Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi; The Story of Dr. Charles Johnson by Chet Bush
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
After graduating with my bachelors at Olivet Nazarene University, I wound up in a graduate program at the University of Mississippi. There, in Oxford, Mississippi, my wife and I started attending the single small Nazarene church in town. We hadn’t been members there long when a young pastor and his family arrived. Chet Bush quickly became a great friend and mentor as well as my all-time favorite pastor, for a lot of reasons.
One of those reasons was that he didn’t want to preach.
That’s not to say he wasn’t a good preacher. He was. He was a great preacher, but he was a great preacher because it was clear he wasn’t doing it because he loved speaking or loved being in front of people. He was doing it because he felt like he needed to. More than that, it was clear he was doing it because he wanted to teach
And perhaps most important of all, it was clear he was doing it because he wanted to learn.
Fast forward a few years. I’m back in the Midwest, teaching at my alma mater, and Chet, after a brief peregrination to Tennessee, has returned to Mississippi as a graduate student in the history department at Ole Miss. Along the way, he’s written a book that I think captures a lot of what Chet himself is about. More than that though, in a weird way I found this book on the life of a Nazarene minister active in the Mississippi Civil Rights movement a call to the entire denomination regarding what learning, scholarship, and ministry can really mean.
If you grew up in the Nazarene church, like Chet and I did, you probably remember missionary books. They were an attempt to pass on the denomination’s history and heritage. They were usually stories of the heroes of the denomination (often but not always foreign missionaries), how they came to faith, and what they ended up doing with their lives. I don’t remember the specifics of any of them, but I remember how they felt.
With Called to the Fire, Chet has written something more than a Nazarene missionary book. In some ways though, it has that familiar feel. The book is the story of Charles Johnson, the African American pastor of a Nazarene church in Meridian, Mississippi, and the role he played as a leader in the community during the height of the Civil Rights movement, during which time Johnson briefly took the national spotlight as a witness for the prosecution during the famous Mississippi Burning trial.
Johnson’s personal journey took him from growing up in rural Orlando and coming to faith in a Nazarene revival there (which is where the book feels most like those missionary books I remember from my childhood), to school at the Nazarene Bible College in Institute, West Virginia (more on this in a moment), to his first ministerial posting at ground zero of the Civil Rights struggle. A major portion of the narrative is the young pastor’s wrestling with God to accept what he felt was God’s calling to overcome a young black man’s fear and take his family and his life into the heart of the country’s most segregated state during one of the most violent periods in its history.
The book is brief but covers the pastor’s career up to the present day, retold by Chet and built on interviews with Johnson, whose direct quotes pepper the account. Because of its brevity, the work is of necessity cursory, not delving much into the politics of a segregated denomination or the broader context of Johnson’s personal experience. Much of Johnson’s years in Meridian are passed over quickly, with the narrative coming into focus on events like Johnson’s first day in Mississippi, his days at the trial on the brutal murders of three Civil Rights workers outside of Meridian, his experiences with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Johnson’s final reconciliation with one of the defendants in the trial.
It’s a good book (though, as Chet admits, looking back on it with the historical training he’s already received at the University of Mississippi, there are things he’d do differently), but most importantly it captures the story of someone whose life and actions might have gone largely ignored or been forgotten in his own church. This is where the book for me was a doorway into understanding something bigger regarding my own denominational heritage. (And yes, I’m going to consider myself culturally and contextually a Nazarene for the following discussion, even though I’m no longer a member of the denomination.)
Here’s the thing: Charles Johnson’s story opens onto a history that’s either been ignored, forgotten, or was simply never told. My first clue was the mention of the Nazarene Bible College in Institute, West Virginia, where Charles Johnson studied. I know a bit about the history of Nazarene higher education, and I had never heard of this school. It was clear from Chet’s account that this was a historically black college, which Johnson attended because Trevecca Nazarene College was closed to black students at that time. (I hadn’t realized Nazarene schools in the south were segregated.)
In the book, Chet talks about how Johnson was assigned to the church in Meridian, Mississippi, by Warren Rogers, who was superintendent of the Gulf Central District of the Nazarene church, which encompassed sixteen states. Now, I admit that I didn’t read this portion of Chet’s narrative carefully enough, because I only realized the importance of this in a later conversation with him by phone. I was asking him about there being a single superintendent over such a large district and said that I hadn’t realized the entire southern half of the United States was basically one district at this point in time.
It only slowly dawned on me in speaking with Chet that I had misunderstood, and I actually stopped the conversation to make sure I was hearing correctly: this wasn’t the only Nazarene district in the South. This was a segregated, separate black district, geographically overlapping several white districts.
I had to let that sink in for a minute. Up until (I think) 1968, there was a separate district in the south for black Nazarene churches. Their ministers went to a separate Nazarene college (which no longer exists), and they had a separate superintendent.
What floored me most about this was not the implications for race and reconciliation in our own denomination. What floored me most was that I simply didn’t know. I didn’t know the history of the church I’d grown up in. And in asking around since then, I get the idea that no one else knows this either.
Here’s where it comes home for me, and in this context it’s not about race. It’s about learning, scholarship, and ministry. Because Chet, I’m sure, is going to go on in his academic career at the University of Mississippi and do good work. I hope he does scholarly work on the history of the Nazarene church in the South, especially the history of the Nazarene Bible College of Institute, West Virginia, which apparently has no archive and knowledge of which exists now only in the memories of aging African American ministers across the country. That’s a story that has broad implications apart from its importance to the denomination and deserves to be explored.
My fear though is that as a denomination we don’t have a scholarly forum on which work like this can be disseminated and discussed. Sure, we have individuals at individual institutions who are doing good work, and Chet’s book has found a welcome audience at, for instance, Trevecca Nazarene University (where Charles Johnson was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate).
But I don’t see us as a denomination having a place to dialogue with relevant, important, ongoing work by Nazarene scholars like Chet (or, for instance, Tom Oord) in a pan-Nazarene academic context. That seems a shame, especially for a denomination with a rich history, a tapestry of vibrant institutions, and a host of issues from our heritage—from racial segregation to science and faith topics to gender and sexuality to our stance on alcohol to our understanding of holiness—that are begging for dedicated, sophisticated academic thought and dialogue at a denominational level.
A modest proposal: what about a society for Nazarene scholars and those pursuing scholarship in Nazarene contexts? It would be open to anyone, with a small annual membership fee that could sponsor the publication of a (for now) annual peer-reviewed journal. The pages of the journal would be a place for Nazarene scholars to pursue and explore these topics. I want to read informed scholarship about the history of the Nazarene church in the South (and throughout the world). I want to know more about the relationship between holiness theology and higher education. I want a place where scholarly voices in the Nazarene denomination can interact.
Heck, maybe we could even get together once every four years or so.
The thing is, our denomination has the resources and it has the need. As Chet’s account shows, there’s lots of good work being done and still to be done, but I don’t feel right now that we have a place to share this at a denominational level. Speaking from my own experience, I feel fairly disconnected from the scholarship happening at other Nazarene schools outside my own particular discipline.
Does anyone else feel the same way?