Bruce Edwards, who preaches to President Carter down here, is sitting on top of the world and that's a good thing for him since he's had it right in the neck twice from his congregation in recent weeks.
At a meeting of the church to fire him in February, Edwards resigned, and this past Sunday the congregation voted not to rehire him. But his troubles began five months ago and he's had time to get his head together and is not sorry things are the way they are, though he's out of a job with a wife and two kids to feed:
"It's all worked out about the way I thought," he says, and he pretty much foresaw it all last October when for the first time in his two-year ministry at Plains Baptist Church the issue of race became a great issue.
"There are three aspects to this business," said the President's cousin, Georgia state Senator Hugh Carter, commenting yesterday at Plains: "It has all risen out of anti-carter, anti-black and anti-Edwards feelings that have been building up for a long time."
The firing of Edwards has upset the town of Plains much as Washington would be upset if the Capitol fell into the Anacostia River, and the daily wear and tear on emotions has been an important aspect of Carter's town ever since he won the Presidency.
At first the town seems idyllic, the streets (there are five or six of them) lined with trees and the barbecue pretty good and the Carter Antique Store properly cluttered, with Jimmy Carter's uncle selling big old farm bells and the local ladies glad to point out where Billy Carter has his peanut field.
"Everybody said it was the greatest miscarriage ever seen," said Maxine Reese after the preacher resigned. "It couldn't happen, but it happened. I just don't know - it's just the turmoil the whole town is in. We're all tired. It's just an air pervading the town." (Reese ran the Carter campaign headquarters in Plains, and organized the train trip of Plains citizens to the inauguration.
Now there is a splinter movement in the Plains church. Hugh Carter said yesterday there will be a meeting next Sunday after Church to see how much interest there is in forming a new church for the pro-Edwards faction, dozens of whom left the church in protest, according to Carter.
"But we would need Edwards to head it up - I don't know if he'd be willing. But the only possibility would be for outside help from all over the world. We'd have to raise $200,000 or $300,000 to build."
The President's cousin expressed a typical feeling here: "I don't know ho much longer I can go on. I grew up in this church - baptized in it when I was 9. I haven't talked to the President yet (and the White House has had no comment about the church) but I'm sure he would have been down here for Easter except for this trouble at the church."
Edwards said yesterday he would consider an offer to stay, at a new church, but certainly isn't counting on it and has made it clear he is well along lining up a new job at a church outside Plains.
"It seems to me they are out to save Bruce Edwards," Edwards said, "and Bruce Edwards doesn't need saving. I'd want to make sure they really wanted Bruce Edwards as a minister," and not simply taking pity on him.
He meant to be simply the preacher of Plains, but he knows well enough he is involved in history. Civil rights issues, so large in the 1950s, have changed his life at Plains in the '70s.
His friendship with President Carter reminds him every day that what happens at his church in Plains reflects far more than Bruce Edwards' career, and tells something about American failures as well as American efforts in the field of race.
He speaks of his intimate thoughts, but weighs what he says, knowing he has no control over how it all all comes out, and having a good bit of suspicion toward newspapers which, he thinks, have sometimes behave irresponsibly. His wife, in a house dress in the kitchen, makes an effort to be civil to reporters, but you can see she'd rather be with turnips.
A little boy toddles in, with his black nurse in hot pursuit, but the kid climbs up to sit with the reporter. The child, partly Polynesian, was adopted by the Edwardses shortly before Carter became President - at the time nobody paid any attention, but later Billy Carter was quoted as saying the child was 90 per cent of Edwards' trouble in Plains.
Edwards said he asked Billy Carter why he said it, and Carter said he didn't say it. The Edwardses are not far from bitter at having a child made an issue and feel the publicity has damaged his future. "I could have expected it from (a national newspaper specializing in sensational balderdash) but not from the serious press," Edwards said - yet it was a respected newspaper that spread the story nationwide, the Edwardses feel, nerely to titlliate a few people or add some new life to the news from Plains that was getting dull.
Edwards' clothes are subdued and colorless even for a minister, and he sits in his parlor as if he were a visitor in his own house, bolt upright. The space around him, in his own room, he seems not to count as his dominion, but the only space inside himself.
That is because he does not quite trust you, and wonders what new pain you may dream up for his family. He means to be reserved. He is a little defensive, and when he warms up while talking, he catches himself and reminds himself you may not be his friend at all. He customarily loses his fight to be cool and somewhat distant, and sometimes gets caught in a friendly smile.
Edwards does not look like a hero in the movies. He is 30 and looks older and looks tired, and his hair is thin and his eyes are pale. He is not the kind of man whose entrance into a room is an event. But he doesn't want anybody's sympathy or condescension - he got himself into his present position, he feels, with his eyes open, and he's glad he did. If anybody needs sympathy, he says, it's the congregation of Plains:
"Some of them (the one who left in protest against his being forced to resign) have lost their church."
As for the others:
"They don't see themselves as racist, but they are. They say I lost communication with the church, but if so, why did they have to go to such lengths to get me out?
"You know, it only takes a small minority to terrorize a whole group."
And that's what he feels really happened - a minority of members, he believes, worked the others up with racial fears. If you visit Edwards in his house, back of the church, you see how he views what has happened to him. He tells it as he sees it:
"The trouble began in October," he says, "and there were no problems up to that time, but shortly before the presidential election a black minister from Albany, Ga., applied for membership at Plains.
"His name was Clennon King. He's pastor of the Divine Light Mission at Albany, and what that is, I don't know.
"I tried to talk to King on several occasions, But I found it hard. He talks in circles. He refused to come to my study to talk about joining the church.
"All the evidence is that somebody put King up to this - they had leaflets printed up saying Jimmy Carter can't even guarantee racial equality in his own church.
"King flatly refused to put off his visit until after the election - it had to be the Sunday before the election."
The implication is that King's effort to join the Plains church, which had a policy of banning blacks, was a political move by the Gerald Ford forces, "but there's no way I can prove that," Edwards says. Anyway, after the election King came by the Sunday afterwards and I told him that if he planned to attend regularly, the church would reconsider his membership. I havent' heard from him since."
But King did perform one function, as Edwards saw it, he forced the congregation to consider its longstanding refusal to accept black members. Edwards decided that this was wrong, and announced he would work to overturn that policy (voted by the congregation in 1965) despite his suspicion of King.
"President Carter and I never had any conversations about that resolution (banning blacks) until it became a public issue. Then I telephoned to say I would publicly repudiate it, so Jimmy would not be taken by surprise. He was not in when I phoned, but he called back and talked to my wife. I was out. He said to tell me he was praying for us, and for me to do what was right. But there was no question of his suggesting what I should do.
"I know he has been deeply disturbed. I have had some phone conversations with him, but just as friends. Besides, I don't want any church to take me because of President Carter, but because they want me."
In the prim off-white parlor of his house with its silky draperies and neat sofa on which visitors sit, Edwards sits in a straight chair across a low table. After he resigned, he sat in this room and explained how he made his decision:
"My wife and I discussed this, before the trouble came. I knew I had to undo that resolution against blacks, but I knew it would be trouble, too. If you run from it, you have to live with it. I guess if you know what you're walking into, then you have no right to complain."
But when events forced the choice and brought on the change in his life, Edwards was angry:
"I'm human enough to have had the feeling that I hoped they would all get their just desserts. But I don't really expect them all to drop dead of a heart attack tomorrow.
"I knew I could either back down or not. You have to be able to live with yourself.
"At first," he said with the air of one looking back at foolish dreams, "I was sure the decision to fire me would be reserved. But there are too many people who say we've had too much trouble, and let's get back to normal. They say they are tired of it all.
"I wish my preaching was so effective that the crowds that came to the church at Plains came to hear me - I'd gladly take credit for that if it were the truth, but they came because it was President Carter's church.
"They plotted secretly to fire me. Many voted against me who never once heard me preach. But in the Bible, you remember when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery but he became a great man in Egypt. They meant him harm, but God turned it to good."
He has been as amused as distressed at some of the comments in Plains, where generally people greet him cordially on the street, "through some snub their nose in the air."
One of the church deacons, he said, told him he did "not doubt there might be a few niggers in Heaven, but he was sure they were the ones who had their own churches and knew their place."
An old lady once stopped him and said if Edwards would stop being nice to out-of-town visitors, maybe they'd stop coming. It was all his fault. Another told him "this was all a Communist plot to destroy the white race."
His 6-year-old son, Paul, has heard some anti-black remarks at school - "they repeat what they hear at home," Edwards said.
"You have to know you have done right," he will say suddenly, his mind turning again and again to the point.
"When the church does something so out of keeping with the Christian faith as barring blacks, then of course it gets national publicity. Here in Plains they think of racism as lynching, not with keeping blacks out of church.
"In the same way, in the liberal East they think racism means saying nigger, but they think it doesn't mean you can't rightly get a better education for your children than blacks can get."
He grew up in segregated Jacksonville, and his father was a Baptist deacon. He intended to study law, but at Norman College in Florida he joined an extracurricular group of church youths and soon found himself being asked to debate, and then to speak to church groups. It was gradual, with no one point at which he could say he decided to become a clergyman, but at the last he concluded this was God's desire for him. He is still a little puzzled about some of his Christian brethren, he says:
"I just can't understand why, in this one area, they see no need to be Christian. It quite disturbs me. These same people would never cheat you out of a penny. In any other area except race, they would never lie to you."
Race, however, was not discussed at the church meetings where Edwards was first obliged to resign, to avoid being fired, and to see church members vote against rehiring him by 87 to 51. Instead, the argument (deeply and evidently sincerely held by some) is that Edwards allowed politics, especially national politics, into the church, and that he has been far more assiduous cultivating the news media than caring for his flock.
They say he was well paid - $15,000 during the past year, counting expenses - but was forever chasing off to Atlanta or somewhere instead of running the church of Plains. They stoutly deny racism has anything to do with it, and say Edwards uses that as a crutch to keep going, but that the truth is he has been an ineffective minister.
All of this, plus a horde of personal doubts and anxieties, have been Edwards' daily bread for months, but he has at last come to peace with circumstances.
No doubt he has made mistakes, he thinks, and is far from perfect. Still, he reasons, a man is responsible for his actions, and can't be just fling in the towel and do nothing merely because he lacks perfection. He has had some vicious mail, and he has been anxious for the financial security of his family, and he has felt the usual terrors that maybe he is doing it all wrong. But he has had months to think of it, and now is not sorry:
"My ministry has been enlarged, enhanced, by what has happened to me. When I speak of conflict and commitment, I can do it from personal experience. I can say they plotted to do evil, but God has turned it to good. I figure I've done what He requires. I have no reason to fear these people."
He turns suddenly and says, "Do you know anything of the theory of conflict? You don't confront the issue, you try to destroy the person who raises the issue.
"That's what happened here. They don't discuss race. They just show, by getting rid of me, who is in control, so you don't have to worry about blacks showing up in church."
Sometimes Edwards looks tired. Sometimes triumphant.