Last night, we were in the presence of greatness.
C has been teaching a class on Baptist history (it's actually been really interesting and well-attended) and got to the part where Baptists in the south decided they would rather support slavery than stay connected with their northern brethren and split off and formed the SBC. He asked Rev. Smith, a member of our church and a pastor since the 1950s, to talk about race relations in the SBC since then.
Rev. Smith is a slight, white-haired man with a quiet voice and a radiant smile. He didn't smile much as he described the ordinary racism of the south of his childhood and the way that God balanced those brutal experiences by giving him actual relationships with black people that were caring and lifegiving.
He talked about getting to know African-American pastors back when things were "separate and (not) equal" and hearing about their experiences from their own lips instead of from town gossip or the national news. He showed us the paperback copies of the books that he bought to read what MLK thought in his own words instead of believing what he heard in the press. He held up a tattered copy of the ballot used to guide his small country church to not only welcome their black brothers and sisters but even to join the local association of black churches in solidarity. He described advocating for an African American pastor to take over the pastorate of his church's mission church even though all the remaining members were white. He also told about a deacon who threatened him, saying, "When a n***** walks in the front door [of the church], God walks out the back."
There were a lot of stories that he didn't tell--the good, the bad and the ugly. For one thing, he only got up to 1968. He was very reluctant to portray himself as a hero or a crusader but the truth is that he consistently made the right choices about racial reconciliation at a time when many pastors didn't. He didn't march on Washington or attend a sit-in. At the same time, he didn't just wait for "social issues" to resolve themselves. Instead, he went across town and became friends with people who were different from him. He listened to them, thought about what they thought about, ate with them, worshiped with them, and advocated for them. He loved his neighbor in ordinary, courageous, extraordinary ways--a lot like Jesus.