I know a fellow pastor who swears that nothing happens by coincidence. I’m not THAT much of a purist. Although God does work wonders and is very much a part of our lives, I think that there is room for a coincidence now and then. HOWEVER, I will say that this week, what happened to me was more than coincidence.
And to think it happened at a Presbytery meeting! Yes, apparently God even attends Presbytery meetings. I am going to tell you what happened, but everything right now is still kind of a jumble for me, so you will have to bear with me if the pieces of this jigsaw saga do not fit snuggly together. I am still processing.
To begin, I would like us to put ourselves at that Presbytery meeting. We are at Westminster/Cantebury, a retirement community in Richmond. We are sitting in a large meeting room. Two lecterns flank the center stage. There are also several chairs on stage, and a table on which stands a large brass, Celtic cross. After a time of worship, and after hearing reports from various committees, two women, one black the other white, climb the stairs to the stage. They situate two of the chairs next to each other, center stage, and they sit down. So begins their mini-drama, which is really a conversation. Here is the gist of the conversation:
White woman: I’m not a racist. I am a good person. I have friends who are black—black like you are. In fact, I consider you a friend. I personally have not done anything racist, although I will admit that our country has a long history of racism.
Black woman—I agree that you are a good person, and you are my friend, but you are still a racist. You say things and do things that ARE racist. You just don’t realize you are saying and doing them. And, you have benefited and continue to benefit from systemic racism.
They say these things with much more dramatic flourish than I am now, of course.
I identify with what the white woman says. I don’t want to believe I am racist, either. I, though, understand race relations a whole lot better than SHE does, or at least a whole lot better than the person she is pretending to be on stage. That’s what I am thinking. I actually have this experience. Truth be told, I sometimes wear this experience on my shirtsleeve, or robe sleeve, if I am preaching with my robe on. I think about that experience as the drama unfolds, and I will tell you about that experience now.
I attended Thomas Jefferson High School, TJ; it’s a public high school in Richmond. You’ve heard of bussing? That’s what happened during the four years I was at TJ. With one pound of the Supreme Court gavel, TJ went from being 70% white, 30% black my sophomore year to 25% white, 75% black my junior year. That meant I went from being part of a white majority to being part of a white minority. I KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE PART OF A MINORITY. And of course, with bussing, I really did study with, work with, communicate with blacks and they with whites. We got to know each other in a way not available to us before. That is the experience I wear on my shirt or robe sleeve.
That’s not all I think about, though. The black woman mentions systemic racism. Now, I know about that, too. I read this startling fact just the other week. Most African American GIs coming home from WWII were not able to benefit from the GI bill—you know, the bill that gave WWII veterans a free college tuition—like my own dad received—and low interest rates on mortgages, also like my dad received. Yep, I hadn’t known about that until last week. That’s systemic racism big time. The GI bill is probably why my family flourished and my brother and I continue to flourish. We have an unfair advantage over black people.
The black woman on stage, points out current practices of systemic racism. Like the police shootings of young black men—innocent young black men. And of course she mentions how our country is still segregated—in schools, in office buildings, and in churches.
But now the women have finished their mini-drama—they are telling us about this new initiative that the Presbytery has. It’s called Dismantling Racism. Sounds interesting. It’s an education initiative to make us—that is we who are Presbyterians in the Presbytery of the James, more sensitive to racism. It’s a course that will initiate dialogue, story telling—that will allow us to do some inner-soul searching—that’s what they say. I think something along the lines of, “I myself don’t need to be part of the initiative, but maybe there are others at Scottsville Presbyterian and in the greater Scottsville Community who do. Yes, we have our relationship with Chestnut Grove. But, that’s really, just a start.”
The women step down. More reports and then, glory be, we are nearing the end of our meeting. It’s almost noon and I’m hungry. One more agenda item. All Souls Presbyterian Church. It’s an African American Church in Richmond and it’s in financial distress—The discussion concerns whether the Presbytery should assume original jurisdiction—that is, take over financial leadership of the church. The pastor of All Souls stands. He’s a black man. I can’t see him well—he’s in the back. He introduces himself as Johnny Walker. He begins a long explanation as to what he and his church have done to set things right.
I am not really listening to Rev. Walker, though. The name has jarred me. Once again, in the space of one Presbytery meeting, I am remembering my high school years. I am remembering a Johnny Walker I knew back then. He was black, too.
When bussing happened, I was a nerdish Junior—no, who me? AND, maybe because I was a nerd, I was one of several elected class Senators. Our white class president, who was academically gifted and college bound, as were all of us who served in high school government, that friend was bussed to Kennedy High School. Johnny Walker—a black youth bussed from Kennedy to TJ, became our new class president. One reason he was elected our new class president, at least I will assume this is true, was because our school now had a black majority.
Johnny Walker, as far as I could tell, was not academically gifted—that is, —he was not in any AP classes and he did not seem to have college aspirations. He was jive; he walked with an attitude. Johnny Walker wore bizarre clothes, too—I remember him addressing our class, maybe at graduation now that I think of it, wearing a T shirt and lime green gym shorts.
No, I did not like Johnny Walker. In fact, I LOATHED Johnny Walker. I went to my thesaurus to find that word for this sermon. It says it best. Not dislike, not despise, but loathe. And yes, I realize that loathe is not a Christian sentiment. So be it.
But back to the present. Rev. Walker has won his argument. His church is able to continue functioning without Presbytery oversight. That’s the last thing on the agenda. We hear announcements, we receive a final benediction and everyone stands to leave. I close my lap top. Gather my purse and my briefcase.
In a moment of sudden inspiration, though, I make my way over to Rev. Walker. Want to know. I tap him on the shoulder. When he turns around I ask, “Did you go to TJ?” Actually I don’t have to ask the question. I recognize him straight away.
“Class of 72.”
“My name is Gay Lee.”
“I remember you!” And before I can say anything else, he has me in a fierce, a truly fierce, embrace. We engage in Presbyterian pastor chit-chat for a few minutes—but my heart is racing; my mind is on overload. And then we go our separate ways.
I have time to think on the long drive home. I decide that God was in that moment with Johnny Walker. Certainly God has better things to do, but how else DO you explain what happened? More than coincidence, I’d say.
Like I said, I am still processing. This is some of what I am asking myself:
I want to know: Back in high school, did Johnny Walker loathe me as much as I loathed him? Could it possibly be that he never did, and that in high school anyway, he out-Christianed me? Might he still be out-Christianing me?!
Could it be that back in high school, Johnny Walker was a kind of prophet, in the vein of a Jonah—waking all of us up to some truth about race relations—the truth about the power inherent in being part of a majority?
What DID Johnny Walker’s black classmates see in him enough to elect him—make him a school leader?
How can it be that two people, at opposite ends of the high school personality, attitude, and demeanor spectrum, end up with similar vocations and following the same Jesus?
One last question, although I have others for sure. I’m not a racist am I?
I should be able to answer these questions, I know, but you see, I’ve got this darn log in my eye. Amen