“No Souls”?

Resigning from the church that Sunday morning created a pressing problem for me: now I had no reason to stay at Mississippi College in Clinton for the summer, and I couldn’t face the prospect of going back to my parents’ house in Prentiss. I had “escaped” from that atmosphere of violence and abuse two years earlier, and had gone back only for short periods during holidays, when the college dorm was closed and I couldn’t find somewhere else to go. I’d taken classes the past two summers, but no classes I needed or thought would be interesting to take were to be offered that summer. I had to find some other option.

I decided to talk to the music minister at my church, Tanner Riley, about my problem. I met with him in his office, explained my dilemma, and asked him if he had any ideas about what I could do for the summer. He responded that a music evangelist friend of his, Ron Owens, owned a hotel in Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland, and had decided to start a summer work/study program at the hotel. Students who were accepted into the program would staff the hotel, spend a specified amount of time in Bible study each week, and receive a small monthly stipend. Tanner said that Ron and his wife Patricia lived in Texas, but that they “just happened” to be in town that week visiting Patricia’s father. He made a phone call, and suddenly we were on our way to meet them. The informal interview went well, and several days afterward I received word that I had been accepted to the program. I couldn’t believe it—I would be going to Switzerland for three months!

A few weeks later I found myself on a plane for the first time, a naïve 18-year-old girl from Mississippi flying alone to Switzerland to connect with people I’d yet to meet from different states and countries. My world-traveling paternal grandmother, known by all simply as Nunna, was proud but concerned; I think she was afraid I would get sidetracked by some exciting possibility or someone I met along the way and never make it to Switzerland. I have to admit her concerns were probably valid. So she rerouted her flight plans for a trip she had been planning take to St. Louis, MO, and flew with me to Atlanta. We spent the night in a hotel, then took a taxi back to the airport the next morning to go our separate ways—she heading west to Missouri, I heading north to Montreal to catch a direct flight to Zurich. I was elated by the prospect of adventure, and I was not to be disappointed.

My layover in Montreal was long—over eight hours. I wandered around the airport, talking to people, trying to find someone who was part of the group I was to meet. By the time we boarded the flight for Zurich, I had met up with several of them. It was comforting not to be leaving the country alone.

The group working at the hotel that summer was composed mainly of college students from various states, mostly Texas, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was an amazing man named Sams Kironde Kigozi. Sams had been a teacher in Uganda and, as were so many capable, educated individuals in those days, he had been targeted for death by Idi Amin. Having been warned that his life was in danger, he had been able to escape with little time to spare. In time he had made his way to L’Abri, the biblical study center established by Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland. After spending a year or so there, he had come to the hotel as part of our work/study group. I spent many hours talking with Sams that summer, listening intently as he answered my countless questions. Talking with him opened my mind and heart to a different understanding of Scripture and of the reality of the Christian life.

My job assignment for the summer was in the hotel dining room as a waitress. The hotel had a steady flow of guests, many of whom were in tour groups from the States. My interactions with one group from Jackson, Mississippi, led to an unforgettable encounter. The conversation began with light talk of who we knew in common, then moved to how I had come to the hotel, what I was doing, and so on. I mentioned that I was learning so much from the Bible studies and from the people I had met, especially from Sams. One woman in the group, who had identified herself as being in the Southern Baptist WMU (Women’s Missionary Union), commented that while that might be okay in this situation, as a general rule “they need to worship with their own kind.” Others in the group, including a pastor, agreed.

There it was again: the belief that the subordination and separation of the races is clearly taught by the Bible and is thus God-ordained. I responded with an immediate challenge, calmly asking her to explain what she meant and why. A lengthy discussion followed, with other members of the group adding their thoughts and responding to my arguments and questions. This went on until the WMU woman made the assertion that “Blacks don’t have souls.” I listened carefully, trying to contain my growing outrage, as she laid out the ideas I’d heard before. I asked her why the WMU spent so many resources supporting missionary work in African countries if the people there don’t have souls. Her response was, “There is value and benefit to us in doing good; we are fulfilling the Great Commission.” Upon hearing those words, I could contain myself no longer. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but my response went something like this:

“You know, you say this separation of the races is what the Bible teaches, but God doesn’t seem to have seen it that way. Moses was the man chosen by God to lead His people to freedom, to speak for Him. Moses’s wife was black; did you know that? You can read about it in Numbers 12 if you want to check out what I’m saying. There’s a story there about Miriam and Aaron making fun of Moses because he had an African wife. Seems God had nothing to say to Moses about his choice of a wife, but He had plenty to say to Miriam. For ridiculing Moses about his black wife, God struck Miriam with leprosy. I think the verse says her skin became white as snow. It was kind of like God said to her, ‘Miriam, you like white so much, I’ll give you white.’ And she would have stayed that way if Moses hadn’t stepped in and pled with God to heal her. Now, if I were you, I’d take a lesson from that story, and I’d be very careful about looking down on people based on the color of their skin or their race.”

I stopped speaking and stared intently at the woman, waiting to see if there would be any response or challenge to what I’d said from anyone in the group. There was only silence, all I saw were wide eyes and open mouths (not surprising since I’m pretty sure my eyes were blazing). So I turned and began walking across the large dining room to the door, feeling their eyes on my back, following me as I went. It seemed like the walk took forever, and I remember thinking to myself as I walked: “That’s it. When Ron hears about this, I’ll be fired and sent home. But I don’t care. I’d say it again; what they were saying isn’t true, it’s not God’s heart. It’s wrong, and I couldn’t keep silent. Now I’ll take whatever comes.” I spent the next few days on edge, but I went on with my work and studies, and waited to see what would happen.