Will, Warren and the Klan

Will, Warren and the Klan

As best as I can recall, I met Warren in the early 1980s.  Warren professed himself to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  I met him because Will told me I should.

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We lived in a core-city neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana at the time.  There were reports of several rape attempts in our neighborhood.  The assailant was said to be an African-American man.  Soon after these reports began, we learned that the Ku Klux Klan was going to patrol the neighborhood to protect our “white women” in our racially diverse community.  What to do?  Our ministry, known as Patchwork Central Ministries, was located in the center of this aggression, violation and fear-filled response.  What to do?

Memories of these days have come rushing back into my mind this weekend.  Seeing the hate-filled actions and language of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia has brought back images and stories now more than thirty years old.  Some things have changed over the decades but, sadly, other things have not.  Without recounting all of the ways we prayed, and we made strategies, and sought to give Christian witness back then, I would share one thing that proved most helpful.  Someone, perhaps it was Calvin Kimbrough, suggested I should “talk with Will.”  To say “Will” was enough.  He didn’t need a last name — I knew it was Will Campbell in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.  We had recently read Will’s book “Brother to a Dragonfly.”  He was a wonderful part of our tribe — a progressive Evangelical Christian!  So I called him.

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Will Campbell, Baptist Preacher, Author and Prophetic Voice, 1924-2013  photo by kellybbrill.wordpress.com

Mississippi born and a graduate of Yale Divinity School, Will was not only known for his engagement in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans but was also known for developing friendships with a whole range of people including members of the Ku Klux Klan.  You see, Will took this Christian Gospel for ALL PEOPLE stuff seriously.

I called Will, left a message and, in a day or so, he returned the call.  Explaining our situation, he replied, “The first thing you need to do, is to say to the Klan ‘NO, YOUR ACTIVITIES ARE NOT WELCOME IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.'”  That sounded good — We had already done that — said “NO.”

Then, Will, stumped me, surprised me.  He confused me.  Will asked, “What are the names of the Klan people you know?”  NAMES?  Will thought I would know their names!  He thought I might know THEM?  I confessed that I didn’t know any of those folks.  He said, “Well, then, what the hell you been doing?  You better get started.  It is not enough to say ‘no.’ Now, your next step is to reach out to the Klan folks as people.”  There are many stories of the way Will Campbell reached out, made friendships, and shared the gospel with folks with whom he strongly disagreed.  He was a radical Christian in that he didn’t set up limits to where reconciliation and renewal might occur.  Will Campbell believed in the power of Christian witness and love.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that followed, one thing led to another and I meet some of the folks who said they were members of the Klan.  I remember Warren especially.  Warren and I talked on several occasions.  In fact, I invited him to our Sunday evening worship — and he attended — several times.  He listened, stayed and ate dinner with the group. 

The story of that season in our neighborhood moves on in many directions.  The rapes ended.  I don’t remember that anyone was ever caught.  Then there was the evening in worship when the offering was taken.  After receiving communion persons might leave something in the offering plate.  Sometimes it was money, sometimes a poem, sometimes a prayer request, sometimes a drawing.  On this evening, I watched as Warren made his way forward and dropped something heavy in the offering basket.  As soon as worship was over and dinner was about to begin, I took the offering basket to the office.  There I found a few dollars, prayer requests and Warren’s membership card in the Klan.  And, yes, there was also a 22 calibre revolver.

Warren disappeared shortly after this.  I called his phone a few times with no response.  I went to his home once in a nearby town.  Knocked on the door. There was no response.  I left a note for Warren.  He had disappeared.  Word came from one of his friends that he had gone back to his hometown in Southern Illinois.  Did he leave the Klan for good?  Was this a sign of a conversion?  Or, just a chance to make a new start?  Maybe that is what conversion meant for Warren — and for me.

For me, Will taught that I needed to “know a name — and a person” if I am also going to condemn and say “NO” to their words and behaviors.

As I have thought about Charlottesville and the evil exemplified there this past weekend, I am reminded of a sermon that Dr. William Pannell preached years ago.  He began by saying that he was going to use the ugliest four letter word in the English vocabulary.  It was, he said, “the word THEM.”

Let me ask you, good reader, the question that Will Campbell asked me years ago.  After you have said “NO,” (something we must do as a nation), do we know their names?  My conversion continues — how about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unwrapping an Early Christmas Gift

Christmas 2015: A Pageant of Imagination

How will church nativity pageants be different in 2015?   Should we check the visas of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus before they process down the church aisle?   Or, should they be detained before they sit beside the manger scene in the chancel?  After all, these three family members were “outsiders” threatened by terror.  They were vetted by the authorities and found to be dangerous.  As a result, they became refugees.

You remember this part of the story, don’t you?  As a nation we in the United States seem to forget or perhaps simply say, “Well, that was then and this is now.”  Right?  Well, no, not really.

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Rembrandt’s rendering of “The Flight into Egypt”

 

The fears generated by tragic events in Paris this past week have resulted in U.S. political leaders loosing their ability to think clearly.  To call the response “knee-jerk” is disrespectful to knees everywhere!  The ignorance and intolerance displayed by folks like Donald Trump are not worthy of a great nation like ours.

Suddenly, our greatest fear is the 10,000 Syrian refugees who are being forced by terror to seek new homes?  While Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are accepting millions of displaced refugees, we proud Americans, who are an ocean away, can’t welcome 10,000 who have been screened for nearly two years — and these are persons who are going to be placed with resettlement organizations most of which are religious groups with long histories of working with such refugees. 

Members of the House of Representatives quickly pass a bill that is designed to target persons based on their religion.  It is an astonishing nod to the bigotry and ignorance of the cheap seats in the American electorate.  It has been said by many and it is true — “we are better than this.”

However, rather than writing a screed on the small mindedness behind the statements and legislation that has been proposed, I choose to believe that these events just might be an early Christmas present, waiting to be unwrapped.  An early Christmas gift to be shared at our Thanksgiving dinner tables.  There is the opportunity here for imagination, for those who will be guided by thought, prayer, a clear-eyed view of our history to offer another version — not of who the Syrian refugees are, but who we are, especially if we are persons of faith.

I think of heroes like Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, who was faced with the demands of the Roosevelt administration to set up detention camps for Japanese Americans in his state.  Carr, a conservative Republican was shaped more by his Christian faith than political expediency.  He said, “No, not here, not on my watch” and he paid the price of losing an upcoming election to the U.S. Senate.  Today if you visit Denver you will see that the state judicial building is named for Ralph Carr in recognition an ethical clarity, drawn from  his faith, that allowed him to stand for justice against the popularity of bigotry on the march.

If you watch the news carefully, you will see politicians already coming to terms with their reactive bigotry.  News speak is that they are “walking back statements made about Syrian refugees.”  The mayor of Roanoke, Virginia is an example of one who had to change his suggestion that we go back to camps like those used to detain Japanese Americans during WW II.  Presidential candidate Ben Carson now says he regrets speaking of the refugees with a rabid dog analogy.  Fear is a powerful emotion mixed with self-interest in which human beings sometimes get lost in the worst of our impulses.

These events, put together, provide the occasion to think more holistically and imaginatively about how to proceed.  Should we accept Syrian refugees that are carefully screened.  Absolutely, YES… and I think we should welcome even more. 

HOWEVER, this is only a start — there are dozens of other things that might be done in the United States and in other parts of the world to humanely address this crises.  How do we assist those in Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey who have borne the brunt of the tragedy in Syria?  How do we assist those in Europe facing these challenges?  Now is not the time to play the tortoise by hiding inside our shell.   

The nations of the world no doubt will make increasing military responses to ISIS.  There are arguments to be made as to what might be done and how.  Again there will be dozens of ways to respond.  As for me, there will need to be a witness against war and violence — as our continuing “go to” solution to every dangerous and hostile situation.  Didn’t we get here by trusting too much in overusing the military as a solution to everything?

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James J. Tissot’s “The Flight to Egypt”

 

This week, let’s join one another in unwrapping an early Christmas present at the Thanksgiving table.  Make this your early gift — encourage imagination.  Help others remember that our Christmas pageants are more than little parades of children in bathrobes and silly hats.   Laugh, play and retell the Christmas narrative in fullness, including the parts about a refugee family driven from their home.