Filed under: Christianity, God, Grace, Jesus, Prayer, racism, Religion, Spirituality, thoughts
Rose must have been the oldest person in my first church. Probably close to 90 years old when I took the pulpit in a small South Louisiana town. She grew up on a plantation and had witnessed all the Jazz greats. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Bunk Johnson had all been hired by her father to play for parties. As a girl she remembered dancing and singing along to their tunes. Every time I brought up the subject of jazz her eyes would beam and the stories would begin to pour out.
She was at an age were she didn’t care what anyone thought about her. On our weekly Wednesday morning Bible studies the other retirees would embarassingly try to quiet her when she talked on and on about the minister in the 1930’s who had been fired for hitting his wife (apparently she had hung his toupee out on the cloths line for everyone to see). All the nasty church gossip could be learned from Rose.
Much to everyone’s horror, Rose was still driving. One morning we noticed her 1980’s, blue Pontiac lurching over the front curb, barely missing the large cypress cross, cutting across the front lawn until she pulled onto the gravel lot to park her vehicle. When she came into the classroom she declared, “someone ought to mark that driveway better, I almost missed it!”
Rose was a matriarch’s matriarch and held the distinction with grand importance. Sitting in the back row she always complained that I was not loud enough for her to hear. Yet, everyone knew that she sat on that last row to be the first to shake my hand at the door and give her opinions for everyone in that small church to hear.
It was on my first Pentecost Sunday when I clearly understood the power of a matriarch. That particular sermon was my feeble attempt to articulate the idea of racial/ethnic reconciliation as seen through the eyes of an early worshipping community whom had been united through an equality of the Spirit. I spoke that just like the uniting of tongues was shown to that earliest group of believers, we should believe in the equality of all races as all being imprinted with the divine. I knew that this simple message of racial tolerance might not be recieved positively because my church was in a region that had overwhelmingly voted for David Duke, had in the 1940’s beaten organizers of a local NAACP chapter and whose African American population still seemed quite visibly, economically segregated.
When the benediction and postlude were complete, Rose was obviously not happy. She folded her arms and refused to shake my hand.
“Pastor I think that you are dead wrong.” She said firmly. “You are not from here and you don’t fully understand the issues. You don’t know these people. Some of them are animals. Those people aren’t even human!”
I was shocked and taken aback. Leading her down the hallway and out of earshot of others, I said some things that betrayed me as an inexperienced young minister. Yet, I stood my ground and told her that I was horrified by what she had said and strongly disagreed with her opinion.
Furious, that next week I fumed. What had I gotten myself into? This was by no means an isolated incident of racism in my congregation, but the most egregious. Well meaning people came to me in private, but I felt that there was an effort to silence me on this issue. Others let me know that Rose’s father had been a prominent local leader in the Klu Klux Klan. This was just the way she was raised. It felt like the civil rights movement had never happened. How was I to deal with this woman in the future?
All my fears proved to be misguided when at our next Wednesday Bible study she treated me like nothing had happened. I was guarded and careful around her, but she seemed to have moved on. As with most pastors soon I had forgotten the incident under my hectic life. I got lost in the crush of keeping myself busy.
At a friend’s house in Austin, Texas I was snapped back to an ugly reality of hate when she turned on the television to see that planes had sliced into the second of New York City’s Twin Towers. My wife, daughter and I hurried across Eastern Texas so that we could return to our churches. The radio stations were filled with confusion and there was a tremendous amount of fear. President Bush had ordered the clergy to be in their churches and open their sanctuaries for prayer (something that many of us had already planned).
With a television running in our church library my regular Wednesday Bible study group showed up dutifully to pray for our country and the victims of this vicious attack. Rose came in late with a very troubled look. We had a shell shocked discussion, but Rose was uncharacteristically quiet. We talked of friends and our own personal visits to New York City. Some talked about their family members who had finally been reached over the phone. Then we talked about the terrorists and why they had chosen to slaughter innocent civilians.
This was when Rose grimly spoke up. “Pastor, I have to ask you a serious question. I need to know if I did the right thing. Last night my neighbors had a prayer meeting. They decided to meet out in the street and hold hands to pray. One by one we went around in a circle and prayed. When it came to me all I could think of was to pray for our enemies. So, I prayed for those who did this awful thing. I prayed for those who hate us. People really got really angry with me. I have always been taught to pray for my enemies. Did I do the right thing?”
I was stunned. I was still filled with rage and pain. My anger was like an open sore, but I knew that she was right.
“Rose, I am glad that you are able to pray for our enemies. I think that it takes a lot of courage to pray for them like you did. I am just not sure that I am there yet. So, I will let you pray for me.” Then we all prayed and Rose again prayed for our enemies.
Humans are strange conduits of grace. I am continually amazed that the creative force of the universe uses such flawed and imperfect creations to convey the message of mercy, love and hope. In reading scriptures I am struck by how imperfect the individuals are that seem to be described as filled with faith. I think that Rose was one of those flawed creatures. Rose taught me something honest about love and hate. She taught me something that was both ugly and beautiful.
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