I don’t remember now where I read about it, but I remember the story of a church located in the South. This church is over a hundred years-old. Needless to say, they have a lot of history. You can’t hang around for a century without some history—the stories the church tells about itself. Part of the history of that church includes the fact that an African American has never set foot in the church building. Never. Not once.
That part of the history was regularly recounted by certain members of the congregation with a certain measure of pride. There were others, however, who weren’t so fond of that part of the church’s story. Everybody doesn’t always agree on which parts of the family story are the good parts and which parts are the shameful parts—the parts you’d rather other people never found out about. Every family has both: Every family has a golden child that bears on his or her back the dreams and aspirations of the family; and, every family has a cousin Eddy who lives in the basement with a chin beard and a Mountain Dew addiction. The problem with families is, people can’t always agree on which is which.
Anyway, discussion came up in this particular church about the fact that their downtown neighborhood was beginning to integrate. Somebody raised the prospect at a meeting that one of these days (and maybe soon) an African American was going to bring the church’s great white streak to an end.
Upon hearing this, a lady named Gert spoke up: “I wanna tell you something. The first time a black person walks through the doors of this church—I don’t care if I’m singing in the choir, or reading scripture at the pulpit, or even if I’m just sitting in the pew—I’m going to stand up, and I’m going to walk out those doors, and I’m never coming back.”
Apparently, everyone was stunned. Nobody knew what to say. Silence.
Finally, another older woman, one of best Gert’s friends, stood up and said: “I wanna tell you something. The first time a black person walks through the doors of this church—I don’t care if I’m singing in the choir, or reading scripture at the pulpit, or even if I’m just sitting in the pew—I’m going to stand up . . . and I’m going to say goodbye to Gert.”
I don’t know about you, but at this point in our cultural, religious, and political life I feel the need to be honest and public about what I value, and to be willing to face the consequences of my commitments. The times we occupy, I fear, require us to stand up and be counted, not so much for our own sake but for the sake of those who are most vulnerable among us, those who find themselves too easily on the sidelines or in the cross-hairs.
When I taught a religious studies course at the University of Louisville, we read Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel’s classic book, Night, a poetic and thoroughly gut-wrenching account of his time in Auschwitz during World War II. In the course of our discussions about the book, I would ask my college students, “If you were put in the position of helping someone else, knowing that your help might put you or your family in danger, would you dare go out of your way to help?”
The responses were generally fairly binary: “Of course!” or “What, are you kidding me? No way!” However, there was almost always one student who would hedge bets by saying, “Well, you know, none of us really knows how we’d react until we’re put in that situation.”
“True,” I say, “but that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of preparing ourselves for it anyway—even if it never comes to pass. When the time comes, if we have planned for our response, there’s a greater chance that we will do what in our heart of hearts we had hoped we would do.” Our habits of mind become the habits of our hearts. And it is from the passion of our hearts that action springs—action that, in the abstract and the theoretical, might terrify us. But our willingness to think about how it is we’re prepared to stand up for those who are threatened by hatred and fear is going to be necessary if we’re ever to act honorably, should the situation should arise.
I heard about a woman named Gert who’s trying to get up a following, and it’s apparently gaining popularity. She’s afraid of a world where she’s no longer in control, where people who always knew their place are no longer satisfied to stay in it. Gert wants to know if when the time comes you’re going to follow her lead and turn your back on this new world.
What shall I tell her for you?
Photo credit: Flickr/JimKillock