OKIE IN EXILE — Raise an Ebenezer
Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here there by Thy great help I've come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home
—Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
This is a column about racism. We’ll get there eventually, but bear with me.
One of the first sermons I remember hearing in a Methodist Church (given by a man named David Weible for those who know him) was about conversion as a continuing process.
This was a revelation to me. I was still relatively young at the time (I was 26 years old — a baby!) and the only experience I had seen of conversion was that in the Baptist Church I’d grown up in. It was modeled after Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus: He was blinded by a great light and everything changed.
Here is some irony for folks that are looking for it: At the moment I learned about conversion as a continuing process, everything suddenly changed for me. It gave me a framework to put things in. This has slowly grown over time, and this way of looking at things has gotten into every part of my life. Small changes, persisted in, build up over a period of time to make large changes.
Here is where we come to race.
My mother had an uncle named Frank, so he was my Uncle Frank too. Uncle Frank was from Alabama, but he was the first man I remember talking eloquently about race in anything like an enlightened way. While any talking head today would dismiss Uncle Frank as a racist, Uncle Frank liked Black people. He didn’t tolerate them; he liked them. He spoke with them. He listened to them. He repeated their words back to us: “Look at the palms of my hands, they are as white as yours. Look at my tongue and the inside of my mouth; it is the same color as yours. Why am I treated differently?”
There were other stories involving the horrible way his own father had treated Blacks that I won’t repeat here as it would lead us too far afield. Suffice it to say, he was ashamed of it. He recognized the wrong of it, and he improved his behavior over that of his father’s. And his sons’ behavior and attitudes improved with respect to Uncle Frank.
This was part of the slow conversion as a continuing process that I first learned about in that Methodist sermon 30 years ago. This involves converting Man as opposed to converting men. And it is good.
But there are some things the Baptists got right. There are times when you have to throw away the whiskey bottles, burn the address book that has your pusher’s number in it, break ties with all your old partying buddies, and march up to the front of the church to make a declaration that it is all going to change. And then do it!
There are times when you have to march your troops across the river and burn the bridges behind them. You have to unload your troops from the boats and set the boats afire. You have to cross the Rubicon and yell, “Alea iacta est!”
There are times when the Son of God has to call out, “My God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Or when a Black man dies gasping for breath, calling for air.
We are people who have hardened our hearts, but sometimes pain and injustice is so severe it can break our hearts of stone so that they may feel as the heart of a human ought to feel.
We don’t have to wait for another verse of “Just as I am.” The time has come as a country to walk to the front and declare that today everything changes. We will turn away from our national sin. We will raise our Ebenezer and make a sign that we will change.