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COURTLAND, VIRGINA (con'd)
THE MOST EFFECTIVE SERMON I EVER PREACHED -
From the beginning I used at least one Bible quotation in most services that suggested the brotherhood and equality of human beings, and do so in a contest designed to make people think about, if not feel guilty about, the way Black people were being treated in Southampton county. Only once did I use the whole service for that purpose. The dates on the sermon indicate it was preached on the second and third Sundays of February 1942. I have the carbon copy of the sermon before me as I write. I don't know what slight changes I may have made on the copy I preached from. I made uses of the material in the Booklet on Southampton, published by the State University. Since I don't find the vital statistics in the sermon itself I must have, at the beginning, read from the booklet the revealing facts that tell, in no uncertain terms, how little from the horn of plenty Blacks were getting in comparison to what Whites were getting.
In the service I did not say what the local farmers were paying the Black men who worked for them or what maids were being paid for their work. The purpose of the sermon was to set the stage for them to face up to such shameful facts without being slapped in the face with them by somebody else. The farmers were paying the Black men working for them fifty cents a day. Women and children where paid even less. After you subtract Saturday and Sunday and rainy days, a man would be hard put to earn a hundred-dollars a year at fifty cents a day. That was twelve times less than what I was being paid, and I must have been near the bottom of the income scale for white men.
"A Religion of Loyalty" was the sermon title. The sermon was poorly written and badly put together. A better title might have been chosen. However, the title served my purpose well enough. Were I writing the sermon today I would omit some of the material in it, even if I could not find something better. I would substitute other Scripture for some that I used. However, in spite of all its defects, I'm quite sure it was the best listened to sermon I ever gave. When I would pause, you might not have been able to hear a pin drop, but anything larger would have been heard. Because of the situation, and the problem I was trying to deal with, and the hoped for results, of all the sermons I have preached it is the one I'm most proud of. As I remember the quiet drama of it, I can believe it made the people think about something they needed to think about, and it had, at least, a microscopic influence for the better,
After I had quoted from the University booklet the hard facts about the situation in Southampton county, I said: "it is stated, in the fourth chapter of Luke, what Jesus came to do." He said, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel - (The Good News) - to the poor; he has sent me to announce to the prisoners their release and to the blind the recovery of sight, and to set the down trodden at liberty."
I tried to plant in their minds the suggestion that loyalty to Jesus should be expressed by helping to do what Jesus said he came to do. Among other things I said that the Christian movement has never suffered for lack of followers, but the movement and its influence had always been retarded for lack of followers who were one hundred percent loyal to the work he came to do. "From the very beginning," I said, "too many have thought of Gospel preaching as simply a technique of getting people to join a church and get baptized. The time has come when such preaching must give way to a Gospel preaching that will get people to become one hundred percent loyal to the work that Jesus came to do. Jesus said, 'I have been anointed to preach the Gospel - the Good News - to the poor.'" "What", I asked, "would be good news to poor families with incomes less than six hundred dollars a year? Good news would be a solution to their problem of poverty; a way of life, a social order, an economic system that would make it possible for them to earn a decent living by the work of their hands and minds - that would be good news to the poor. We have too long considered eternal life in heaven as the only good news that Jesus preached to the poor. Jesus did not offer anybody a soft bed in heaven just because he was poor. Poverty is not a passkey to heaven. Eternal life in heaven is no more good news for the poor than it is for anybody else. The special good news Jesus preached to the poor was a solution to their problem of poverty. We cannot say the saving gospel of Christ has been preached to the world in its fullness until Christians have developed a way of life - an economic system - wherein poverty is not a necessity for a social order.
I pointed out that if we would be loyal Christians we must help finish Jesus' work of healing the sick. After giving ourselves credit for what was being done to heal the sick, I called attention to a news report that said that, in Virginia alone, in 1937, 13,419 babies were born without the aid and care of a doctor. "We will not have finished the work Jesus came to do," I said, "until we have created a social order wherein all the sick have the medical care that sick people need."
Here we began to consider Jesus' concern for the downtrodden. "I came," said Jesus, "to set the downtrodden at liberty." "To those," I said, "who because of race, class or weakness, are held down in bondage, Jesus preached the good news of a kingdom wherein all people are free and equal." "All the social teaching of Jesus," I point out, "contend that no groups or individuals, because of race, class or weakness, are to be discriminated against, nor given an unfair or unjust chance in life." I spoke of the affirmation of the Founding Fathers of this nation; "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." "These affirmations", I allowed, "reflected the intention of Jesus and the Founding Fathers to abolish the greatest evil of humankind - the evil of a racial superiority complex. Before the downtrodden can ever be set free, the attitude among the races must be so transformed that the people of all races can think of each other and treat each other as both free and equal."
"The Black citizens of Southampton County," I said, "who have to buy, with their own money, all their school buses, pay for a state license to operate them and to also pay part of the expenses of their operation and upkeep in order to get their children to school, while at the same time having to pay taxes to provide free buses service for White school children - they want to know how much longer we are going to let our racial attitude force us to be downright unjust and unfair!"
I paused to get control of my feelings. The silence and intense attention of the congregation were unbelievable. The silence was so thick, so stifling! "I know," I said, "I am talking about a very touchy subject. That is because it is our greatest sin. I also know we will be as unless as salt that has lost its strength in building a better world, unless we develop an attitude towards our fellow humans that will set the downtrodden free and give them the same opportunities and privileges that we ask for ourselves."
Near the end of the sermon I said, "No one can be one hundred percent loyal to Christ and His purpose until he accepts the concept that all men are created free and equal, and that everyone is to be treated as such."
After the service the people left quietly, more so than usual. Those who spoke to me said not a word about the sermon. With one exception, no one to this day has breathed a word about it to me.
The one exception was Mr. Tyler Edwards, the long-time treasurer of the Sycamore Church. He was one of the larger farmers of the community. He had a small store on his place, which he kept open part of the day to serve mostly the Black families on his and his neighbors' farms. He was old enough to refer to the other men in the community as "the boys." On Tuesday, after the sermon was preached at Sycamore, he came to Courtland to see me. As he came in he said, "John, I hope I have proven myself to be your friend and that you will not be mad at me for what I'm going to say."
I assured him that I counted him among my friends and encouraged him to say what he had come to say, that I would listen to whatever he said as advice being offered by a friend.
"Well," he said, "some of 'the boys' were in my store last night. They were upset by your sermon last Sunday."
He went on to describe the meeting, telling what some of "the boys" had said, the details of which I no long remember. One thing Mr. Edwards said he told "the boys," I do remember. "I told them," he said, "that as of the first of the month, I was gong to start paying my men seventy-five cents a day." They said, "You ought to have your ass kicked if you do."
I thanked him for coming and sharing with me the reaction of the "boys." I said, "If the sermon had anything to do in your men getting a fifty percent raise I am delighted. I need not tell you what you already know. You and "the boys" know that Black people are being paid too little for the work they do. You can tell "the boys" that I have no apology to make for the sermon. That I only presented the facts as found and reported by our State University and tried to present what I believe we should do about those facts according to the teachings of Jesus. Their response to the sermon is their responsibility, not mine. They are the ones who must say yes or not to what they honestly believe to be fair and just."
That was the last reaction to the sermon I ever heard. Yet, I can still believe it may have been the most effective sermon I ever preached. True, they did not stand and applaud what was said. It is equally true, they did not stone me. They could not even verbally stone me, at least to my face. I did make them think, or I think I did.
Perhaps they would have been happier with me had I preached less social justice, especially for Black people. However, I doubt if I would have been more respected or trusted. No doubt there were some who would have voted to put the skids under me and send me sliding on my way. But there was no movement in either of the churches to fire me. If there had been any significant talk about such a thing, I would have known about it.
Even though they could not publicly praise my greatest virtue - my racial position - they did tolerate me with such grace that I always felt accepted, respected and trusted. I may be conceited, but I am not conceited enough to believe my other virtues or my personal charisma could have accounted for their gracious toleration of me. I have to believe their kind toleration of my position was inspired by that "something else" - the best part of their nature. As Goldwater would have said it, "Deep in their hearts they knew I was right."
During the three-plus years I lived in Southampton County, Virginia, my mind was preoccupied with the horrors of race prejudice. I already knew that race prejudice was a reality in our country. I knew Black people were getting a raw deal, being unjustly treated in many ways. However, as amazing as it may seem, up until the time when I moved to Virginia, ninety-nine percent of my knowledge was hearsay. In Virginia, for the first time in my life, with my own eyes and ears, I was seeing and hearing all its cruelties being, not acted out but lived day after day, year after year. Worst of all, seemingly, White people were unaware that what they were personally and collectively doing was wrong. Equally disturbing was the fact that Blacks tolerated, in silence, the cruel way of life imposed upon them.
For example: Blacks had to provide their own school buses for their own children, while paying taxes to provide free buses for White children. The Black community, as far as I knew, silently tolerated such unbelievable unfairness. Of course I realize that any protest by the Black community in 1940 would have been more dangerous and less effective than the Black protest in South Africa in 1985.
The cruelties I saw and heard every day were always chasing around on the conscious level of my mind, insisting that I must try to make people more aware of them. I really had no choice. To make living with myself bearable, however cowardly most of the time, I had to try to deal with what seemed to be a hopeless problem.
In 1941 the Boy Scout people wanted to organize a troop in Courtland. Against my better judgment I agreed to serve as Scout Master for one year. I confess, I found working, or playing with the youngsters to be more fun than I expected. Once we went up the river by motorboat until we found a suitable campsite. We spent the afternoon fishing and horsing around. Pitched our pup tents, and prepared our dinner, such as it was. For most of the boys this was their first time to spend a night beside a river, deep in a forest. It may have been their first time to try frying bacon and eggs on an open fire, which they had built. After some more fishing and exploring our surroundings we folded out tents in time to arrive home for lunch.
During the early fall we were given tickets to a football game at William and Mary College. We left a day early, camping near the college in a wooded park near a lake. Late in the afternoon a fisherman tied his boat near our campsite. I had a fishing line and hook but no reel or pole. At the break of dawn I got in the boat and tried fishing with bread but with no luck. Looking down I saw a minnow, hardly more than an inch long. I put the dead minnow on my hook. In a split second after it hit the water a nice bass grabbed it. I in turn grabbed the bass. He ate the minnow and I ate him. Life lives on life. That is the horror of existence. We spent the rest of the day seeing some of the historical sights in Williamsburg and saw William and Mary get clobbered. We returned home in time for a late dinner.
One morning, after three or four inches of snow, I took the troop on a tracking hike, to see how many animals we could identify by their tracks. After we ran out of new tracks we decided to follow a rabbit's tracks to see where he went. We followed him in circles and on detours, this way and that way. This we did for sometime before the tracks led us to a tree with a hole in it at ground level.
A rabbit can't climb a tree like a cat. He can climb a hollow in a tree, if the hollow is small enough for his back to press against one side of the hollow. To determine if he was in the tree, like dogs, we examined the tracks closely to see if he had backed out. Then we circled the tree at a radius of ten or more feet. Finding no tracks leading away from the tree, we cut a withe and poked it up the hollow as far as it would go, seven or eight feet. On examining the end of the stick we found rabbit hair on it.
One thing Boy Scouts are expected to learn is how to exist on their on wits. We imagined we had been lost for three days, trying to stay alive on what food we could find and catch. Our luck had not been very good. We were hungry and needed that rabbit for food. The first suggestion we acted on was to determine how high the rabbit was in the tree. This we did by seeing how far our stick would go up the tree. That proved to be seven feet. Then we were faced with the problem of how to get him out? It was agreed that the easiest way would be to smoke him out, if a hole in the tree could be found above the rabbit that would make a draft to suck the smoke up the hollow. No such hole could be found. The idea of cutting a hole in the tree with our hatchet was ruled out because there were no limbs to stand on while cutting the hole. The suggestion we finally decided on was to twist him out. We thought, by making a small split in the little end of our stick it might be used for a twister. If that did not work we could us a piece of brier vine. With one voice the troop insisted we twist him out. "No," I said, "we are not lost and we are not hungry."
"Chicken, chicken" was their response.
Being the coward I am, and maybe to prove my manly cruelty, I finally gave in. They split the top end of the stick. When that did not work they immediately made a twister from a piece of brier vine. As the boys twisted the vine it caught the fur of the rabbit. With each twist the rabbit's fur and skin was wrapped more securely and tightly around the vine. When the rabbit began to cry I suggested we should let him go and not torture him further but the wolf in them was now in full command. Slowly the rabbit was pulled down the hollow, crying in pain and fear every inch of the way. By the time he was nearing the ground his cry had already silenced all joyous excitement of the adventure. When the boys saw the half skinned rabbit their victory was greeted with the painful sadness of those who had failed. At that moment " the something else' in us - the advanced cry of our human nature - rebuked us for the cruelty we had committed. To save the rabbit further pain, which we had mortally wounded by half skinning it alive, we mercifully finished killing it. Shamefully we left the scene of the crime in painful silence.
Had we read Sandburg's poem "Wilderness" before that experience we could have better understood what he meant by these lines: "Oh, I got a zoo, I got a managerie, inside my ribs, under my boney head, under/my red-valve heart and I got something else."
ROSE - On July 19, 1941, Rose Elien was born. The doctor had her scheduled to arrive on Sunday the 20th. To make it possible for me to be there to greet her the Doctor suggested Elien come to the hospital on Thursday and he would speed up the stork so that Rose could arrive before Sunday, not later than Friday. Thursday mid-night passed with very little evidence that Rose was in a hurry to arrive. Elien was given a sleeping pill and I went home to wait for the phone to ring, if and when Rose decided to cooperate. At 8 AM - the phone was silent. Back to the hospital I went to see what I could do about it. Be patient I was told all I could do was to be patient and wait. All day and way into the night I waited. Finally, near mid-night, Rose reluctantly began to cooperate.
I was standing outside the delivery room in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I was half asleep on my feet, when I was rudely disturbed by a nurse presenting me with yelling baby for my inspection. The language Rose was using was disgraceful, especially for a minister's daughter. All the way up the elevator to her mother's room she told me, in no uncertain terms, what she thought about the rush job. After she got tucked in with her mother she calmed down and began to enjoy all the attention she was getting. She was a beautiful baby. She turned out to be so nice and cute, especially when she was sound asleep. be a rational justification of the saluting ritual in the armed forces. After observing how poorly the saluting regulation was being observed on post he said, "You guys would not last two hours in a combat zone." Before or after that I never heard anyone defending saluting on the grounds that it got you into the habit of being alert as to who was approaching.
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