership. After all, I was a son of the South and I had been raised in a cotton mill town not far from where my churches were located. I knew where I was. I also knew that if the Klan thought my predecessor was liberal, I was in deep trouble. It didn't take me long that night to realize that my visitor was not there to welcome me as much as he was there to deliver a threat. I understood what he was saying. I responded to his message the only way I could think of at the moment. I said, “That would be terrible.” And when he nodded, I continued, “I keep a loaded shotgun inside the front door. I can imagine waking in the night with a mob burning a cross in my front yard, firing into the crowd and, God forbid, killing someone. I'm not sure I could live with that.”
After he left, my wife said, “Why did you tell him that? You don't even own a gun.”
I said, “I know, but he doesn't know that.”
A couple of days later, a member of the church told me, “I hear you had a visit from the Klan the other night.”
The Klan never attempted to burn a cross in front of the parsonage. I never knew why not. I doubt if they felt intimidated by my presence. It may be they didn't think I was worth the effort. Whatever the reason, I never heard any more about it and it was never mentioned in church.
However, racial conflict was the issue of the day, in and out of the Church. Responses to the threat of dismantling segregation were emotional, sometimes to the point of violence. Church members were angry, scared, and defensive as they struggled with their faith and conscience.
Before I unpacked my books, one of the churches in my charge called a meeting to vote on a proposal from the national Methodist Church to end segregation within its membership. Mine was the only voice in favor of the proposal. The reaction to my vote was swift, emotional, and threatening. One member called me a Communist and I almost came to blows with another one. The thought occurred to me that I might have the shortest term as pastor in the history of that church.
I remained as pastor for three years and left of my own accord. I cared for the people: burying the dead, consoling the suffering, baptizing the babies, marrying the young, and listening to people's problems. My family and I shared many a meal with families in the church. We couldn't ignore the dark clouds of racial conflict but through our struggles, we held together as the Church - and I never equivocated in my preaching of God's inclusive love.
Quite often through those three years, I remembered what Brother Pickard had said about caring for the people. Over time I realized that caring begins with respect. If we had judged each other only by first impressions of those turbulent beginning days, we would have parted company early on. If we had not determined to respect each other until we got to know each other better, we would never have discovered a shared vision or maintained any semblance of community.
There used to be a stop sign where Highway 24 runs into Highway 81 up in the northern part of Kansas. Below the Stop symbol was another sign that read, "Look both ways." And underneath that sign was another that said, "Look again." If we are to sustain a culture of peace and justice, our leaders can't wait until everyone holds hands and sings Kum Ba Yah together. Sometime we have to say no to the mean spirit that pervades our world today. That calls for clever strategies and unyielding resolve. But it begins with respect. What do you see when you look at a neighbor with whom you disagree? Look again. Look for that shared vision. Prompted by the author of the Book of Proverbs, I write where there is no vision, the people perish, justice is denied, and compassion has its hands tied.
There is no report card on how well I succeeded as pastor to those country churches. That's not my point. The story happened long ago and far away in the crucible of troubling times, but the lessons learned then ring just as true today in these challenging times.