Tag Archives: race relations

Called to the Fire

Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi; The Story of Dr. Charles JohnsonCalled 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?

Demolition Means Progress

Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (Historical Studies of Urban America)Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew R. Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The city is not a problem to be solved; it is a story to be told.

I used to dream about getting a fat grant years down the road and taking a leave of absence to start research toward a complete history of the city of Flint, Michigan. There would be so much to it, from the history of technology and the rise of the auto industry, to labor history and the creation of the middle class. I knew race would play a role in this theoretical history as well, though I hadn’t even begun mapping out the implications. It would have been an immense book, one that tapped into several important streams of the larger American drama. It would be in many ways a tragedy as well– a tale of controlled atrophy and downsizing, of a dying city, industrial decay, and the birth of the Rust Belt. That was my nebulous plan, but it was not to be: the book has already been written, and this past week I finished reading it.

Flint and its story fascinates me. I grew up on its nearly all-white suburban margins but with roots running into its history. I have memories of visiting AutoWorld as a child and of my grandparent’s home on Waldman Avenue. My mom and her parents often spoke with regret about what Flint had once been, of the prosperity of the post-War years and the sparkle of downtown before the sprawl of suburban shopping districts. Though I grew up in the suburbs of Flint Township and later Swartz Creek, my mom (and many of the parents of my friends and peers) had grown up in city. Her family came from Missouri looking for work in the factories, and my grandfather built a career on the Grand Trunk Railroad. My dad spent his career working for General Motors, much of it at Buick City before it was closed and he was relocated to Saginaw. I ventured downtown occasionally as a teenager (and it was always clearly a venture), specifically to the Cultural Center and the Longway Planetarium.

Flint’s story shaped me in obvious ways I’m only now realizing. Many of the photographs on this blog, for instance, were inspired by the rich background of texture and decay I grew up on the fringes of. I knew the city’s history in a cursory way and even saw some of it myself. For all these reasons, I wanted a book that dove into this history. In the absence of such a book (though Gordon Young’s memoir– reviewed here previously– was an excellent journalistic step in this direction) I was prepared (one day in the distant future) to attempt to write it myself.

But the book now exists.

I wrote earlier on this blog about Mark Quanstrom’s study on Nazarene theological history and the way it helped me understand the religious context in which I was raised. What Quanstrom’s book did for my theological heritage, Andrew Highsmith’s new study does for my social and urban context. (Note to self: a work exploring the intersection of these two themes, charting the growth and decline of the Nazarene church– which at one time could count at least half a dozen large congregations in the city– would be of interest.) I knew Flint was economically depressed and racially divided. But I never fully understood the depth, origins, and repercussions of “white flight,” a trajectory in which my family participated.

My sister and her husband live and work in downtown Flint. On multiple occasions I’ve biked with my brother-in-law from his restaurant on Saginaw Street, past the former site of Chevy-in-the-Hole, where it looks like giants literally gouged a cement valley along the river into the center of the city, to his house in Mott Park. He’s told me lately he feels most of his work in the city revolves around racial reconciliation and that if we can’t understand race we won’t understand anything about Flint’s story and where it is today.

I think Highsmith would agree. I first learned of his book just days after it was released from my brother-in-law, who passed it along to me with a sort of resignation: “Here’s another academic who thinks he’s figured Flint out.” I don’t know that Highsmith claims to have unravelled any riddles, but he’s begun plunging the depths of the issue, the tangle of politics– many on a national level– that made Flint what it was and is. It’s very much a story of place, rarely focusing long on any particular individual. Highsmith’s Flint is made up of institutions, organizations, politics, and changing demographics. Yet there are enough specific personal focuses, ranging from Michael Moore to the tragedy of the Beecher assistant principle driven to suicide by the intractable problem of de-segregating his high school, to keep it a poignant and human (though a consistently scholarly) read.

Highsmith offers an urban history of Flint from the early 1900s to the present. (Indeed, the epilogue brings the story up to the point of names, organizations, and developments I recognize from my frequent visits home.) In particular, Highsmith wants to understand and outline the institutional and administrative forms of segregation that kept Flint one of the most racially divided cities in America long after the era of Civil Rights. Under the aegis of strong neighborhood schools, for example, the Flint public school system remained effectively segregated until whites were in a clear minority throughout the city.

Highsmith examines the central issue of race and urban policy from several angles over the century. Much of the division began in housing policies at a national level in the inter- and post-War years, in which real estate redlining kept neighborhoods divided and set the foundation for much subsequent de facto segregation. In the era of urban renewal and the coming of the expressways, proponents of development argued for the clearing of predominately black slums like St. Johns, but administrative segregation largely prevented the relocation of these residents (who initially supported neighborhood clearings) from getting much value from their property and finding new homes in an integrated city.

In addition, a ring of largely white suburbs acted quickly to self-incorporate, preventing Flint’s spatial growth and through tough zoning laws blocking the construction of public housing complexes that would result in racial integration (and potentially lower property values). The background to all of this was of course the ebb and flow of the fortunes of General Motors and its complex relationship with the city. If the city of Flint was equated with Buick as the quintessential company town, what happens when Buick dies?

All of this tells a story. It doesn’t give any answers. At the risk of sounding trite though, that’s the point. Highsmith makes the case that America is the story of a thousand Flints, linking the racial and post-industrial challenges of Flint to the nation as a whole. That may be true, but Flint is also importantly unique, enough that its tragedy has a wholly specific resonance, especially to those who grew up in its shadow. This book should be required reading for anyone in or from the Vehicle City, especially anyone who cares about locality and knowing how the place that shaped you was itself shaped.

As T. S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Invisible Man

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the first significant accomplishment of my “affirmative action” fiction reading plan for the year. I would have eventually gotten around to reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-fight in Heaven, but I probably would never have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had I not made a conscious effort this year to read fiction written by minorities. I poled several literary friends on suggestions via Facebook, and this one was at the top of multiple lists.

It was a difficult read, and part of that was probably the point. Ellison’s prose is vivid, almost too vivid, and at times I was overwhelmed with the shear volume of description. He makes you see everything with a cinematographic vision, focusing in on color, sound, texture, and description until the tableau snaps into focus in your mind as though you’re staring a screen. This is especially effective in his description of crowds in the city or of tumultuous scenes of action or disorder. Ellison can describe a march, a mass meeting, and a riot with an almost painful slow-motion exactitude.

It was this slow-motion exactitude that made the book an grueling read in places. Because the plot itself was rather slow and meandering, the places where it slowed down, heavy-laden with description, were sometimes a painfully vivid slog. The story on one level quite simple: a black man whose name is never given (similar somewhat to Swanwick’s bureaucrat in Stations of the Tide) trying to find his place in the world. Yet the point of the book, and Ellison’s genius in describing it, also contributed to making the book a difficult read. I kept trying to put the narrator into my own framework of a clear and upward narrative or personal progression. For an “effective novel,” my mind seemed to keep telling me– or at least my expectations kept waiting for– we’d see the hero conquer personal and exterior difficulties and arrive at a new position of status and success.

But this was frustrated over and over again throughout the novel. From the narrator’s original fall from grace at the southern black college where the book begins to his ultimate disillusionment with the socialist Brotherhood in which he has gained a position in Harlem in the novel’s second half, he– and my narrative sensibilities– are continually stymied. Throughout, I found myself frustrated more with the narrator himself than the situations in which he found himself: he was constantly second-guessing what people thought or expected of him, constantly trying to make himself the person he felt particular social groups or situations expected of him. And then it hit me that this was exactly Ellison’s point and the reason this novel was so significant: this was the story of so many black men in the decades after the Second World War.

It gets a bit at the concept of awkwardness Adam Kotsko discussed in his monograph by the same name. Ellison’s character is constantly awkward: he doesn’t know what is expected of him, he’s constantly stepping into situations– between different social classes in the south, between union and management in the north, between the people and those who represent them in Harlem, between white women and their sexual perceptions of black men– where there simply aren’t social rules for governing interactions. Or where, he keeps believing until his revelation at the novel’s conclusion, he simply doesn’t know them. But that’s the point: this is a world in which a black man has to completely invent himself or forever be at the mercy of other’s expectations. It’s a world in which he doesn’t have a place.

This is a novel about looking through the eyes of others. And it’s uncomfortable, because it makes me realize how my own assumptions about progress, about what works and what doesn’t both dramatically and socially, simply don’t map onto other situations, other experiences, other social and ethnic and cultural groups. The narrator’s experiences portray life for a black man in both the south and the north, portray its frustration, disjoint, and in some respects its sheer randomness.

The narrator first buys into the mode of progress and education represented by his southern black college and the inspired example of its president; when he realizes the futility of this, he attempts to make it in the industrialized north. Eventually he finds a place as an orator and community organizer, but even here he comes to realize that people are less interested in him than how they can use him. Maybe that’s a realization ultimately true for people everywhere, but in the awkwardness and social chaos the narrator has moved through– a constantly shifting landscape in which the default social relationship has been exploitation– it’s a shattering one. No one truly sees him. He is invisible.