My “Witness” Part 6, Greenville, Part 3: First Baptist Church
Both of my grandfathers were Southern Baptist pastors. In fact, my paternal grandfather conducted the wedding ceremony for my maternal grandparents, as he was the Pastor of the church where my grandmother’s family were members. When my mother was a teenager, she felt a VERY strong call to ministry. As a Southern Baptist woman in the 1950s, that meant she had two and ONLY two options. She could become a Missionary (“Foreign” or “Home”) or she could marry a minister. She did the latter. My father was a Minister of Music in various Southern Baptist churches for about fifteen years. When my parents separated and divorced in 1970, my mother lost not only her marriage, but her “ministry.” When she moved to Greenville in 1971, she was about as far from being able to carry on a ministry as was possible. She was divorced (didn’t matter who was “at fault”) in a time when that was the “Chief of Sins.” Nevertheless, she made sure we would be a part of a church.
First Baptist had a very strange (in retrospect) youth choir policy. Seventh graders were not in the “Children’s” choirs, nor were they in the “Youth” choir. There was a seventh grade choir that rehearsed on Wednesday afternoons. Participation in choir (and all other church activities) was a “given” and non-negotiable in our house. I also liked choir.
The seventh grade choir was directed by Kenneth Forbus, the church’s minister of music. If Kaye Ventura, the choral teacher at Coleman was my first Black teacher/mentor, Mr. Forbus (he’ll always be “Mr. Forbus” to me), was my mentor and spiritual leader in that crucial time of life. Mr. Forbus came to First Baptist Greenville right out of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and stayed there the rest of his working life. Anyone who knows anything about church life knows how exceptional a thing that is. His manner in all interactions was to lead with love, respect, and humor. Navigating the political waters of a local church is very hard. Somehow, in a time of cultural, racial, and political upheaval, he kept his boat in the middle of the channel, thereby influencing directly generations of youth and adults. Though I was “not from here,” was a public school student, was a child of divorce and my family was just barely making it financially, he always treated me and my siblings with love, respect, and encouragement. We weren’t “special.” That’s how he treated everyone. My connection to choir was the defining through line of my adolescence in Greenville.
There were, however, others in Greenville not so kind or exemplary. In the fall of 1972, when Ben Williams became the first Black player at Ole Miss, I heard a Deacon at First Baptist say “I just can’t get used to seeing those black arms and legs coming out of the Ole Miss uniform.” In the spring of 1973, when we were in the middle of an EXTREMELY contentious discussion over rescinding a racially segregated worship policy, that same Deacon made a point of announcing that he dissented from the Board of Deacons’ recommendation to open worship to everyone who came to worship. Stephen Sondheim wouldn’t write this for more than ten years, but “Careful the words you say. Children will listen.” Other “well meaning,” but less than brave adults gave in to the “unreconstructed” that night and the motion to open worship to all was “permanently tabled.” It offended my family’s deepest sense of right and wrong that ANYONE be turned away from worship. We didn’t withdraw, but a brick in my perception of the “righteousness” of my faith community was irrevocably loosened.
As I grew older, I got the chance to do some “speaking parts” in choir productions. Various youth ministers did their best to guide me and offer love. I was a “rule follower,” but not always the nicest or most socially adept teenager. That could well describe me as a 60 year old as well.
By the time I got to my senior year in high school, I was not that excited about attending the denominational college, Mississippi College. I actually ended up attending a United Methodist College, Milsaps, but that is a story that requires circling back to my school life.