I was very critical, in an article yesterday, of a Baptist church that refused to perform the wedding of a black couple in their church. Some have been critical of the pastor, Dr. Stan Weatherford for his actions. I have not bashed him for two reasons. First, I know he was faced with a difficult choice. He probably wishes he made a different one. But there is a second reason. I once walked in his shoes. It was nearly 25 years ago and I was a young preacher. I look back on my own actions with less than complete satisfaction. I hope I would do differently now. If you have pastored in a racist church, you may sympathize with my struggles there. But with all the discussion, I wanted to share the story of my struggle with the readers here.
In 1987, I became the pastor of a small rural church in Virginia (we had around 125 on a Sunday morning). I was moving from South Florida and expected this pretty little town to be a modern day Mayberry – a place of kindness, community and solid moral values. It was something much darker. It was a (pardon my excessive rhetoric) seething cauldron of racial hatred (among other problems).
When I took the job, one of the deacons assured me that the bylaws had been rewritten to remove any restrictions on black people attending the church. But I found out that the constitutional permission for blacks to attend did not really extend to actual attendance. Black people knew they were not welcome and they stayed away.
I made my views on racism known and people would try to tell me privately that they were not racists. Their efforts to demonstrate their lack of racism made me cringe. One man told me a story about an old black lady (I cannot use the word he and others used to refer to blacks – it was a combination of “Negro’ and a certain n-word that we just don’t use) who used to come to the back door and take the game he hunted and clean it for him. He shared some of the meat with her, so he couldn’t actually be a racist, right?
One day, I said this during a sermon:
Some of you are not going to like heaven very much. There will be black people there!
There was a chill in the air that Sunday.
The crisis came in the summer of 1988. We had installed a basketball goal in the upper parking lot of the church, where I spent a lot of time “schooling” the youth group in the fine art of hoops. (Sorry – the older I get the better I used to be!) We had a lot of fun there.
One day, the goal was suddenly gone. Vanished. It had been raptured and I was left behind. I found out the story later.
One of our deacons found some young black guys shooting hoops on the goal at the end of his driveway, which he had installed for his sons. He didn’t mind them playing there, but he had the idea that perhaps they would have more fun at the church. He suggested they go down there to play. They did.
When men in the church found out that black youths had played basketball in the church parking lot, they panicked and removed the hoop. It was a safety issue, they said. No telling what those young blacks were up to. There was a single lady that lived across the field from the church and here safety was at stake! So, to prevent some black teenagers from playing basketball on our church parking lot, they removed the goal.
That Sunday was the annual business meeting at which we voted on the church budget. I should have known something was up. The place was packed for business meeting with lots of folks who hadn’t been to church in months. You know you are in trouble when that happens. I was told later that the folks had gotten on the phone to “send a message” to the young whippersnapper of a pastor. In the course of the meeting, they took away my raise for the year, they voted down my close friend who was up for election as a deacon and generally put a chill in the air.
I had a conversation later with the deacon who had invited the black teens to play ball on the church property. Were we going to force the issue or were we going to let it ride? We could have brought the matter to the deacons for discussion and then to the church, to clearly declare that racism had no place in that church.
We decided that the time was not right to force the issue. I was not sure whether we would succeed or fail. But I was quite sure it would split the church wide open. And, of course, it would likely cost me my job. I had a wife and two small sons to factor in. So, I decided not to seek to pursue this issue. I continued to say what I felt needed to be said, but I did not force the issue.
With the wisdom of experience, I know think that I should have forced the experience. The unity of the Body is insignificant if we have to tolerate overt sin to keep it going. That is not unity; not really. It is a common experience of sin.
So, almost 25 year ago, to keep unity in the church (and, perhaps, to keep my own job), I made a decision I now regret. What I justified as an effort to foster peace was really more an act of cowardice on my part. I didn’t understand then what I understand now (thanks largely to Dwight McKissic), that racism is not some kind of minor sin we can just turn a blind eye to. It is an offense to the Cross and destructive to the Body of Christ.
I did not take the right stand back then. I hope to never make such a decision again.