My “Witness,” Part 1

My “witness” Part 1: My father is an alumnus of the Stetson University choir. (Class of 1956) At some point between 1963 and 1967, the Stetson Choir was on tour through Florida. By then my father was Minister of Music at East Hill Baptist Church in Pensacola. The Stetson choir was to perform at East Hill. There was one Black student in the choir. Our family hosted this woman and her tour roommate. My parents explained to my brother and me that these would be guests in our home and that we were to treat them with respect. I found out nearly ten years later that there was at least one member of East Hill who vociferously objected to a “Negro” being in the sanctuary and leading in worship. As far as I’m aware, no one lost his/her employment over the event. There certainly were MUCH more bitter fights going on elsewhere in the South about integrated worship services.

By 1968 we were living in Jacksonville, Florida. One thing about Jacksonville that I did not know until June 11, 2020 was that a mob of 200, including some Jacksonville Police officers, had attacked a Civil Rights Sit-in on August 27, 1960. Some of the attackers used axe handles to beat the non-violent demonstrators. As a result, that day was called “Axe Handle Sunday.” The fact that I did not know this until almost sixty years later indicates how little of the racist history of our country is generally known. My father was Minister of Music at First Baptist Church. In in 1968 First Baptist was observing its 125th anniversary. There was also an observation of 100 years since the formerly enslaved persons at First Baptist had left to form “their own church.” The summer of 1968 was a time of high tension in the United States and there certainly had to have been some tension in Jacksonville (which is rightly called the largest city in South Georgia). Nevertheless the leadership of both First Baptist and its African American “daughter” church developed plans for a joint celebration of the 125th and 100th anniversaries.The celebrations would include joint worship services at both First Baptist and the African American church. The guest speaker for the service at First Baptist was W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Dallas. Criswell was the closest thing to a Southern Baptist “Pope” as existed in the second half of the 20th century. For some reason Criswell thought that the way to connect with this interracial audience was to tell Negro “Dialect” “Jokes.” No doubt “Axe Handle Sunday” was a living memory for many of the Black worship attendees. My father was sitting on the platform near Criswell and was genuinely afraid that someone might take a shot at Criswell, miss and hit him. The next morning Homer Lindsay, Sr. the pastor at FBC Jacksonville was driving Criswell to the airport. Criswell said “Homer, I blew it didn’t I?” “WA, you blew it as bad as it’s ever been blown.”

I recall that there were some Black students at my elementary school, so I guess Jacksonville was under “Freedom of Choice.” Jacksonville is divided by the St. John’s River. The part of Jacksonville where we lived was the “White” part of town. That meant that little school integration would have happened, given the residential segregation that reigned then and now.

The division between the White people I knew in Jacksonville over the 1968 Presidential election was between supporters of Richard Nixon and George Wallace. My parents supported Nixon. My parental grandparents had been anti-Roosevelt Republicans, so support of Nixon didn’t necessarily have a racial component. By 1969, when I started fifth grade, I had been in at least two “integrated” worship services (“Special” services, for sure) and had had at least a few Black classmates in public school. No one in my family or my church family were overly exercised about it, as best I remember. In October 1969, due to events in my family, we moved to Jackson, MS, where my father would be Minister of Music at Broadmoor Baptist Church. A lot of other “stuff” would also happen that year.

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My “Witness” Part 1

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My “Witness” Part 2

My “witness,” Part 2: Our family was wounded and my parents’ marriage was mortally wounded in ways I didn’t appreciate when we moved to Jackson, MS in October 1969. On October 29, the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v Holmes County Board of Education that Mississippi had had all the “deliberate speed” they needed to desegregate its public schools. Jackson Public Schools Administration spent an extra “holiday” period in January 1970 redrawing attendance zones and reassigning teachers. Just nine weeks after Alexander, Jackson Public schools were desegregated. Our house (owned by Broadmoor Baptist Church) was on the same side of Northside Drive as Boyd Elementary School, so my brother, sister, and I continued to attend Boyd, but we had new teachers and new classmates. Again, though there were other sources of tension in our home, I don’t recall anyone getting “worked up” about our attending a fully integrated school. If there were fears for our safety, no one ever spoke them aloud for me to hear. I know from reading history that there were White parents who immediately pulled their children out of public schools and put them in newly formed private “academies,” but no one talked about doing that with us in my hearing. By the end of February 1970 my father had resigned his position at Broadmoor Baptist Church and returned to Jacksonville. Our family was now in “survival” mode, since we were without an income and were living in a house set aside for the Minister of Music, who was no longer in that position or in residence. It is a great tribute to the kindness of Broadmoor Baptist Church that we did not have to move out of that house for the remainder of the school year. I had always had difficulty with math and had spent the summer of 1969 in “remedial” math in Jacksonville. My newly assigned fifth grade math teacher (my fourth of that school year) and I were not connecting. She happened to be Black. I’m sure that teaching White students and reporting to a White principal for the first time was quite stressful for her. I have sometimes been called “stubborn.” For exactly the same reason, I have also been called “Brown-eyed.” My mother sought to intervene in my math teacher relationship. The principal told her “Mrs. Altman, I can’t move a White student from a Black teacher’s class this year.” That was, by far, not the worst thing that happened that year, but it’s the only educational/academic consequence I remember.

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My “Witness, Part 4 Greenville

My “witness” Part 4: Greenville:Greenville, MS is a Mississippi River port city in the Mississippi Delta. A book about the Delta calls it “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” That is quite true. Our family moved to Greenville is late August of 1971. Unbeknownst to us, when the 1969 Supreme Court decision Alexander v Holmes County, ordering unified, non-segregated school districts in Mississippi came down, a community meeting took place at the Buster Brown Community Center to plan for private academies to educate the White children in Washington County whose parents could afford the tuition. By the time we arrived in Greenville in 1971, those private schools had been built and were up and running. Most other communities in the Delta, the Jackson area, and any other areas of the state where Whites were not in a clear majority likewise established private schools, with the goal of continuing “separate, but (un)equal” education. The State Legislature even appropriated money to support these private schools. I was about to start seventh grade, so the larger political events were unknown to me. It’s certainly clear, with 50 years of perspective, that the decision to withdraw White students from public schools in Mississippi was a nearly fatal self-inflicted wound to the communities that made it. A strong, well-funded public school system is the single most important economic development tool any community has The economic struggles of the Delta over the last 50 years make that clear, well beyond any moral or ethical issues raised by continuing resistance to lifting up ALL in the state. I began seventh grade at Coleman Junior High School. I soon learned that Coleman had been the “Black” high school in Greenville. Major League Baseball player George Scott, and NFL players Gloster and Willie Richardson had starred for the Coleman Tigers before their pro careers. Numerous other athletes, scholars, and other professionals were Coleman alumni. It’s clear to me, now, that re-purposing the building as a “Junior” High School, while apparently “practical,” was also an act of cultural erasure. I recall the football stands being dismantled while I was in PE that 1971-72 school year. There may have been a safety-related reason, but that was, likewise, a kind of cultural erasure. The obvious divide in the Delta is between Black and White, but there is, likewise, a “caste” system within the White community. At the top are the owners of the means of production and distribution. Those would be owners of agricultural land and of the towing companies at the Port of Greenville. Just behind would be the businesses directly supporting the owners-Cotton Brokers, Agricultural Equipment dealers, other vehicle dealers, fuel brokers, etc. Just behind would be the professionals, doctors and lawyers, vets, etc. In a position sort of by himself was Hodding Carter, III the owner/publisher of the local newspaper. There were also small business owners, restauranteurs, service stations, etc. In a unique position were the Chinese grocery store owners. These were not “Black,” but not quite “White” either. Ethnic Chinese children moved from the “Black” to “White” schools in the Delta in the early 1950s. White clergy were “hired help,” if sometimes well compensated “hired help.”My mother was a department manager at a private hospital. She was a woman doing a “woman’s job.” She was not well paid. She was definitely part of the “hired help.” We were in a somewhat isolated position. In Mississippi the first two questions people ask are “Where are you from and Who are your people.” Well, we weren’t “from there” and our “people” were out of state. Furthermore, my mother was a divorced woman in 1971, long before that became “trendy.” As our family did, we found our way to church, in this case First Baptist Church. This church had all the White castes, from “owners” to “hired help.” There was also a “Chinese Mission” that had Chinese language services on Sunday afternoons. There were also second and third generation native English speakers who attended “regular” Sunday School and Worship. That’s a lot of (necessary) throat clearing. I’ll talk more about my experience of church and school in Greenville at a later time.

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My “Witness” Part 5 Greenville Part 2

My “Witness” Part 5, Greenville, Part 2: The worst natural disaster ever to befall Greenville and Washington County was the 1927 Mississippi River Flood. The story I heard when I was living there was that it was a time when the community came together in recovery. I was over 55 years old when I learned that many Black people were, essentially, re-enslaved and set to forced labor on the levees. They were also confined to living in tents on the levees. It’s not surprising that this part of the story was consigned to the “memory hole” of White Greenville and Washington County. I suspect that it was much more of a living and family memory in Black Greenville and Washington County, but I’ve never asked. It was, in any case, a part of the inheritance of guilt and shame that everyone carried, even if they didn’t know its source.As I mentioned, I was a seventh grader at Coleman Junior High School in the 1971-72 school year. Though many of the economic elites had removed their children to private schools, the Greenville Public School system was still about 35% White during my six years in it. Coleman was probably a little more heavily Black than that. Bass Junior High School, whose attendance zone was more in the central part of the city, was almost completely Black. Solomon, which had been the “White” Junior high school, was at least 50-50. Not so incidentally, Solomon was the only Junior High School with air conditioning. The combination of heat and humidity in the Mississippi Delta is the worst I’ve ever experienced. Though we didn’t begin school until the end of August, September, October, and May were brutally hot. That had to have had an effect on learning. Of course, the new private schools were air conditioned. I was, for the first time, a “minority.” I had a Black male teacher (Social Studies) for the first time. I still was no good in math, but by far my worst class was Physical Education. I’m not at all athletic. I was under the authority of male PE teachers (both Black and White) who knew how to coach athletes, but had no real respect or sympathy for the unathletic or any ability or willingness to adapt the curriculum for such students. I honestly do not remember any “racialized” bullying directed toward me, but there was plenty of bullying in PE for the slow, overweight and clumsy kid. Some (not all) the perpetrators were Black, but I never thought they were targeting me because of race.During Christmas break, my mother was invited to play cards at the home of the adult daughter of the pastor at First Baptist Church. Imagine my surprise when another person present was her stepson, who was the Study Hall coach at Coleman. My brother and I both told our mother he was “mean.” My mother, who had become infatuated with him, dismissed that complaint. “He just has to act that way at school so he can keep order.” My brother and I were right, and she was wrong. He was “mean” to the core.My mother married him in February 1972 and was soon pregnant with a “honeymoon baby.” My sister Jill, born November 1972, is the only thing positive about the three and a half years of hell my family and I lived with. She is now the marvelous mother of three. Everything good about her is a credit to our mother. School, along with First Baptist Church, became more havens from bullying and abuse than sources of it. Though I absorbed bullying and abuse, I have to say that my older brother and my mother absorbed more. I’d have to say though, that my brother passed some of what he absorbed down to me.During the second semester of my seventh grade year, I moved from art, which I did not like, to chorus, which I did. Kaye Ventura was the chorus teacher. She became my first Black “mentor” teacher. I became a member of the chorus and remained all three years. I learned a great deal, absorbed Black culture, and made lasting friendships with several Black students. I still think that Virgie Selzer gave the best performance of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” I’ve ever heard. Academically, I did increasingly well, with the exception of math. By eighth and ninth grade, I was making As and winning awards in English and Social Studies and doing all right in science.16 Comments

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My “Witness,” Part 6, Greenville, Part 3, First Baptist Church

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.

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My “Witness,” Part 3

My “witness” Part 3:
For a few months in the latter part of my fifth grade year in 1970, my mother worked at a private school headquartered in a church. She had an Elementary Education degree and had taught in both public and “Christian” schools at different points during my parents’ marriage. She didn’t especially like it. I take it that she took the job to keep us able to buy food and keep the utilities on.

Her agenda, in the midst of the trauma of the end of her marriage, was to determine how she could make a living. Somehow, she settled on Medical Records. With a Bachelors Degree, she could finish a one year course at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, then take the exam to be a Registered Record Administrator.

We “hunkered down” for a difficult year. With money from child support, some support from both my grandmothers, and some alimony from my father, we had somewhere in the neighborhood of enough to survive.

We moved into an apartment in the Fondren Neighborhood of Jackson. This is now the “hip and happening” neighborhood, but then it was just a place with with housing close to UMMC. I went to sixth grade at Duling Elementary School, my sister went to second grade at Duling, and my brother went to seventh grade at Bailey Junior High School. Due to what I now know to be “White Flight,” there were only enough sixth graders at Duling to make one class.

We continued to worship at Broadmoor Baptist Church. In retrospect I realize that must have been weird for my mother, but she didn’t complain to us. At some point during that year, a proposal for Broadmoor to operate a “Christian” school was brought to the congregation.Dr. David Grant, the senior pastor at Broadmoor, had continued to keep his own children in Jackson Public Schools. I don’t recall him speaking to the issue, (the Pastor in Southern Baptist churches is the “moderator” or Presiding Officer, at Church business meetings) but I’m quite sure he was opposed. In any case, Broadmoor did NOT start a “Christian” school.

Dr. Grant was also exceptionally kind and supportive to our family. By all accounts, this was the way he lived his life and ministry all the time.
I said that we had barely enough to survive. We scoured the Fondren neighborhood for discarded soft drink bottles. We used the deposits we collected to buy food. Every now and then, we even had enough to get milkshakes at Brent’s Drugs. I never discount the gift of being able to order a milkshake at Brent’s now, just if I want one.
I mention our financial situation to indicate that a viable public school system was vital to our lives. If we were collecting soft drink bottles to buy food, there certainly was no money for private or “Christian” school tuition.
As my mother came to the conclusion of her Medical Records education, she sought a job. She was offered the position of Director of Medical Records at King’s Daughters Hospital in Greenville, MS. I can rightly say that Greenville is “”Where my story begins,” in many ways. That story will take a while to tell.

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Two Years of Storms, Part 2

When last I posted, Lynette’s surgeon had just confirmed to me that she had Inflammatory Breast Cancer.  In one of those statements I wish medical professionals would avoid, he said, “This sure did ruin my day.”  I hope I don’t have to explain why that’s not really the thing to say to a patient’s husband.

I found my way back to Lynette’s room, where an explosion of “ugly crying,” interspersed with wailing ensued.  I’m going to guess that I was far from the first husband of a patient on that floor to receive such devastating news, because the nurses gave me the space to wail, lament, and even scream.  As a hospital chaplain, I had often been on the other side of such displays.  I knew that trying to interrupt or stop them was 1. Futile and 2. Not healthy for the person grieving.  It’s an odd feeling to both be feeling the intense grief and to be observing oneself experiencing it.  Lynette’s friend Elizabeth came to her room while I was deep into the throes of my grieving.  I was able to get out the words “Inflammatory Breast Cancer,” so she would know what had brought on the display.  I asked her as well to give me space.

There was about an hour or so before Lynette would be back in the room from recovery.  It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was still a United Methodist pastor.  I needed to contact the lay leadership of my church and my District Superintendent to let them know I would not be able to preach the following day.  I also needed to get hold of Lynette’s sisters to let them know what was going on.  I also had to think about what I was going to tell my children.

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Two Years of Storms

One thing that strikes me about the story of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4: 35-41 is the degree of panic expressed by the Disciples. It’s already been established that at least Peter, Andrew, James, and John are experienced fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. As such they have known the Sea of Galilee to have sudden storms. They know how to keep themselves and their crafts safe in such instances, in dark or daylight. Something about THIS storm, however, so frightens the Disciples that they wake up Jesus and scream at him “Don’t you care that we’re going to die?”

Over the last two years, storms I was used to gave way to a storm that had me crying out to Jesus about the danger of it all.

In the summer of 2016, Lynette and I were in our 34th year of marriage and our 30th year as a Clergy Couple in the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church. By a wide margin, we were the clergy couple with the longest lived marriage and longest tenure for both of us to serve churches in the Conference. We had some challenges we were used to. I was serving a church of mostly older people in the oldest part of Gulfport. We had just completed a Vacation Bible School for the children of our neighborhood. We were seeking to discern how we could stay engaged with our community.

Lynette was working as an associate pastor at a large church in Ocean Springs. Some decisions made after Hurricane Katrina had left that church as “One Church on Two Campuses,” but also with many tensions that took up much staff time and emotional energy. We had a daughter about to begin her junior year in college. We also had a son with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He was 22, but we had dealt with this diagnosis since he was four. He had just lost his job, due to his tendency to think he knew better than management how things should be done. His future and his being “launched” into adulthood was not clear, but we were hanging in with him. In the midst of this, our 2011 Nissan Altima had had its transmission give out. If you’ve ever had to replace a transmission, you know that you might well think “Maybe we should just buy another car.” Again, there were life challenges, vocational, parental, and financial, but Lynette and I had coped with similar challenges for 34 years.

On Friday, August 19, I had just followed the two truck taking our Altima to a repair shop. They were oging to look at it and let us know what the damage would be. I came home and Lynette said to me “I think I need to go to the doctor.” Evidently, for several days she had suspected she had an abscess on her left breast. She had self-diagnosed by way of the internet, not necessarily the best idea. We went to the Walk-in clinic near our home. The nurse practitioner there looked at her breast and said “You need to go to the Emergency Room.” So, we drove to the Gulfport Memorial Emergency Room. It didn’t take long for us to be seen by an ER doctor. The ER doctor and I got to see this abscess then. It DID look pretty bad. The ER doc said “I’m going to need a surgeon to look at this.” She was admitted, since the surgeon could not see her until the next morning, The next morning the surgeon came to see her. He asked if she was having pain. No, she wasn’t having pain. He said “If this were an abscess, you would be having significant pain. I’m going to have to go in to be sure, but I think this is inflammatory breast cancer.” A sudden storm broke over us. These are words you never want to hear.

I waited in the surgical waiting room. I contacted Lynette’s sisters. I kept our daughter Sarah informed. The surgeon came to find me in the waiting room. “I was really hoping to be wrong. This IS inflammatory breast cancer.” The storm broke Full Force.

To be continued:

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She is Fierce

jaltman81

I have Many Fewer Followers than John Piper, but here is my response to his piece on women as theology professors and as pastors.

Though She Be But Little, She is Fierce

This quote from the Bard is on a sweatshirt I ordered for Christmas for Lynette.  No truer words were ever spoken about a person.  She was a fiercely loving person who was so remembered by people who knew her throughout her life.

I’ve noted that she was a member of the “Miriam Generation” of United Methodist clergywomen in Mississippi.  Becky Youngblood came to St. John’s UMC in Greenwood the summer following Lynette’s freshman year at Millsaps.  Becky was the first “girl preacher” Lynette (and many others) had ever seen.  Another trailblazing clergywoman, Mary John Dye, took Lynette with her to Arkansas in 1982 to meet and talk with Marjorie Matthews, the first woman to be a Bishop in…

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