I’m writing each day in Lent (2015) as a form of discipline, something to take up each day, noting confessions and celebrations related to my pastoral service to the Church. I’ve been meaning to do this for some time, but life happens and I ignored the prompts to write, while going about the routines of my retirement. I’m considering this a collection of forty essays, but I know it will be easy to keep going once Lent has ended.

[Warning: there’s an ugly word used in a paragraph below, and I’ve used asterisks to keep the offensive word from coming up in an internet word search and pointing to my blog. If there were a way to tell the story without that word…well, it wouldn’t be the same story then.]

I began my seminary career at an especially significant time for the City of Richmond, Va. It was the mid-1960s. When I drove down Seminary Avenue that first night in town, it hadn’t dawned on me that I was entering the former Capital of the Confederacy. But, it didn’t take long to realize that Union Seminary was considered by many old Richmonders (and certainly by the city’s two newspapers) a hotbed of liberal thinking. Indeed, Presbyterians generally seemed to be on what we called then the “cutting edge” of social change. Our Presbytery and Synod offices, and our graduate school for Christian education, along with the seminary itself, were located in a cluster on the northside. The Presbytery’s Camp Hanover had been integrated since 1956, and decades before that people such as Elinor Curry had worked in inner city missions, not for African Americans but alongside them.

In the mid-60s, Richmond’s city bureaucracy — its mayor, city manager, city council members, police and fire chiefs — all white. When we moved from Richmond 27 years later, the white “establishment” was gone, and one-time mayor Douglas Wilder would soon become the nation’s first African American governor. The long process had taken time, pain, and patience, and is on-going, of course, for the barriers between the races remain.

We had only a handful of students of color on our campus at that time, and, if memory serves, the only African Americans in the seminary community were in, how to put it, subservient jobs: cafeteria servers, buildings and grounds, maids. So, the campus, even though it welcomed the Poor Peoples’ March in 1968, hadn’t fully embraced its own theology of racial justice. Times have changed, of course…but back then…

This is the context of my own coming to grips with racism in the church.

In 1978, I was on the staff of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, another of my many “part time tenures” necessitated by the budget limitations of what were considered “experimental” ministries (like my media work). I was called to be the church’s “minister to youth,” while using the church’s newly-purchased video equipment in as many creative ways as we could come up with. I had just ended a couple of years as Presbytery’s “Youth Ministry Coordinator” (or somethng like that), and I was excited to have a face-to-face ministry with teens and their families, as well as having access to the new technology the church purchased as an adjunct to the new position.

One of the first things we produced with the VHS portable video recorder and its companion JVC camera was a short devotional for shut-ins. We started the tape with the organist playing a brief prelude, and then moved to the pastor’s study where, with hot TV lights overwhelming the room, the pastor offered words of greeting and a short meditation for his audience of elderly viewers. He did a remarkable job, considering that this was our first attempt, and with no editing, the tape was ready to be delivered. Hand-delivered. Keep in mind that this was 1978. We had no delivery means except for a portable video playback unit and small color TV carried into members’ homes (so that we needn’t make the shut-ins nervous by hooking our equipment up to their TVs).

The tape and equipment were delivered by a man who was himself in his early 80s, if I recall correctly. I thought at the time, what a saint he is, to faithfully show up several times and carry that equipment into peoples’ homes, watch the devotional with them, have a prayer, and then return the stuff to the church again. One morning as I helped him carry a TV set to his car, he remarked that when this trip was over, he’d be driving by a corner in the city where he’d pick up a n*gg*r or two to do some work at his house. My jaw didn’t exactly drop, but it may as well have. I was speechless. The word emerged so casually from the man’s mouth, and with no embarrassment, no awareness of its offense…I confess I just let the guy get in his car and drive away.

I stewed about this for a couple of days and finally approached the pastor with my concern. “I’m ashamed of myself,” I admitted, “but I didn’t know what to say. It was just a quick bomb that exploded in the conversation, I was shocked and speechless, and…”

The pastor responded with sympathy, saying he knew there were many people in the church who were more enlightened, but many too who were stuck in old ruts and old ways. “He’s in his eighties,” the  pastor said, “and he’s lived that culture his whole life, and I doubt there’s anything that you or I could say that would change that. You were right to be shocked, but don’t feel guilty that you didn’t confront him or correct him.” I suppose that helped me some, but it didn’t help James and Randolph.

James and Randolph. Everyone at that sizable church knew their names. Well, their first names. I know a few insiders must have known their full names, but the vast majority of church members just called them by their first names. They were white-coated custodians and greeters and errand runners. They had an office; it was in the furnace room. A couple of uncomfortable chairs, an old desk, and a radio, and mops and buckets. On Sunday mornings they stood at the parking lot door and greeted church-goers, smiling and nodding. “Hello, Randolph… James,” people would smile back. During the week, the church staff had a daily morning break around 10 a.m., with everyone accounted for: pastor, associate pastor, Director of Christian Ed., secretaries, and a couple of office volunteers, and me. But no Randolph or James. When I questioned someone about their exclusion, the excuse was, “Oh, I don’t think they’d feel comfortable coming in here.”  (But, if we tried, we could help them feel comfortable, right?)

Now that I think about it, there was also a Leroy on staff during that time. And a cook named Geneva. We never saw them at break time either. Nor did they come to the occasional birthday celebrations held in the same small gathering space. Only once do I remember their later coming to a party of some sort in that room. Maybe things were changing, too late and too slightly, of course, and as usual.

I questioned, yes. But I did not speak up nor speak out. There. I’ve confessed. But I should have apologized back then.

My connection with that congregation was very positive in so many ways. I’ll celebrate some of those stories as these Lenten posts continue. But I wanted to note this first, another growth spurt for me in my slow maturity in pastoral roles, and a growing thirst for justice for someone besides myself.

Tomorrow…and more briefly (I promise)…the night the youth group and I turned a church “lock in” upside down and locked ourselves out for the night.