SERMON JANUARY 17, 2021, JOHN: CHAPTER 1, VERSUS 43-51, HONORING MARTIN LUTHER KING JR
Today I want to offer a reflection of my early life with a man I never met. I found him to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I was fascinated, inspired, confused and wanted to learn from him. I was in high school in the town I grew up in, Pecos, Texas. I was 16 years old. I heard for the first time about the work of Martin Luther King regarding civil rights. My family had purchased our first television in 1954 and I could both see and hear civil rights issues being talked about in our country. Especially around issues of school segregation. The Supreme Court had a land mark decision in the 1954 case that the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitional. The name of the case was “Brown vs The Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas”.
I will admit to being naïve on the subject of race. It only came to me over time that as a white person in the United States, I was privileged and white supremacy had a long history in our country. In my own small town of 10,000 people we had signs in restaurants that said “whites only”. At the Greyhound bus station there were separate restrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “blacks”. I asked my father about these concerns since as a well-respected attorney in Pecos. He said it was the law of the land handed down by the Supreme Court. Separate but equal meant separate schools for black and white people and there was to be no togetherness in social or religious settings. I can remember thinking at the time…I had no choice to be born white. A black person had no choice to be born black. We are all God’s children so why do we have to have discrimination? A question….I continue to ask and try to answer.
I was president of my junior and senior class in 1956 and 1957. Our school board accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court and decided to integrate our schools. I was amazed to discover that Pecos had a high school of 20 students that were black. My ignorance was such that I did not know that. The town became heated about the decision of the school board to integrate our school. My father was asked to run for the school board as a last minute write in candidate because he was segregationist. I was for integration so we had some very interesting talks. I learned a lot from him and I believe he learned a lot from me. We respected our different views and I have always respected my father. He was elected to the school board but never once punished me or degraded me for my own thoughts. Twenty students from the black high school joined our high school.
I was the manager of our football team and one of the black students was a talented end for the team who made many touchdowns. He became a hero. We would sit together on the bus to go to games and we became friends. We had a pregame meal at a local restaurant at 4:00 before our games. The restaurant was closed while our team was eating there. We entered the restaurant and the owner looked at Bubba, my friend, and said to him, “Bubba, you know you can’t eat in the restaurant. You go eat in the kitchen.” I tried to argue but Bubba did not want to argue and headed for the kitchen. I followed him and ate with him. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. It was not right. So I grew up a little that night and that year.
Fast forward to 1968 at Grace Memorial in Portland. I was ordained a priest on January 10, 1968, here at Grace Memorial. Last Sunday was my 53rd anniversary of ordination. I worked two days a week for the Diocese of Oregon as City Missioner and four days a week as Curate at Grace Memorial. Some of us here remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968. The rector at the time was Duane Alvord and he and I spent many hours with black leaders trying to find our best responses for our churches and the city. As we know this conversation continues to this day.
I would stop for gas regularly at a Texaco Station on Broadway just at the entrance to the freeway. I had been ordained a short time. On the sidewalk there were several prostitutes walking on what was then Williams Avenue. As I was inspecting my car while getting gas, I heard a voice from the street, “Dick Toll is that you?” I turned to the voice and a black woman wearing a blond wig walked toward me. You can realize my surprise and wondering what in the world was going on. She came up to me and again called me by name. She said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” I said no I did not remember her and she said, “I was one of the black students who integrated Pecos High School 12 years ago.” She handed me her card with a name I did not recognize. We talked briefly and I asked her about her life style and coming to Portland. I will always remember her answer, “What is a black girl from Pecos, Texas, suppose to do to make a living?” She left to go back to the street and I left in my car wondering about the new kick in the gut I had received.
I offer this reflection because of the very fact that I look back on so much of our society that has been built on racism. We as a society have allowed our racism to enter into every aspect of our common life. Whether it be the way we treat the Native American people and still deny them their rights or the exclusion acts for Asians, Muslims, Japanese and of course our long history with slavery. We as individuals and as a society have allowed systemic racism to invade our lives. And we live in denial if we do not allow ourselves to see it and to change what we have become.
I read this publication from the Oregon Historical Society. It is a special issue about Oregon and white supremacy and resistance. It spells out in detail the way that systemic racism was built into the foundation of Oregon from it’s very foundation…the way we took land from the native Americans, the way the government would not allow people of color to own property, the laws that were reflective of the society we were building throughout our country. It took a man of the stature and vision of Martin Luther King Jr to confront our issues within our society that set us on a path of healing. But the wounds are deep and need our individual attention today.
Over the years I have learned so much from people of other cultures and observed the ways they have been discriminated against. I worked with Native Americans in the 1960 and help start the Native American Rehabilitation Center that is still in existence here in Portland. The motivation for it’s beginning was that our Native American brothers and sisters wanted to find a way to heal their additions in their own cultural way and not depend on the white man’s way. It worked and is working.
I assume you as and individual have felt punched in the gut the way I was as I watched injustices take place. And I assume you have been willing to step forward to change the situation of injustices in the work place, the neighborhood, the city government, and on, and on. My hope is the future will allow our responses more and more as individuals and communities.
We as a society have been honored by the lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr. He chose to follow Jesus just as we heard in the Gospel today when Jesus tells Phillip, “follow me”. One thing I have learned from my black brothers and sisters is the deep longing for the Gospel message to be shared in music and in song. The song I am going to sing was written by Thomas Dorsey, considered to be the father of gospel music. He wrote this song in the 1930’s after he lost his wife and son in childbirth. He closed himself off from the world as he grieved and gave us this beautiful hymn. It was sung by Mahalia Jackson at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral in 1968. The name of the hymn is “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.