U.S. commentators often note the divide between our country’s church-going traditionalists and secular liberals. But that fracture is not complete. My father was moved by his church-bred faith and by his secular sense of fairness.
I first remember Dad in his latter 20s, a six-foot-tall Methodist minister whose flowing white surplice and passionate voice in the pulpit signified for me, every Sunday, his status as the world’s most important man.
After the service, I would run to find him at the church door, where everyone lined up for his greeting and handshake. When the church ladies — notably the perfumed, bosomy Mrs. Bauman — would bend down to pinch my 3-year-old cheeks, I would back into the folds of Dad’s robes, pulling them around me for protection.
In 1966, the Methodist Church sent our family to Salem, a racially divided town amid the marshes and farmlands of southwestern New Jersey. That year, white supremacists began burning crosses in black neighborhoods and at churches in Salem County. While their opposition to integration was already on the losing side of history, their extremism fueled anger and risked racial violence.
Among Salem’s blacks and whites, intimidation, hopelessness and apathy had their effect. The local NAACP was having trouble organizing a protest big enough to show the (few) extremists and the (many) fence-sitters that, even if racial equality was a still-distant goal, it was where we were going. My generation would be spared the disease of segregation.
Dad met a few other prominent white citizens — a local Quaker leader, the school superintendent and the publisher of the weekly paper — willing to stand up in public with our black neighbors. He talked to the black preachers and NAACP leaders who planned to bus supporters from Philadelphia to fill the main street for a protest. Requiring our neighbors to depend on such distant help would have damaged our community and increased the risk that a peaceful march could turn violent.
From the pulpit, Dad told our all-white congregation that the church in America had shamefully let our national birth defect of racism fester. Black and white folks played major league baseball as teammates, fought together and rescued each other in war, and made music together in Memphis and Chicago. Yet the church had not integrated? It is to our everlasting shame, Dad preached, that Sunday morning was (and maybe still is) America’s most racially segregated hour.
Eventually, Dad and other white citizens joined our black neighbors in the march. That day, Mom watched from outside the shoe store where we bought our Buster Browns and listened to the white store owner exclaim with disgust, “Well, look at this! Here’s the preacher, marching down the middle of Broadway with the niggers!”
That march was no singular act for my parents. They had opened a youth center in the church basement, scandalizing some parishioners because it welcomed black kids and had a pool table. They had knit ties with the local Jewish congregation by taking our Sunday school classes to visit the synagogue. Our family hosted the Hernandezes, a Cuban family that had recently sought refuge in the United States.
Our congregation was divided enough over integration that some members organized to have Dad removed. The church hierarchy signaled that it did not want a troublemaker in its ranks and ordered our transfer to another town.
Transferred again a year later, Dad left the active ministry.
On the civil rights battlefield, thousands of people suffered more grievous wounds than the loss of a job or a chosen career. But the implementation of America has required an ocean of those sacrifices across generations, and it requires them still.
In our simple goal of treating others as we would like to be treated, we often seem so burdened by history, tribalism and, especially, fear. While our ability to see, respect and love different people as brothers and sisters is still incomplete, it is immeasurably greater than when my parents’ generation began that work. Their readiness to bear the costs of doing the right thing was one of their greatest gifts to their children and to ours.
A few weeks ago, thyroid cancer had taken Dad’s voice. Still, he was able, on his last good day, to hear me tell him that I am not just proud to be his son, but fiercely proud. His eyes filled a bit. “Thank you,” he whispered.
No, Dad. Thank you.