This next part of the story will be heavy on the “religious” part of my journey before I get to the convergence with race.
Early in my time at Millsaps, I was invited to go to “Berean Fellowship.” This was an officially “non-denominational” Christian group that was overseen by a staff person from Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. There were, in fact, people attending from United Methodist backgrounds, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, at least one Baptist (me), and even a few Roman Catholics. The name of the group was drawn from the “noble minded” Bereans of Acts 17: 10-15 who “searched the Scriptures” to examine the teachings of Paul. The purported agenda was that we would “search the Scriptures” together. The music was sort of the “soft rock Jesusy” music characteristic of the mid-1970s. Bach, Beethoven, Charles Wesley, and even Fanny Crosby had no competition to worry about.
A lot of the focus of the group, in keeping with the fact that it was directed by Inter-Varsity, was finding intellectual support for Christian belief in the modern University. Though Millsaps was a United Methodist institution, the implication was that we were in a vaguely “liberal” institution skeptical of, if not hostile to Christian belief. To be sure, the biology faculty taught evolution, as did the anthropology professor who gave an early lecture in Heritage. That was vaguely discomfiting to this “Good Baptist Boy,” but I had not really been taught that belief in the Bible as “infallible and inerrant” was necessary to salvation. We were encouraged to read in the “apologetic” literature of the era, including C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and John Stott’s Basic Christianity. I absorbed them both. I eventually became the book coordinator for Berean Fellowship.
I also had come to respect T.W. Lewis, the Religion Professor who was lecturing in Heritage. Some would call him a “liberal,” but he seemed grounded and comfortable to me and not at all inclined to return suspicion for suspicion to those he taught and encountered. I also was working in the College Library for Gerry Reiff, the wife of the other Religion Professor. She too was kind and caring for all the students who came under her care.
When my brother and I were bickering (something that happened only if we were awake and were in the same room), my mother would say “Be Ye KIND one to another, TENDERHEARTED, FORGIVING one another.” By both precept and example, she had communicated that how you treat other people is a more significant Christian expression than what you believed.
I also was attending First Baptist Church in Jackson. I joined the “Revelation” choir, consisting of High School and College students. Almost all the other College students were from Mississippi College. I lived with being the “odd duck” Baptist on the Millsaps campus and the “odd duck” Millsaps student in a group of Mississippi College students. For me, that just was what it was. I had a very good relationship with the staff person assigned to ministry with college students. He was, I realize now, one of the “semi-closeted liberals” recently produced by the Southern Baptist seminaries in the 1960s and 70s. Stamping out that sort of thing would be the goal of a political movement in the SBC that emerged in 1979 and I will talk about later. The senior pastor at First Baptist was Frank Pollard. He was one of the most compelling preachers I’ve ever heard. He couldn’t have been called “liberal” by any sense of the word that makes sense, but he was not, in any way, “rigid” in his expression and certainly was not “at war” with anyone theologically or otherwise. The music director, Larry Black, was likewise a kind man who cared about the spiritual and personal development of the people under his care, while also pulling excellence from the musicians he led.
The college minister at First Baptist Jackson remarked that there were three “real preachers” in Jackson at that time. One was Frank Pollard, another was Keith Tonkel of Wells Memorial United Methodist Church, and the third was John Claypool of Northminster Baptist Church. Keith frequently spoke at Millsaps Chapel services. Claypool also spoke at a couple of Chapel services and one Sunday evening gathering. What all three had in common was that their theology was filtered through an awareness of hard personal experience. Pollard was an adult child of an alcoholic who had grown up poor and “rough” in Texas oil fields. Keith Tonkel was a cancer survivor. Claypool had lost a ten year old daughter to leukemia. All were grounded in a “This was tough, but God brought me through” approach to ministry and preaching. Of course pain recognizes pain, so I resonated with all of them.
Claypool also used a term I hadn’t heard applied to the Bible before. He spoke of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 as “The Genesis Poem.” He found profound meaning in them without getting caught up in trying to justify their scientific accuracy. That was definitely an opening of a door.
In early September 1978, the “Berean Fellowship” gathered for a retreat at Roosevelt State Park. There a brown haired, brown eyed freshman named Lynette Little caught my eye. I was not at all socially adept or aggressive (i.e. I “had no game.”) She also caught the eye of my roommate Bill Singer, who had more “game” than I. It would take two school years and two relationships for her before Lynette came to realize that I would be the love of her life. I knew from that time forward that she would be the love of mine.
Heritage had not satisfied any Social Sciences core requirements, so I signed up for Political Science 101. There I encountered another of the great teachers of my life. Howard Bavender taught political science as a moral discipline. I had been an avid newspaper reader for years, but he and John Quincy Adams helped me put a theoretical framework around the news. Mr. Bavender had a passion for social justice and a passion for calling forth moral and ethical commitments from his students. I loved it.
Since I was a history major, I also needed to take U.S. History. That was taught by another of my great teachers, Bob McElvaine. Dr. McElvaine likewise taught history as a moral and ethical discipline. He did not hesitate to introduce us to the “darker side” of U.S. History, including the genocide of Native Americans, the pervasiveness of slavery in the building of the country, and of the struggle for economic justice of the Labor movement. We read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, along with the textbook. Dr. McElvaine invited us to enter the minds and hearts of the slaves, industrial workers, Native Americans, and others from the “underside” of U.S. History. He also invited Allard Lowenstein to speak to the class. Lowenstein had been part of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. He told stories from my own home area of the Delta. Evidently, Greenville and Tougaloo College had been two of the few “safe spaces” for people working for Civil Rights.
Meanwhile, in my Old Testament class, I was learning that the Biblical Prophets were advocates for economic and social justice. This was not covered in my Baptist Sunday School classes. Though I certainly was also supportive of integration, I had not realized that this was grounded in Biblical faith. The Inter-Varsity “Berean” group also introduced me to writers like Ron Sider (Rich Christians in a Hungry World) and John Perkins(Let Justice Roll Down). Both grounded work for social justice in a robust expression of Biblical Christianity. John Perkins even came to speak to the Berean Fellowship group one night, as did other persons from “Voice of Calvary” Ministries. This was an intentional Christian community focused on racial reconcilation, economic empowerment and health services. Howard Bavender was invited the John Perkins’ presentation. He said “You have created a perfect fusion of Christianity and Marxism.” That was a compliment.
At other points my relationship with Berean Fellowship was less positive. Millsaps had hired a new Women’s Basketball Coach. He was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, an institution of The Presbyterian Church in America. Reformed, and the PCA, found their identity in commitment to the Bible as “inerrant and infallible,” along with more general hostility to “humanism,” which they believed was equivalent to racism. The coach was also a speaker and frequent attender of Berean Fellowship meetings. I found the atmosphere ever more rigid and unwelcoming. This was my first experience of what I’ve come to call the “Doctrine Police” or “Heresy Hunters.” This was religion grounded in fear (of offending God by believing the “wrong” thing) and anger (toward those who believed or taught the “wrong” thing). I increasingly became uncomfortable in that group and left it by the end of my sophomore year.
In the summer of 1979, between my sophomore and junior years at Millsaps, a faction within the Southern Baptist Convention likewise committed to a view of Scripture as “infallible and inerrant” and likewise hostile to “liberals” and “humanists” elected a new President of the Convention. I was still pointing toward ministry as my vocation, but I began to sense that was not going to be able to happen within a Southern Baptist Convention controlled by the “Doctrine Police/Heresy Hunters.” During my summers at that time, I was living with my father in the western suburbs of Chicago. He was a part time music director at a United Methodist church in Woodridge. My stepmother was the organist. The wife of the pastor of that church was Rosemary Skinner Keller, who was on the faculty of a United Methodist Seminary in Evanston, IL, Garrett-Evangelical. I didn’t know women COULD be professors at a seminary. Moreover, a woman student at G-ETS was serving a field education placement at Woodridge UMC. Her duties included occasional preaching! What a surprise to me, but not an unpleasant one.
I spent the fall semester of my junior year wrestling with what I needed to do. I certainly still found the worshipping and music community at First Baptist Church congenial, but I knew that was not the whole story of the SBC. I found out MUCH later that Frank Pollard was not at all in favor of what is now called the “Fundamentalist Takeover” of the SBC. He did not address denominational politics from the pulpit. He remained loyal to the SBC his whole life, but he was in the distinct minority for the last twenty years of his active ministry.
In January of 1980, I went on a retreat with the First Baptist Revelation choir on the Gulf Coast. The choir from a Baptist church in Mobile, AL joined us. The speaker for the preaching services was a staff person from that church. His sermons were angry, fear-filled, and hostile to all dissenters. I was apalled. As has frequently happened in my life, a “switch” in my brain and emotions was flipped. I sought out Don Fortenberry, the College Chaplain, to find out what would be involved in moving into the ministry of The United Methodist Church. I had no desire to deal with the sort of angry, fear-filled “heresy hunting” I was perceiving was coming to the fore in the SBC. Developments in the SBC over the last 40 years have constantly validated that decision. In fact, there is a new “conservative resurgence” that claims those now in power in the SBC aren’t conservative ENOUGH, even as they have purged the seminaries, Mission Boards, and other institutions of the denomination of anyone “lberal” or “moderate.”
I joined Galloway Memorial UMC in Jackson in late January 1980. Don Fortenberry, T.W. Lewis and Lee Reiff were models, for me, of what a United Methodist clergyperson was like. That’s turned out not to be universally true, but I continue to find folks who are “my people” in the ranks of United Methodist Clergy.