[Note: From the archives]
Earlier this year, I read a book that was suggested to me by one of the parishioners of the congregation I serve. The book is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is a book about the half century migration (1915-1970) of African Americans from the South to the Northern States in an effort to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow laws. The book is a combination of inspiration and tragedy as Wilkerson weaves the stories of hope and reality together.
Though there are many memorable stories in this book, as a Christian, there is a story that has been seared into my conscience. It is the story of Eddie Earvin who in 1964, at the age of 21, became part of this migration as he journeyed from southern Mississippi to Chicago. In telling his story, Eddie said that he had learned to fear white people while he was still quite young. He told of a day when he was walking with his grandparents past the white people’s church. When the children in the church saw Eddie and his grandparents walk by, they ran outside and started throwing rocks and bricks at them and yelling the vilest names that could spring from a tongue. As his ears heard the hate and as the rocks found their target, Eddie asked his grandparents, “What kind of god they got up there inside that church?” Wilkerson records that 50 years after that event, Eddie still trembled at its recollection.
“What kind of god they got up there inside that church?” When I read this story, I found myself wondering what hymns that congregation had sung that day. I wondered what lesson had been read from the scriptures and what words had been spoken in the prayers and from the pulpit. I wondered what kind of pleasantries and expressions of concern the church members shared with one another when they gathered for worship? I wondered, just like Eddie did, what kind of god they had up inside that church that their children could leave and hurl rocks with their arms and hate with their lips.
Eddie’s question is a painful but stirring reminder to all of us that our actions as the church speak much louder than any of our words. The truth is it doesn’t really matter what lesson was read in that sanctuary, what words were offered in prayer, or what heartfelt message the pastor might have preached. What matters is that when the doors to the church were opened, vile hate and oppression is what came out and fifty years later a grown man was physically shaken by what he remembered.
Our actions as the church are revelatory. Those actions can either reveal the god we have made in our own image or the God who is shown to us in Jesus. It is very important for congregations to ask themselves, how do the things that we are presently engaged in reflect the God that we claim to know in Jesus? Are our ministries rooted in compassion, revealing the divine love that we say in Christ is extended to all? Are we working in our local communities in ways that promote peace and reconciliation and understanding, showing to others that the God we worship is one who has concern for all creation? Are we making certain that we stand up for the human dignity and the equality of all people wherever we see injustice and inequality? When the doors to your sanctuary are opened what goes out into the world and what does it say about the God you believe in? Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
I suppose, finally, that Eddie’s question, “What kind of god they got up there inside that church” wasn’t just asked of a single congregation in southern Mississippi, seventy-five years ago. It is a question asked of every congregation who has ever gathered to worship.
So, that question today comes to you, “What kind of god you got up there inside your church?”