By Leslie Criss
“No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.”
– Elie Wiesel
“People who insist on dividing the world into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ never contemplate that they may be someone else’s ‘Them.’
– Ray Davis
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
– Blaise Pascal
Nobody owns a church. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that when I was growing up. I heard it in sermons; I heard it in a few old movies; mostly I heard my grandfather say it on occasion while pontificating on some issue of a religious nature.
Back then, I believed it. I believed it because my grandfather said it, so it must have been so.
Then I grew up and started paying attention to what was happening around me, and I no longer believe that nobody owns a church.
When I was in high school, my best friend’s father was the minister at a church in my hometown. He was a good man, still is. Back then, he had a wife and three children to support, as well as to shepherd the flock at the church he was called to pastor.
I would imagine trying to please several hundred folks was not easy for him.
One Sunday evening about 30 minutes before church started, a man traveling through town decided to stop and worship. He sat quietly in a pew as other members around him started whispering among themselves.
Did I mention that he happened to be black? And that he had the unmitigated gall to think he could worship his God inside an all-white church?
I’d love to tell you the Holy Spirit did a quick and powerful number on all those white folks sitting in that church, and that they got up and warmly welcomed their visitor.
Sadly, that did not happen.
A group of deacons approached my friend’s father and told him he needed to ask the visitor to leave. When the pastor resisted, he was told if he did not remove the man from the sanctuary, he would no longer have a job on Monday morning.
Knowing the kind of man he was and is, I cannot imagine the unbounded turmoil he must have experienced when forced to choose between being able to take care of his own family or doing what he knew in his heart was right.
The visitor was asked to leave. And the people said “amen.” But not all the people – of that I am certain.
Something like that happened to another young minister recently, down in Crystal Springs at First Baptist Church. Maybe you’ve read about it in the newspaper.
One day before an African-American couple was to be married in the mostly white church they’d attended for quite a while, a “small but vocal minority” of members told Dr. Stan Weatherford, their pastor, the couple could not be married in that church. They told him if he went ahead with the wedding inside the church, Weatherford would be voted out.
He performed the ceremony somewhere else, away from First Baptist Church.
And folks in the community – and most church members – have stood firm with the couple.
Certainly a better ending than that one all those years ago in my hometown.
But I remain confused and wonder if my grandfather were alive would he change his long ago opinion:
“Nobody owns a church.”