Being Unreasonable

I was born in 1955. I share my birthyear with men like Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple Computer; Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft; Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google; Vinod Khosla and Andy Bechtolsheim, cofounders of Sun Microsystems. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, 1955 was a magical year in which to be born—if you were born in the right place (Silicon Valley), with the right opportunities, with a bent toward computer programming. And, since all the examples Gladwell provided were white men, I would add if you were the right gender, and the right race. So while I was born white in 1955, my place of birth was southcentral Mississippi. My culture knew nothing of computers and computer software; these weren’t even a topic for consideration, certainly not for a woman. What was an integral part of my culture at that time was racism. Having grown up in Mississippi in the 1960s, that I know all too well. And to me, even as a child, treating people as “less than” based on the color of their skin felt terribly wrong.

I’ve since learned that different areas of Mississippi had very different views on race, even at that time in history. I would venture to say it’s like that all across the South, with some areas being deeply entrenched in patterns of behavior and attitudes that can be traced back many generations while others exhibit very different attitudes. I was from the small town of New Hebron, a town that was founded by my great-great grandfather in the early 1900s. New Hebron was also the hometown of John Perkins, international speaker and teacher on issues of racial reconciliation; he tells his powerful story in his book, Let Justice Roll Down. There is much that needs to be told about these early years of my life, and it will be told—later, when I can fully explore and explain how those days shaped my future. At this point it is enough to say that when I read about the Grimké sisters’ struggle to obtain freedom for slaves, I understood. And in my day, just as in their day, nowhere was the subordination of the “Negro race” proclaimed more loudly than from the pulpits of southern churches. Many pastors asserted emphatically that the “plain meaning of biblical texts” made it clear that slavery had been ordained by God, as had the subservient role of the Negro. Not to accept this teaching was to deny the authority of the Scripture, or so it was proclaimed.

In the fall of 1973, I accepted a position as Minister of Music at a little church in Jackson, MS. I was an 18-yr-old college junior at the time, and this would be my first job. I had always wanted to have some sort of job, even a summer job, but my father was adamant that neither his wife nor his daughter would work outside the home. Like so many men of that time, he saw a working female in his family as a personal affront to his manhood. My arguments and pleas had gone unheeded, however; his only response had been that he would pay me to stay home if it was a matter of money. I couldn’t make him understand that wasn’t the issue; I wanted to use my abilities, to develop skills, to learn. Finally, at 18, I had reached an age where I could begin to fulfill this desire, though not without ongoing opposition and disapproval from my father.

Since the church was actually a mission outreach of Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, the position was Sundays only. The church was located in a mostly black area of Jackson, yet all the members were white. I wondered about this at first, but decided that maybe people who lived in the area were hesitant to come, since blacks and whites generally didn’t worship together. I hoped that would change in time; it was the 1970s, after all, and much was changing in Mississippi in the ‘70s—that’s another story that should and will be told, but later. I soon noticed that every Sunday morning two men sat beside the entry door throughout the service. I guessed this was a security precaution since this part of town wasn’t exactly known for its safety. Then one Sunday morning, something happened that showed how wrong I was. Not long after the service started, the door opened and a black man walked into the sanctuary. The two men beside the door immediately rose, took him by the arms, turned, and escorted him back out. I was stunned, scarcely believing what I’d witnessed. The men weren’t stationed there for protection; they were there to make sure no black person entered the sanctuary.

As soon as the service ended, I approached the pastor and told him I needed to talk to him in private. I needed to be sure I was interpreting what I had seen correctly. I asked the question, then listened as he explained that this was indeed the reason the men sat by the entry door each week, that to allow black people into the church would be “disruptive,” that they really didn’t want to come to worship but to “cause trouble,” that the races needed to worship “with their own kind,” that this separation of the races was “ordained by God.” Since this wasn’t the first time I’d heard this kind of teaching, I was ready with a challenge. We debated the issue briefly, respectfully but with intensity, then I told him I would not be part of a church that excluded people on the basis of their race. He pled with me to “be reasonable,” to accept the “clear teachings” of the Bible; I responded that the teachings he was promoting were perversions of biblical teachings and did not express the heart of Christ. Not surprisingly, my words fell on deaf ears. I resigned my position in the church on the spot, and never went back.

This happened in the spring of 1974. Little did I know then that just a few months later I would be in Switzerland, and would again be confronting this belief that the Bible clearly teaches the subordination of races in an unexpected way, on an even deeper level.