From Racism to Gracism

September 20th, 2010

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Whenever I tell my life story there is a reaction that follows it. Let me explain.

You see, I grew up in Alabama under Governor George Wallace. As a young black high school graduate I left rural Alabama the same year the dogs and water cannons were loosed on the civil rights marchers in Birmingham.

I remember the humiliation of seeing my governor stand in the schoolhouse door blocking a black student’s admission. I was valedictorian of my graduating class of 1963 and was hoping for a scholarship to college, but none was offered.

These early years of premeditated discrimination left a deep, deep impression on me.  But when I talk about them – according to most of my hearers – it’s not the language of disappointment and bitterness that comes across. Indeed a former seminary chaplain says to me on occasion: “You’re kind, loving, and graceful. You’re a gift from the Lord.”

I often think: “Me? I am?” I’m surprised when people say that.

If there is any reason for this it comes from the gracious Spirit of God inside me. This is true because I know the anger and biases I had when I left Alabama and endured until I dealt with it.

How did I deal with it?

One great key to overcoming lingering racism was getting to know lots and lots of white people. In 1964, just after leaving Alabama, I walked into a mixed race congregation of 1500 people, which was quite rare in those days.

I was shocked at what I saw.

The congregation was by no means perfect, but I found myself in social settings with whites – some from the deep South. In church-sponsored speech clubs, choirs, picnics and softball games we rubbed off on each other. I slowly learned that we are truly all God’s children.

Galatians 3:28 was being fulfilled before my eyes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Even in our mixed race church there was a definite glass ceiling along the color line and this was true of many ministerial assignments. This reminded me again of Alabama. So once again I was tested on this issue of discrimination.

It took a lot of prayer, patience and perseverance because I knew discrimination was wrong in the body of Christ. But then a miracle happened in our fellowship.  At long last, after many prayers, we addressed the issue of racism in our church. What I could not do for myself, the great unseen hand of the merciful God was doing for me. I had committed my life to him as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2) and – true to his promises – God did not let me down.

In fact, when he moved to lift racism from our fellowship we were all stunned – black, white, yellow, red and brown. By this time I was pastoring a mixed congregation and supervising other white pastors and the excitement that swept through our fellowship was mutual.

Of course imperfections remain, but God began his own ministry of reconciliation in our fellowship. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. The former seminary chaplain said it well: “In order to be effective in a ministry you have to have had the struggle and to achieve the victory. Then you can accomplish the will of the Lord.”

by Curtis May with Neil Earle