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A Conversation with Andrew Hairston


Fourth in a Series
Decades back, the doors were “flat shut,” he said. Now he was an honored guest. Minister of downtown Atlanta’s Simpson Street Church of Christ since 1961, Andrew J. Hairston was one of two opening speakers at the “One-in-Christ Conference,” a historic gathering convened in 1999 by Abilene Christian University to discuss race in churches of Christ.

Later that fall, ACU president Royce Money publicly asked forgiveness for his institution’s previously discriminatory admission policies.

Participant in another important race conference held June 1968 in Atlanta, Hairston is a one-man mirror of the slow, painful journey of churches of Christ from their once undeniably segregationist stance to the dawning awareness that the gospel they preached so long demands respect for all, regardless of race.

Now in his 60s, Hairston graduated in 1955 from Southwestern Christian College, where he is currently chairman of the board of directors. Along with his other academic achievements, Hairston received his B.D. from Brite Divinity School in 1960 and earned a Doctor of Ministry from Emory University in 1999.

Hairston has combined ministry with service as state court judge. His City Court of Atlanta has the nation’s second largest volume, he said, handling some 250,000 cases annually.

Calvin Bowers, minister of the Figueroa Church of Christ in Los Angeles and a friend for more than 40 years, commented on Hairston’s forthright evaluations of racial realities in the church. “He tells things as he sees them without apologizing for the facts,” Bowers said. “He’s not in anybody’s pocket.”

A poster with former Simpson Street preachers adorning the wall of his office, itself around the corner from a portrait of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Hairston spoke frankly about churches of Christ and race at the start of the new century.

How would you assess the relationship between African Americans and white members of churches of Christ?
Race relations in the church of Christ have always been a micro version of the nation, or been behind the nation. I can go anywhere I want now in the nation. The average congregation, you can walk up to and go in, without eyebrows raising. They’re better, but because the nation is better.

Now that’s not to take away from people like Royce Money [Abilene Christian University president] and what he’s trying to do with the One-in-Christ Conference. I don’t doubt that people are particularly sensitized by efforts like his. But the powers that be in the past were not moved by Scripture to do anything. As church leader, what do you feel best and worst about in the present racial climate?

What I feel best about is that there is some action, and I think it is genuine. I think the people who would have done differently had circumstances allowed them to, are now doing differently. I think that there have always been white folk who were for integration. ACU’s history shows that. Freed-Hardeman’s would even show that, and David Lipscomb´s.

The worst is a complacency that says race really doesn’t matter, and a lack of urgency about the issue. Churches of Christ make a contribution to my still being an underprivileged citizen. For example, blacks’ abilities are not recognized. It’s still hard to be a person who gets equal consideration. What do you see as the future for relations between African American and white members of churches of Christ?

I think the church of Christ is caught up in the transitional phase of theology and a continued slide away from dogmatic positions. If it’s not careful, it’s going to lose a lot in that. I think it needs to face up to that issue, and take it to task, discuss it, and be dialogical on its way through it.

I don’t see race being a big issue, because it’s not a big issue on the national horizon. Yet in some ways the potential for problems is more devastating than ever. The next generation of people has had no real experience with segregation. Systemic segregation is still in place. White society’s still in control, and whatever’s in control tends to favor itself.

My reference is back to Royce Money’s kind of intervention. Those kinds of movements could be plugged into the current situation of race relations. Going against what happened 10, 15, or 20 years ago is not going to do any good. That’s not where the nation’s head is anymore. To what extent is it true that not only race separates African American and white churches, but also significant theological differences?

More than it would have been 10 or 20 years ago, black churches are going through the same theological transition white churches have gone through. Acceptance of each other has raised some theological questions.

For instance, black churches commonly contend that only baptism administered by churches of Christ is valid. Yet there are hordes of white churches that accept people from other immersion fellowships. That’s going to be a much bigger problem in the future as people move between black and white churches.

Another problem that makes us theologically different is that the white church is dominated by the eldership. The black church is dominated by the preacher. And neither one thinks the other is right. With America’s cities shifting ethnically and Hispanics becoming the nation’s largest racial minority, how will African-American members of churches of Christ deal with the change? The jobs that black people used to have, the Hispanics have them. I think there are some reasons to be concerned. There is a feeling in the black community, that this is on purpose. There is a sense that it’s a design by the people who can determine which way this country is going. Blacks are very sensitive to what could happen to their race. We’re not familiar with the Hispanics. But I think that gap can be closed. Churches of Christ have not historically been known for their involvement in social issues. How do you explain this perceived lack of response to social concerns? As the church changes theologically, is it going to become more socially aware?

I think a lot of that had to do with the church’s theology. Churches of Christ, in my judgment, meant that we are the only ones right. We are the church, and we are scriptural. They never wanted to do anything they would characterize as the social gospel.

I don’t know what the white church is doing, but the black churches are heavy into the social. Simpson Street was involved in the civil rights movement. We gave money to feed people on the Birmingham march. You have combined a long ministry with an extensive legal career. How do you connect your Christian faith and your work on the bench?

I think everything focuses on the service of humanity. However you can service humanity, I think you’re into the will of God. I can make you more aware of your rights, or I can be compassionate, I can give consideration to your situation. I think that’s the will of God.

People come into court after they violate the law, and they can’t pay, and they’re put on probation. Here’s a guy who can’t make it from week to week and here’s a $250 fine, or a $500 or $600 fine. For every month that he pays on it, it costs him $25 to carry it. Actually, he’s set up to fail. You need somebody that is sensitive to it, and many times the system is not.

Whether or not the world generally thinks so, I think that the crowning work of God’s creation is humanity. Helping people is still a calling of virtue, and a high calling.
I think everything focuses on the service of humanity. However you can service humanity, I think you’re into the will of God. I can make you more aware of your rights, or I can be compassionate, I can give consideration to your situation. I think that’s the will of God.

People come into court after they violate the law, and they can’t pay, and they’re put on probation. Here’s a guy who can’t make it from week to week and here’s a $250 fine, or a $500 or $600 fine. For every month that he pays on it, it costs him $25 to carry it. Actually, he’s set up to fail. You need somebody that is sensitive to it, and many times the system is not.

Whether or not the world generally thinks so, I think that the crowning work of God’s creation is humanity. Helping people is still a calling of virtue, and a high calling.

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