Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bad Ass Methodist Preacher Story Forces Some Reflection

I've been living with Timothy Tyson's haunting Blood Done Sign My Name, a book about growing up in rural North Carolina in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tyson's father - a central figure in the story, of course - was a Methodist preacher from a long line of Methodist preachers. His father and each of his brothers also had served as Methodist clergy in North Carolina, and each had difficult careers because of their stand on the "race issue."

My friend Charles is a contemporary of Rev. Vernon Tyson who began his career preaching in rural South Carolina. He tells many stories of confronting Southern racism - perhaps more honest than Northern racism - both in himself and in his first few congregations. Those stories, stories of facing down angry congregants, gave me some comfort as I went through my own trial by ordeal. Unlike Charles, or Vernon Tyson, however, my stand was not quite as principled, and my career did not survive it.

Preaching racial equality in the South during the Civil Rights movement was akin to career suicide. The few white preachers who had the courage or gall to do it found themselves quickly in search of a new home. For Charles in meant moving to Louisville and earning a PhD in history from the University of Louisville, pursuing a career in academia to supplement and at times even supplant his pastoral ministry. For Vernon Tyson and others it meant moving from appointment to appointment, and often running into difficulty with the bishop's office.

In Blood Done Sign My Name, Timothy Tyson tells more than a few stories from his father's career that remind me so much of stories that my friend Charles has told me. One of them takes place in Oxford, North Carolina, just after the assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of the clergy in Oxford would like to hold a memorial service for King, despite the prominent view among the whites in town that King's death, far from a tragedy, was both deserved and a step in the right direction. Tyson reminds us that

we should not forget that comparatively few [white Americans] applauded King while he lived. In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wished the occasion dictates. Politicians who oppose everything King worked for now jostle their way onto podiums to honor his memory.

Since his death, King's life has been co-opted by a culture that opposed him while he lived. As such, so far removed from him, it is easy for us to forget that he was seen by some as the greatest internal threat that America had ever faced. In 1968, when a group of clergy in Oxford, North Carolina proposed an inter-racial memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr., it was quite possibly the most controversial idea that could have ever come up with, short of, perhaps, performing an inter-racial wedding.

The problem with this idea was that, if the service was held at a black church, no whites would have attended it, which would have kept it from being an inter-racial service. But no white pastor was foolish or suicidal enough to propose that the event be held at their church. Radical ideas, after all, are best kept in the abstract, and preferably as far from home as possible.

Enter Rev. Vernon Tyson, Timothy Tyson's father, and at this point pastor of the all white Oxford United Methodist Church. After consulting the Book of Discipline, the governing document of the United Methodist Church, he realized that, unlike his Baptist colleagues, he could hold the service in his church without getting any sort of permission or approval from any board, body, or group in his church. While he had already been run out of one church for inviting a black preacher to address his all white congregation, he decided to offer to hold the inter-racial memorial service at his church. His offer was quickly accepted, and the group of pastors decided not to say anything about the service to anyone until Sunday morning, when they would each announce the service - to be held at 5pm that night -simultaneously to their respective congregations. The hope was that this move would give "the opposition... little time to mobilize." Timothy Tyson writes:

The roomful of indignant men that met us the next morning clearly revealed that someone had failed to keep the agreement. "This ain't your church, Vernon, it's our church," the spokesman repeated. "You can't have a church full of n* [Note: I have chosen to edit this word out, though Tyson repeats it verbatim, a powerful literary device. I do not use it here, however, because - while I have few linguistic hang-ups - I simply can't bring myself to type it. You should know what unmentionable word begins with an n. - CB] in here. This is our church." An angry clamor of assent echoed around the cool, white plaster of the walls lined with books, and now also lined with churchmen young and old. Eli Regan stood silently near the back, letting this younger fellow do the talking.

"The last time I checked, it was God's church," my father replied. "I think it probably still is." He made his way around the desk and took the robe that his daddy had given him off the coat rack. Nestling it around his shoulders, he straightened his tie in the small mirror in the corner and ran a comb through his hair.

"Well, you can say whatever you want, Vernon, but you can't do it," the man replied. "You are not having any damn Martin Luther King service in our church, and that's a fact. You can't do it. We're not going to let you do it. So you may as well get on the telephone right now and tell them that it is not happening in our church."

My father again plucked up his copy of the Methodist
Book of Discipline from the shelf behind his desk, opening it to the page he had marked the day before. "I don't mean to be arrogant, you understand," Daddy said, "and I understand that you're not happy about it. I hear that, and I'm not saying that you have to come to the service. But we're all Methodists here, and part of that is having methods, you might say, for doing certain things. This book lists them, and it says right here" - he opened the page, holding the book out toward his interrogator - "that the pastor of this church can determine the number and nature of services held in the sanctuary. And, for the moment at least, I believe that I am still the pastor of this church." He scribbled a number on the back of his business card and handed it to the speechless spokesman. "And here's the bishop's phone number. If he says I am not the pastor of this church, I can't do it. Otherwise I plan to proceed."

Daddy started rummaging through his satchel for his sermon notes. There was a stunned silence. Nobody knew quite what to do or say. The study was so packed that it was literally hard for the men to leave. But Eli Regan shuffled around to the front of Daddy's desk, stepping in front of the man who had been speaking. Regan was probably as conservative a man as you could have found in the state of North Carolina, and he spoke with great authority in this group as the lay leader and as one of the senior men in the church. "Well, Preacher," he said, "I have two things to say about all this. The first thing is that I believe in my heart that Martin Luther King is the worst enemy that America has had in my lifetime - the very worst. You don't think so, but that's what I think, and I think most of these men agree with me." There were nods of assent all around the small room. "And the second thing I want to tell you," Regan continued, "is that if anybody in this room knocks you down, Preacher, I'm gonna pick you back up again. You're still
my preacher."

My career as a pastor ended with my voluntary resignation of my only appointment, one week after my District Superintendent and I were accosted at a Charge Conference by an angry group from the church who literally stormed the floor, took over the meeting, and forced us to listen to their list of "concerns" about me. I say "voluntary resignation" almost ironically, as there is little volition involved in the decision to remove yourself from a violent and abusive situation.

During the week between the Charge Conference and my final service at the church, my wife and I agreed both that she and Adam would never step foot in the building again, and that I would exit that charge as quickly as possible. My District Superintendent encouraged me to resign immediately, without so much as even saying goodbye. He feared for my safety, and offered to retrieve all of my belongings from the church for me. But I wanted to face that church one more time, to leave on my own terms.

I'm glad that I did. Before my final service, several kind people from the church told me how much they appreciated me, and how ashamed they were of how their friends treated me. They said that they had been raised better than to treat people like that - especially pastors. They told me that this had happened before. In fact, the person I replaced had been run out of town just like this. Ever since their beloved "Brother Burns" had died, they couldn't find a preacher they liked. The problem, these kind people assured me, was with the church, and not with me.

But, too much damage had been done already, and I'd already made up my mind. I don't know what, if anything, remains of that church. It was sinking fast when I got there, and running off their last few pastors certainly would not have endeared it to the bishop's office. But, reading Tyson's story reminded me a little bit of some of the events that surrounded my departure from pastoral ministry.

It also reminded me of a story that my friend Charles - who served on my District Committee on Ministry and who was my United Methodist Polity professor, and who, now retired, worships with me every week - told me while I was going through my own personal hell. He went through a similar situation after having the audacity to tell a church full of whites that God was color blind with respect to persons. He saw Civil Rights as an essential part of the Gospel, and was not afraid to tell his churches that.

One week he overheard two men - opponents of his - talking in the back of the sanctuary after service. One of them laid into Charles behind his back, cursing his talk of "race mixing." The other said softly, "I don't like this any more than you do, but if our preacher can't tell us what he really thinks about something, we've got nothing."

These stories swirl around in my head, and I don't know what to make of them. I'm not sure I can draw any moral out of them, save to say that I am convinced that God calls us from time to time to take prophetic stands, and I wish I had the courage to make some of my own.

Telling a church full of fundamentalists that God is a God of Mercy, not a God of Wrath, or writing from the safety and security of my basement office that gays and lesbians should have the right to have their relationships recognized by both the church and the state; these don't quite count as prophetic stands. But when Jesus took his stand the authorities nailed him to a cross, and while we don't hang dissenters today, that fear still permeates those of us who want to be seen a people of good conscience, even as we harbor those secret fears that paralyze our would-be-prophetic tongues.

Rev. Vernon Tyson, roughly two years after his Book of Discipline wielding stand, was forced to leave yet another town. My friend Charles had to leave his home state. My friend Gil - another Southern white Methodist who took a stand - nearly has his house blown up for marching with blacks during the Civil Rights movement, and has since been ostracized by our Conference for performing a same-sex wedding.

What sacrifice will I make for what I believe in?

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