Fifty years after historic meeting, race still divides Churches of Christ
In the summer of tumultuous 1968, more than 40 prominent…
Covering the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta meeting on race relations in Churches of Christ has me thinking about my own history.
I’ve moved about our congregations — some black, some white, too few a mix of both. Some were welcoming. Some were not.
When I was a boy, it seemed strange that I never heard instrumental music coming out of the East Hill Church of Christ, which was across the street from the house in Pensacola, Fla., where I lived until I was 6. My mother was the organist for the Mount Olive Baptist Church, one block away.
Years later, on Dec. 3, 1978, I was baptized at the Call Street Church of Christ in Tallahassee after studying Bible with church members on the campus of Florida State University. My Bible study leader, Dean Farris, who was from Pensacola, told me I needed to worship with a Church of Christ when I went home.
I didn’t want to disappoint him or my family, so my only option was to sneak out of the choir stand at Mount Olive, slip out the back door and run up the street to the East Hill church on Sunday.
At East Hill, I was surprised to see theater seats and about 60 white souls — and they were even more surprised to see me. Then I spotted a husky, silver-haired man in a brown suit, one of the elders. I told him I was the little boy from across the street who had just been baptized. He welcomed and introduced me to others. (East Hill eventually closed and became the funeral home that prepared my grandmother for burial.)
I haven’t always been received so kindly. Once I visited a Church of Christ that had about 500 in attendance — 20 of them black. Even so, one of the deacons suggested I might be more comfortable at the black congregation across town. I ignored him. The church’s ministers and elders, it turns out, were nice.
I will say, however, that one of the elders, when I told him about the church I attended back home, suggested that I attend a nearby Church of Christ that was in the non-institutional branch of our fellowship.
Our divisions aren’t only racial.
Back at Florida State, one of my fellow football walk-ons, Undra Griggs, who is black, studied the Bible and obeyed the Gospel. My roommate, Jeff Hughbright, who is white, insisted that we find him a church to attend in his hometown, Century, in the Florida panhandle. The closest Church of Christ we could find was an all-white congregation just across the state line in Flomaton, Ala.
I will never forget walking into that church building with Undra and Jeff. We were two blacks and a white guy. Just two hours up the road was Selma, and on my mind were all of the college students who were beaten or lynched during those years of integration in the South.
“Do you remember what happened?” Jeff asked me just the other day as we reminisced about that visit. “We got stares, but then one man asked Undra, ‘Didn’t you play football for Century High?’ When Undra said yes, we were welcomed.
“50 Years: Racial Reconciliation and the Church” is a series highlighting significant events of 1967 and 1968. Read all the stories.
“God worked through football.”
Now Jeff and his wife, Sherry, who worship with the Campus Church of Christ in Norcross, Ga., have four children, one of which is African-American. They’re blessed to be part of a diverse church family.
There’s a difference, Sherry says, between churches that accept diversity and churches that pursue diversity.
“At the Campus church, we are actively striving to be the church that Jesus died for,” Jeff said, “a church that has the attitude that we are glad you are here.”
In 2014, I went back to that church in Alabama. There still were no people of color in the pews. To my surprise, one man knew my mother. She had been his music teacher at Century High. That connection warmed things up.
As I get older, I hang on to the hope that the church can be the diverse movement it should be. I remember the annual Florida Evangelism Seminars of more than 20 years ago, where I listened to African-American speakers such as Humphrey Foutz and Richard Barclay. And there were inspiring white evangelists at those meetings: Marvin Phillips, Terry Rush, Richard Rodgers, Chuck Lucas. They made me believe we really can be united — and take the world for Christ. But in the years that have followed it seems like fighting, fracturing and splitting have plagued our fellowship.
There’s hope, however. The University Park Church of Christ in Hyattsville, Md., where I preach once a month, is a thriving, diverse congregation. I’ve been inspired by the great men who have preached for the Simpson Street church in Atlanta, the Schrader Lane and Jackson Street churches in Nashville, Tenn., and the nearby Madison Church of Christ.
Despite the racial divisions that seem to be set like theological concrete in Memphis, Tenn., I was welcomed by brethren black and white alike when I studied there at Harding School of Theology. One of the professors, Edward Robinson, had us look at two racially charged movies — “Birth of a Nation” from 1915 and “Amistad” from 1997. It was fascinating how the black and white ministers in the room viewed these films differently.
Fifty years after the Atlanta race meetings, I think we need to recognize that we are different. But we’re the same in all the ways that matter to Jesus, and he wants us to pursue diversity as we pursue him.
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