Melanie was-depending on who you talked to-sharing the love of Christ or trying to cause trouble. 45 years later I like to think it was both. Nixon was president, gas was 36 cents a gallon, and everything in my hometown was separate and unequal.
My father was the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in West Point, Mississippi. The good people at Calvary encouraged me to fear anyone who did not look like us. We understood that there are Bible verses about God's love for all people, but we ignored them. We sang "red and yellow, black and white" without recognizing how offensive that was. The sign out front said "Everyone is welcome." We knew how to read the sign.
For our youth revival in the church gym we invited an evangelist who knew how to get middle schoolers to walk the aisle. The preacher would explain to the ones who had not been baptized that they could be hit by a bus on the way home and burn in hell forever. The ones who had strayed into sin must promise to never commit that sin again-not even if she is a cheerleader. The ones who had not strayed into sin because no cheerleader would ever invite them to do so needed to give in to God's call to ministry. Anyone who was not 100% certain of their eternal resting place should walk the aisle because what could it hurt. We lined up Miss Mississippi and a quarterback from Mississippi State to speak, because this was big-time worship.
Melanie, a seventh grader, invited her best friend Carlene, an African American, to witness the glory of our youth revival. Melanie and Carlene made their way to folding chairs near midcourt. The ushers gathered to decide how to deal with this thirteen-year-old threat to their Christianity. Wayne, a little league baseball coach, asked Carlene to leave. Melanie went with her.
The next night two members of the Klan and the deacon board were stationed at the gym door to make sure no African Americans tried to worship God. They did not wear the hoods-which would have been more honest. Nothing interesting happened.
Years later it finally occurred to me to ask, "How unimpressed would Carlene have been if she had stayed?"
Our church sang Fanny Crosby hymns. We reassured ourselves with "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine," comforted ourselves with the promise that "He hideth our souls in the cleft of the rock," and encouraged ourselves with the certainty that we were "Redeemed" and "loved to proclaim it." But the African American churches across town got to sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," and "His Eye is on the Sparrow." Their songs were better.
They had Aretha Franklin. We had the Bill Gaither Trio. Their singers were better.
They had Martin Luther King, Jr. We had Jerry Falwell. They were proclaiming "a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice." We were trying to preserve an oasis of injustice. Their preachers were better.
The people at Carlene's church sang, prayed, and worshipped more honestly than we did at Calvary. How disappointed would Carlene have been if she had gotten to stay?
I thought about this last Sunday while worshipping at Antioch AME Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Carol and I have been to Antioch six times, because I need to learn to experience rather than critique worship.
We go to sing. I try to sing, clap, and sway at the same time. My swaying needs work, but the soloists make me want to feel what they feel.
We go to give. The pastor is willing to tell us exactly how much. Last Sunday we gave three offerings.
We go to pray. Sometimes the prayers go where I am not used to hearing them go. Prayers that start with gratitude for a job may end up imploring God to get other people a job "right now."
I go and wonder what would have happened if Melanie had gone to church with Carlene. Would Melanie have ever come back to Calvary? What I could not see when I was nine years old is clear: God wanted us to join Carlene's revival.