A Sabbatical Story: Part 3

I arrived back home last night after six weeks out of a suitcase. It felt good to sleep in my own bed. But it has been a wonderful experience, exploring the relationship between religion and race. How do we live out our faith as it relates to issues of race personally and in our society and culture at large? This picture seemed to capture the heart of the matter for me.

Looking back at the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most troubling things for me and the reason I chose this subject, is the role of the churches, black and white. Congregations, mostly Baptist, that would have affirmed the same confession of faith stood on opposite sides on matters of equality and racial justice.

I visited black churches that were right in the middle of the movement, sometimes providing the only resource or protection their people had from the violence.

"Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in the cool springs of hope, where we retain our wholeness and humanity despite the blows."
- Richard Wright, 1941

Not all but most of the white Baptist churches across the South remained silent, choosing to "stick to the Gospel" rather than actually applying the Gospel and God's love for all people, regardless of the color of their skin.

"I asked for your churches and you turned me down,
But I'll do my work if I have to do it on the ground.
You will not speak for fear of being heard,
So you crawl in your shell and say, 'Do not disturb.'"
- Poem by Joyce Brown, 1964

Some of the more brazen pastors openly opposed equality and desegregation, twisting and distorting scripture to support their bigotry. It points out how our culture and our upbringing often supersede and overwhelm our theology. And, of course, it still happens today.

So now I have begun to write, spending these past two weeks in retreat. I'm taking an unusual approach to this sabbatical project. Rather than writing sermons or a treatise on the theology of race, I'm writing a novel. That's right, a piece of fiction. It seems to me that nobody reads much nonfiction anymore unless they already agree with the premise and content. It's hard to change hearts and minds with material nobody else reads.

But fiction on the other hand sneaks up on us, surprising us with experiences and thoughts we may have never considered. That's why many of the great movements in our history have been instigated and influenced by novels. I'm not likely to change the world, but that's my approach.

My story has two layers. First, it is loosely based on the life of my grandfather, Oscar Hill. Grandpa was a railroad man, a union boss, and a Baptist deacon, who lived out his simple faith in Christ at work, at church, and in the neighborhood in remarkable ways. A second layer, is about what's going on in our country at large during Grandpa's life. What is he reading in the Kansas City Star? What is Walter Cronkite talking about on the news each evening?

What I'm finding is a startling correlation between significant events of the Civil Rights Movement and what was happening in Grandpa's life. And undergirding it all is the profound faith, bold leadership, and stubborn convictions of this uncommon common man. Long before it was trendy to consider "What would Jesus do?" Grandpa tried to do just that, even at great personal risk and sacrifice. It should make for an interesting, inspiring story, if I can do it justice. We'll see.

Thanks for sharing my sabbatical journey. Two weeks to go, running away with Suz to see our son in Italy. What could be better than that?


Regina Sudheer said…
Thanks for letting us travel with you these past weeks. Now I wait for the novel. It's a great idea. The moment you mentioned railroad the pictures of hundreds of journeys on Indian trains and shared cups of chai with total strangers flashed in my mind. I would love to read your grandpa's journeys and interactions with all kinds of people mixed with your experiences... You should do a train journey also, though not the same but if permitted, the wind on your face would help your imaginations fly... Just a thought. Blessings
Joy said…
I’m really looking forward to reading this novel!

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