Have you ever spoken to an American who knew some other American who was a slave – In America?
I have and it was a spiritual experience.
In 2008, in the tiny town of Liberty, Texas I found myself in a 150-year-old church peopled entirely by an African-American congregation. The church had been started before the civil war. This tiny church in the tiny hamlet had somehow survived. As the Religion editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph they had contacted me to observe their 150th milestone. I wanted to do that but was unprepared for what I was about to hear.
The pastor of this rural church was actually a young man, African American, about mid-30’s from Dallas, who came out on the weekends to minister. We all met in the small church building, the people sat n the pews. The pastor and I were up front, not really on a platform, but in front.
Before me were about 40 people who looked like they were all over 65 – some well over. I asked them, “So, the church was started by…whom? And do you know how it worked?
A gracious white-haired gentleman in a dark blue suit ( all the men were wearing suits, and all the women in what seemed to be their “Sunday Best) stood up and said, “This here church,” he said in a steady, deep tenors voice, “was started by the owners of the farm land and their families,” he said. The white folks would have church in the morning, then feed and water the horses, then the black people had church.”
I was a bit taken aback at the thought of “horses come first” and how that must have felt back then. “Did any of you know stories about those original church members? An 89-year-old woman said,
“I did. I was a little girl and my old grandmother told me that when the war (the Civil War) was over, the white owners stayed awhile until the railroad came through. Then they all moved away. We could all go with them, or stay, she told me – and said, ‘We decided to stay.’ “ All the people nodded as she spoke. This was an oft-told tale evidently.
The stories they told indicated life was tough for those that stayed… electricity didn’t come to their area in the early 1950’s for instance. But they stuck together in the church all that time, had families, children many who had moved away, and now, here they were, still celebrating their church.
As an American History major I was swimming with the thoughts, ramifications and a reality I was aware of but had never intersected with living people before.
After more stories of hardship, I asked, “Are any of you frustrated with what your families went through back then and how it’s affected you all these years? I mean, I would be and I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt that way.”
A decade later, the answer I got, still resounds as one of the most profound I’ve ever heard.
The white-haired gentlemen stood up again and said, “ Mr. Butler, Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anyone. Years ago when Dr. King ( Marting Luther King, Jr. ) told us we didn’t have to live that way anymore, we said, we don’t hate but we’re not going back to the way it was.”
I managed to keep my mouth from falling open by looking over to the pastor and he shrugged, shook his head and said to me, “I learn from these people all the time,” he said. “I don’t know how they do it, or where they get it.”
I knew what he meant. It’s too easy as believers to say, “I know where they get it.” It’s one thing to intellectually understand where the perspective come from that frees people from bitterness, anger, resentment and rage in the most difficult and unjust circumstances imaginable. It’s quite another to apply that knowledge to real-life situations and come out winning on the other side.
And that’s what real worship is all about.
I wonder how many of us who “name the name,” really know what these dear people knew. Can we keep on worshiping in bad times when the it really counts, or is it just too much to ask? Let’s ask the congregates of the Liberty Baptist Church in Liberty Texas. They seem to really “know.”
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Patrick Butler is the former Religion editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph, Tyler, Texas.