It was the early 1980s. It was Texas. It was December. It was a Southern Baptist church. It is customary in Southern Baptist churches to take up an offering during the Advent season to support missionaries overseas. This collection is called the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” named after a Baptist pioneer missionary to mainland China more than a century ago.
This is the setting young Pastor Kyle found himself in, fresh out of the seminary; green, idealistic, and zealous. Wanting to have a fantastic missions emphasis at his first church, what could be better than having an actual missionary come speak? A missionary who had directly benefited from US dollars sent overseas?
So Kyle invited one of his peers to be the special missionary speaker. He was a young man who had been raised in Africa by missionary parents, would soon be graduating with a missiology degree of his own, and would be returning to African soil to continue the good work. But there was a problem. Kyle’s friend was an African. No person of color had ever stood in the pulpit of this Texas Baptist church.
Kyle pressed on with youthful enthusiasm, however, breaking new ground. On the appointed day the young African missionary arrived and spoke with passion and love for his continent. Largely, he was received well by the congregation, but a couple of folks did walk out. When Kyle later visited one of the protestors, she met him on the porch with a shotgun and a few choice words.
Then one night at a church business meeting a man stood and said, “I’m tired of this preacher talking about race all the time, and I’m fixin’ to whip his ass.” Pastor Kyle said later, “At first the people got more upset that he said ‘ass’ in church, than the fact that he was going to whip me!” But here the guy came, climbing over the pews like scaling a ladder toward Kyle. Just as he got to him, four big men intervened and said, “If you’re going to whip the preacher…take it outside.”
Like something from a Hollywood script, the entire congregation spilt outside and gathered in a circle to see the prize fight. Kyle had no idea what to do – he was young and fit – but he didn’t think it was right to whip a parishioner at a church business meeting. But again, just as the first punch was about to be thrown, those same men intervened: “If you’re going to whip the preacher,” they said, “you’ll have to start with us.” The man backed down, never to return.
When Kyle returned to that church many years later for an anniversary service, to his jaw-dropping astonishment, half the congregation was African-American! “How could this be?” he asked a number of the “old-timers” still around from the younger days.
One man answered, “Well, preacher, after you left, the neighborhood around us began to change. And we had a decision to make: Dig in, move away, or open our doors to our neighbors. Thanks to what you taught us, we opened our doors.” Kyle’s few years at that little church in the Texas pines as an inexperienced, didn’t-know-any-better-than-to-try seminarian had really made a difference in the lives of the community.
While there is often no room in our religious structures, churches, denominations, or in our hearts for those who are different than us – due to race, gender, nationality, legal status, sexuality or what have you – God has plenty of room in his house and in his heart for all of these, with a far-reaching, outrageous grace that can replace bigotries and prejudices with acceptance and hospitality.
This doesn’t mean we won’t have to fight fiercely for what is right – even fight the intolerance inside of us – ultimately, we are our own worst enemies. But fight we must; not with clenched fists and angry words, taking up the weapons of the hateful. No, we fight with love, humility, grace, and justice. To contest otherwise, is to be defeated before the fighting ever begins.