Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ridgecrest Baptist Church of Montgomery Alabama (circa early 70’s) and the Southern Baptists of Today

(The current Ridgecrest Church in Montgomery Alabama had an earlier version. The older church building is now occupied by a church of a different name.)
Let me begin with the thought that statements of absolute certainty have always bothered me. I know I have made my share of them over my lifetime and most all of those I have usually regretted later. However my very belief in God is based upon my understanding that God can never be truly known. He must be ineffable, too great to be described by mere words invented and reworked over time by limited humans. I have had this belief in a wondrous and yet unknowable God for quite some time. Throughout my life, it ebbed and waned in importance, but at many important junctures it was the only important thing that mattered. When I think enough about it, I think it might have always been the one thing that truly mattered.

I studied many books on religion throughout my life. First on the list was the Holy Bible which was on my parents’ bed stand. I remember the tactile feel of that old copy very well. My parents would, through the short time I had with them, never interfere in my religious development and for this I am grateful and happy. Some Good Samaritan, I'm not sure who, enrolled me in vacation Bible school. However I learned very little. It was all pretty much above my head or at least did not make it across to a young child of about 7, I guess. Maybe it influenced me but I cannot remember it. However, at the end of the summer, I received a gift - my very own Bible. It was all wrapped up like a birthday present. I remember being disappointed when unwrapping it because it was just a book, and without pictures. The print was small and it looked very unappealing.

However, later in my life as a young teenager, I took this Bible every week to Ridgecrest Baptist Church which a few kids my age and I had begun to attend. Again my parents did not influence me one way or the other. The church was always a nice place to hang out. People were friendly and often there was food from various events. We were always welcome. We often sat in the back and enjoyed "revivals" that would last an entire week. One of the small group of us was baptized in the glass case filled with water that was located high above where the pastor preached. I remember a microphone for the pastor to say the ceremonial words with the sounds of water sloshing when he was up there. Those to be baptized were dunked backwards completely into the water and brought up. This was always a highlight because the whole production was rather difficult and often led to interesting moments of odd sounds or exclamations echoing loudly out of the church sound system. It was entertaining for the kids, like us.

The Bible was my first written objective resource. There was consistent encouragement in the church services to read it. Later, I received a "Living Bible" which I never quite trusted. But it certainly did help with my understanding of difficult passages. This was given to me by my sister as a Christmas present. I have kept both of these meaningful copies of the Bible, of course.
But by and by, Ridgecrest Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama had started struggling with a problem. School rezoning was occurring in order to help the goal of integration. Many church members’ houses were being sold to “Negroes” as the zones changed for their children, who would go to predominately black schools. White people just fled instead of sending their kids to schools that were purposely built and staffed to be inferior. White people without kids eventually sold their houses as well. After all, their property values seemed to be decreasing as homes went on the market everywhere by homeowners desperate to sell. Might I also say this revolution in thought was to the delight of the local real estate moguls? Real estate folks in Montgomery Alabama seem to always have something to be delighted about no matter what the problem.

At the time it defied my imagination as to why the church had problems with allowing certain human beings to come into the church. For one, there was unlikely to be a mass flood of African Americans into this hostile land. To think of this active discrimination happening today would pretty much defy everyone's imagination. Even at the young age I was back then, I was a relatively deep thinker (not correct just obsessive). In my naivety I pondered exactly what the problem was. Why was this question being asked? Apparently, in plain view to everyone, Ridgecrest Baptist Church was holding a vote to decide how the Word of God came down on whether to allow people of a particular race to come inside their church.
As instructed by the church, I had been reading, studying, and thinking about these bibles given to me as presents. Using what I had already learned, some of it in sermons, I had already reasoned that the Vietnam War was immoral. It did however seem to be a question of significance and doubt. Yet this simple question, of whether to open the church to everyone who wanted to come inside and worship, had not occurred to me as worthy of pondering. The group of us young kids, attending the church from our own choice, argued the point as we walked to and from church like it was a debate. I was of the opinion that a few would vote for exclusion of black people and the vast majority would vote for inclusion. I remember kids with opposing views pointing out that racists attended the church, including a Ku Klux Klan member that we knew well, but I remained convinced that the choice of inclusion would obviously be the majority opinion.

I was wrong. I quit attending church.
Much of my later theological development stemmed from the complete disconnect organized religion had made with my personal understanding of what I had read in the Bible. One incident of intolerance by a majority of church goers had ruined the whole organized movement for me. As I learned world history and the full story of the development of mankind in school, despite one college instructor's rabid bias against Catholicism and probably religion itself, I came to realize that the world was larger and encompassed many more ideas than I previously had an understanding of. My first years of college were consumed by my increasing awareness of learning for the sake of learning. There were no classes in religion so I studied the 4 gospels on my own with commentaries from every possible source that seemed to be scholarly. I focused on Jesus Christ and his teachings.

What I found was nothing like what I had been taught in church and was much more involved than my previous rudimentary readings as a child. When I look back I can see I was a bit obsessed with trying to come to an absolute understanding of an ineffable subject. I am none the worse for it now, I believe, but I was still very naive at the time. Somehow something very deep stuck with me, however, for the rest of my life.

I honestly dislike the word "faith" for it seems to imply a blind faith. I prefer the word "belief" as I have spent some time forming my beliefs. Had I ever experienced that one moment in my life in which I would become "baptized" and "saved" from that day on, I would have missed out on the most important of learning processes: doubting. It is the questioning that life poses that has led to such fulfilling moments of clarity as I get older and hopefully wiser. I have been through years of belief and disbelief. Until I tired of it, I have held argumentative discussions with anyone who wanted to "save" me. I pointed out the problems of interpreting the Bible as the literal truth, and many times along the way I found myself lost. The constant barrage of fundamentalism coming from living in the south had at times caused me to pivot into a pretty much atheistic stance. Was this the best God could do with His followers? Were these the best arguments for faith? Did things really depend upon the theory that the world was only thousands of years old when I knew without much thought needed that it was at least millions of years old? I have come to realize that those who sought out arguments with me were not always on top of their game, and the discussion, unfortunately, is far from a game.
Just recently someone showed me a historical geological timeline which showed the history of the Earth with all the various Christian events and personalities carefully lined up below. He showed it as if it was proof of God and the truthfulness of the Bible. I said "The Bible really shouldn't be limited by this idea." As the necessary disagreement ensued, this person asked me why I could not see that the chart proved the Bible was correct. At this point I realized that the act itself of putting things in a chart meant that something was proven to this person, but I went on anyway. "It is just that you limit God with human knowledge. I personally believe the world is millions of years old and I am fairly certain that the star light we see is millions of years old. Don't you see? God is beyond science. Our knowledge is limited and God is infinite. You can lose people you wish to 'save' just because they do not believe your chart."
I had almost been led astray by the failure of Ridgecrest Baptist Church, which eventually moved to the new white section of town where it now resides. I had almost given up because of the disappointment I had felt with small minded Christians. While I understood this chart person's desire to battle science and prove his religion, I kept worrying about the people who would choose science over God when confronted like this with such shoddy evidence. As I have learned just recently from the book by Karen Armstrong which I have been incessantly reading and mentioning, science has no business in criticizing God because science deals with only things that are not supernatural. It is one of Science's original postulates. Things are not supernatural, superstitious, or magical so the scientific method begins with the postulate that there is no God. Because some (over the centuries) have been attempting to use science or knowledge to "prove" God exists, to prove the ineffable, Christianity seems on a precarious ledge easily "proved" wrong when one makes the assumptions that science makes. It is not an effective battle to fight. Proof for a human being must necessarily limit God who we suppose to be limitless.

Much of the previous comprised a longish essay I had written with a different ending. I am tossing the ending. It was unfinished, so I am not throwing away all that much. I explained in the original essay (as if I were some kind of expert) how the next mistake made was organized religion’s foray into politics. Thus, if one disagreed politically with the church, one might as well not attend the church. This strategy seemed to be less than effective in gaining followers for Christ. Speaking out on a national stage and basically saying that close to half of Americans had political views of which God did not approve seems a little uninviting. Yet, I jumped too fast to this next problem. In my humble opinion, organized religion is further down the scale of understanding than this. Additionally, the original essay began not about the church and my weak knowledge of it, but of my own experiences. Politics only plays tangentially into my recent experience. This intolerably ugly moment, the second I personally beheld, has prompted me to finish this essay and add this rewritten ending:
My wife has been going to church for quite some time. Again, I had pretty much given up on organized religion but I am very happy my wife rekindled the issue. it is not easily dismissed that I do not study the Bible anymore and do not take the time to contemplate God. The part of the Bible that said to gather together in His name had seemed a weakened concept when the reality was that gathering together might only result in people being pushed irretrievably away from a personal relationship with God as a result of their disagreeable political views, one’s politics now being a strongly exclusionary factor on the national stage. Worse, this sudden exclusion of seekers is during a period of history when America has less respect for the concept of community and a great deal more for individualism. The concept of community is branded by the “Christian Right” (the word “Christian” is now part of a political term) as socialist. Receiving help from charity is un-American. The idea of a bit more tax on the rich to help our floundering economy is unacceptable. Christianity will not abide socialism in America. It will not abide more of a burden on the rich man. In my opinion, it will also not abide community. The whole thing is kind of mind boggling to one who read and studied the Gospels so deeply without church interference. I mean. Jesus said things which I believe.
I tried for a while to go to church with my wife but found the local pastor not really communicating with me. He was from a different background, I guess. It is surely not his fault as he tries very hard and he does communicate with others in his church and apparently my wife. As far as I know from the few times I went and from my wife’s description, he has stayed away from politics and all forms of discrimination. All this and he is a self-labeled “country preacher.” My admiration is strong but I was not quite happy because frankly I wanted a deeper discussion of God and not a discussion upon the act of becoming a Christian.
I don’t doubt that there are those who need to discover the Word but once done, they need to live it. And if they are living it, they do not really need a lion tamer with a chair to constantly force them into renewing their belief. Please do not interpret this to mean that I think that I understand more than others. I just know what I would find personally fulfilling in a church.
All was well with our world with my wife going to church while I stayed at home. Then my schedule changed at work and Sunday became my first off day. This seems like a large change to me. I love my wife very much. I want to spend my Sunday morning with her now. Consequently we decided to branch out to try other churches. The first one that seemed fairly easy for various reasons was the First Baptist Church of Opelika, Alabama. The music was better if a bit too majestic for my tastes. Then, the pastor came up to give a sermon that was on the subject of the history of racism in the Southern Baptist church. I was amazed as he taught a passage from the Bible that I never knew existed which seemed to outline the responsibilities of masters and slaves as if the institution were completely acceptable. The pastor told us the passage had been used long ago to justify slavery. He then read and displayed the Southern Baptist Church’s apology for the period of time it supported slavery, which was from the very beginning as the Southern Baptists had made a split just for the sake of condoning slavery. But more importantly to me (as slavery is a done deal) the Southern Baptists were foursquare against all forms of racism.  
I was overjoyed that by pure chance (or something else possibly) this was the topic of the day and I was receiving an apology for having my faith ripped from me in my youth by bigots. I felt so wonderful. Things had changed, even in the First Baptist Church of Opelika, Alabama. My wife and I were both thinking the same thing, as it turned out—this might be our church. The pastor was well educated and I was on the edge of my seat listening to every word. “We were wrong,” he said.
Honestly, I am so gullible. To me there is nothing worse than taking advantage of my gullibility.
In the sermon, the passage on the Christian duties of slaves and owners changed into a passage outlining the duties of employees and their employers. I considered this not a bad message to continue with. After all, there must be some way to interpret the acceptance of slavery in the Bible as a positive message for today. He explained that the slaves at that time were more like what we later called “indentured servants” in early American history. They too could save money and buy their freedom. He admitted that some could never really purchase their freedom because of the vast amount they owed but it still was a vastly different concept from the slavery of the Civil War era. I was mulling over this concept of the slaves signing a sort of contract because I thought I had learned from world history classes that slaves were conquered peoples. Their problem was in living in a territory that was conquered, no contract involved.
Yet, I’m still hanging in there at this point. I mean, this guy understood the term “indentured servant” and got the metaphor reasonably correct (there were surely a few problems with indentured servitude that made it less than savory) and better, he thought his audience would not look at each other in mystification as to what the heck this guy was saying. In other words, he was not speaking down to me. Even though his concept of a Roman slave was a bit spotty, I was hanging on until….as the discussion of good employers progressed…. the big example was the wholesome Christianity of Chick Fil A and particularly Dan Cathy.
I was stunned.
In thirty minutes my emotions had been sent through the wringer. Earlier, he had shown a picture of a man (with no name) to illustrate the evils of slavery. It is a classic picture of a slave’s scarred back. This image, still in my mind at that moment, just melted into the background as a metaphor for the hatred he was subtly whipping up for those who did not have the proper Southern Baptist approved sexual orientation. How could he not know about bullying in our schools? How could he not know about the current uptick in seriously violent gay bashing? He must know. Then how could he not mention it? How could he not know the reasonable argument that spending money at Chick Fil A was giving a portion of one’s dollar to hate groups? (Hate groups given money by Don Cathy were clearly identified as such by the fairly objective Southern Poverty Law Center based in nearby Montgomery, Alabama.) The man who stood before me had simply made a choice not to address these issues while praising Chick Fil A. I was not absolutely certain, but I thought that the man who stood before me would someday be apologized for himself and “forgotten.” He would someday be as “forgotten” in the future using the same kind of sermon he just gave. He would be swept under the rug as neatly as the Southern Baptist church’s members who condoned, or looked the other way for, the violence this scarred slave and countless others received. It was so disheartening to feel this strong emotion akin to hatred inside myself in a church service, even if my hate was really only a strong visceral reaction to this pitiable bigot of a man chosen here as a leader.
I had been correct in my youth. That much was clear. There had been at some point in time, a public apology made for their past bigotry.
My wife, anticipating my reaction to the praise of Chick Fil A, asked me if I wanted to leave early. No, I wanted to be face to face with the man. I had never confronted the Southern Baptists who thought themselves correct and of a superior race in my youth, who now have their successors to wash their hands, those whose hatred poisoned my life (even though I am white) for decades. After the service ended, I walked as quickly as possible to the front of the church accidentally jostling a few in the aisle, leaving my wife behind, hoping this man would be there at the front of the church. With as much civility as I could muster with my emotions still on high, I confronted him on the front steps of his church. While, again, I am never absolutely certain about anything, there are moments when logic can help guide one from “thought A” to “thought B” and this one was very clear. I was very strong in my confrontation but remained as polite as possible. “Praise God” was the response he used to fill the vacuum of silence and of reason that followed.
I found my wife and we went home. I took a shower. Thankfully, I thought, as the water came down around me, I had never been baptized by bigots.
Scarred back of Gordon, a slave. Louisiana, c.1863.
( We know very little about this man deemed to be unimportant at the time, I guess, now displayed in this embarassing pose for the rest of history. But just for the sake of that history, Mr. Pastor, his name was apparently Gordon.)