The secular context and its turmoil were very much a part of the curriculum at some mainline Protestant seminaries in the mid-1960s. It simply was not sufficient to sit in a classroom studying Christian Ethics when a movement to put Jim Crow to flight was exploding all over the South. Four of the professors from The Methodist Theological School in Ohio had gone to Jackson, Mississippi to join a handful of blacks who tried to integrate the Sunday morning worship of the largest Methodist Church there. A convocation to celebrate their return to campus, after a brief jail term from their having been arrested on the church steps, served as a kind of “call to crusade” for many of the students. A handful of the students got together to decide how to translate this call into action.
So, there we were, driving into Alabama on our way to Selma in the early spring. A small integrated caravan of seminary students, “outsaade agitatas, come down he’a ta stir up owa Nigras” is what they looked like to most white southern citizenry. But if you looked real close inside those cars you would have seen someone else. Inside each of those cars were five passengers, four students, three young white students and one young black student, and a while professor, the students all wearing beaming bright clerical collars. If you could have looked further inside, inside each of those five, you would have seen elevated pulse rates, sighs of anxiety and tremors of fear nearly strong enough to register on a seismometer. We were excited to be “in the trenches” but we were as frightened as anyone could be in an automobile that felt like a “foxhole” with the possibility of enemy combatants in the vehicle whose head-lights shown through the rear window. After all, that was an equipped gun-rack, not an empty one, that we could see against the rear window in the pick-up truck where our headlights were shining. That gun-rack was a sober reminder of the Klan-killings of three college student voting-rights volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, whose bodies had be found the previous August buried in an earthen dam on Old Jolly Farm in rural Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Out of both dashboards, the radios crooned country music and crackled intermittently with the interruptions of news about Police Chief “Bull” Connor, dogs and fire-hoses of “Bloody Sunday”, and more news about the beating death of one of the protest marchers, The Rev. James Reeb, for whom a memorial service was to be held the day we arrived. If we had not been scared we would not have been sane. But it wasn’t sanity we were pursuing, rather it was our understanding of sanctity. We really believed what Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest” had said in The Power and the Glory.
That novel is set in 1920s Mexico and its persecution of the Church. About to be executed after being arrested for going to give Last Rites to a dying criminal, this priest is a drunk and has failed miserably to be either a priest or a decent human being. His last night before his firing-squad death, the “whiskey priest” tearfully laments, feeling terrible disappointment at the possibility of going to God empty-handed, “with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.”
My seminary classmates and I had heard that image referred to in any number of chapel sermons and we did not want our lives to go a week further, lest we miss happiness at some appointed place. If we did, it would not be for lack of intention or lack of effort. So, that small self-denial in making this trip and our small courage, which donned masks of boisterous joking in the cars, was meant to give some sense that our lives had holy purpose.
The unpainted wood-frame house of our host family was typical of its neighbors on the unpaved, dirt street. The water at the kitchen sink flowed from a single porcelain-handled spigot because there was no hot water on-tap. It was not that cold in Alabama in March so the trip outside to the “facilities” wasn’t all that uncomfortable. Neither was the bare pine plank floor of the nearly-unfurnished living room uncomfortable as I pulled the top edge of my sleeping bag up under my chin the night before our participation in the march. I thought of the German proverb I had learned in the language class at OSU: Ein gutes Gewissen ist ein sanftes Ruhekissen – a good conscience is a soft pillow. The platter of home-made biscuits with apple-butter, the fried eggs and the hillock of grits with the pond of melted butter, surrounded by a shoreline of thick but crispy bacon the next morning meant that a satisfied appetite would complement the good conscience.
While the march the next day electrified with emotional charge, it was uneventful with regard to violence; unless someone really can “stare daggers” at you. Alabama citizens, by their looks as they lined the streets, were not there to cheer these “nigga lovas.” The marchers walked together in a line that stretched for miles, three-, four-, six-abreast, black-white, male-female, young-old with signs and that song that promised, “We’ll Walk Hand In Hand, We Shall Overcome, Someday.” None of us would ever forget that day and would someday realize that we helped force-march the country into a new era.
On the way back to Ohio, there was little boisterousness and no jokes. Instead, more than once one voice and then another would punctuate the silent drive with the words, “That could have been one of us,” as we heard the radios report the death of our fellow-marcher, Mrs. Viola Liuzzo.
Back home the next week, “saint” is not what I was being called. Although the middle-aged farm wife continued to attend Sunday School and Sunday worship regularly at the church where I was student-pastor, her husband sat, Sunday after Sunday during those same two hours, for more than a year in the church’s parking lot. Had you asked him, through the truck window, as he sat there in his freshly laundered bib overalls and plaid shirt, reading the Sunday paper, he would not have hesitated to inform you that he “had no intention of darkening the door of that Church, so long as that damned Communist is still the pastor.”
It was 1965 and I was in one world and those I served in another, per secula seculorum. Amen. A line I had read in one of novelist Frederick Buechner’s stories came to mind as I pondered whether my apparent alienation from those I was to serve was to go on this way “world without end.” Buechner recalls speaking of his own announcement of his intention to “enter the ministry,” to which a member of his family had said, “Was this your own idea or were you poorly advised?”