Archive for the 'Segregation' Category


“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”—Hebrews 11:1-2 MSG

I’ve just discovered ancestors I had no idea existed. No, I haven’t been on  I read about George Houser who died last week at 99. He was identified as the last surviving member of the first Freedom Ride. I expected to learn about his participation in those integrated bus rides through the south that began in 1961 to test the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton vs. Virginia which had declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.

George Houser didn’t ride one of those buses in the early ‘60’s. He rode the very first bus—in 1947. He and fifteen other men (eight white, eight black) took a bus trip through the south to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Irene Morgan vs. Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1944 Irene Morgan was returning to her home in Baltimore after visiting her mother in Virginia. When the driver asked her to give up her front-of-the-Greyhound seat, she refused—eleven years before Rosa Parks! The police were called. Mrs. Morgan was cited and fined. She appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1946 the court held that segregation in interstate commerce was unconstitutional. Southern states mostly ignored the ruling.

George Houser and some other early civil rights activists set out to test (expose?) the strength of the Court’s ruling. In April 1947, they set out on a journey they called the “Journey of Reconciliation”. Their bus trip wound through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Black men sat in the front of the bus, and whites in the back. They all violated equally the (now unconstitutional!) segregated seating laws. When one of them was asked to move, he would explain calmly to the driver and/or the police, “As an interstate passenger I have a right to sit anywhere in this bus. This is the law as laid down by the United States Supreme Court.” Sometimes they found support for their position. Other times they were arrested, jailed, and sometimes beaten. In North Carolina black riders Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson were arrested and sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang for violating the state’s segregation laws–which the Supreme Court had already declared unconstitutional! Many consider that “Journey of Reconciliation” the very first Freedom Ride.

But the Journey of Reconciliation was only part of George Houser’s human rights legacy. In 1940 he was among a group of theological students who refused to register for the military draft begun by the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The law exempted theological students , but they felt called to protest the system for peacetime military conscription. Houser and seven other students were sentenced to federal prison. George Houser served a year in a federal prison, and then set out to complete his theological education at Chicago Theological Seminary. When he and a (black) fellow student were refused service in a Chicago restaurant, their search for constructive action led them to become founding members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). George Houser served as the group’s first executive secretary. In the 1950’s, Houser’s focus shifted to South Africa and the struggle against apartheid. His activism for various soclai justice causes continued in some form until very shortly before his death at 99.

George Houser’s story reminds us that we all stand on someone’s shoulders. Dr. King and other better-known figures stand on the shoulders of George Houser and Irene Morgan. All who are working today to eradicate the poisonous racism that infects our society stand on their shoulders and on the shoulders of King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and many more. Their “…act[s] of faith…set them above the crowd.” The energy builds as Hebrews 11 tells the stories of ordinary people who engaged in heroic acts of faith: “…by faith…”, “…by an act of faith…”, “…acting in faith…”.  Faith goes beyond simply believing the right things to betting your life on them. People of faith live as though that barely-visible promised reality is already at hand.  We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us because of their “acts of faith”.

In 2007, a New York Times reporter interviewed 90-year-old  George Houser. How did he keep on working for difficult and often  unpopular causes when progress was often so long and hard? He referred to the hymn “Lead Kindly Light”, particularly the words that say:  “…Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene — one step enough for me.” “I believe that,” Houser said. “I believe one step is enough and you take it, as long as you have faith you’re doing the right thing to begin with.”

George Houser’s  “one step” acts of faith helped transform our society. Today George, Irene, and all our spiritual ancestors who’ve stood on their shoulders ask us: “What’s the next step? What’s your next act of faith?” It’s probably not a headline-grabber. It’s more likely a conversation with a neighbor, a co-worker, a child or grandchild. It might be a gentle, peace-full response to a harsh, aggressive word or action, or a series of lifestyle choices that say, “Here’s a different way for us to live together. Want to join me and try it out?” All our “one step” acts of faith in the right direction lead finally to the “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) envisioned by the prophets, Jesus, and others who’ve caught that vision.   

“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in.”—Hebrews 12:1-2 MSG


“What’$ He/$he Worth?”

Pastor Don raised that question in his message last Sunday. He reminded us that we continually evaluate the people we meet. Far too often  cultural norms shape our judgments more than biblical teaching. Does he/she look like “my kind of person”–prosperous, put together, like me or the Me I’d like to be? Do we want him/her in our church–or in the church down the street that serves “his/her kind”? Do we want him/her in our life, as our friends? Will he/she help us climb the ladder of success or drag us down?

Don’s provocative question arose from this Bible passage: “If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a sreet person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, ‘Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!’ and either ignore the street person or say, ‘Better sit here in the back row,’ haven’t you segregated God’s children…?” (James 2:2-4 MSG)

What’s a person worth? Their stock portfolio? Their bank balance? Their intelligence, skills and abilities, attractiveness, personal magnetism? Our consumer society teaches us to evaluate others by their usefulness to us. That street person looks (and likely smells) like more trouble than he’s “worth”. “Better sit here in the back row”–where most people won’t see you, close to the door we hope you’ll use quickly, permanently, and very soon. But we want to make the best possible impression on that prosperous-looking Suit. We don’t want him getting out the door without getting attached to us. We can use him. That impressive package usually comes with many helpful abilities and assets, including a deep checkbook and the ability to attract others like themselves. “Sit here, sir…the best seat in the house!”

“Haven’t you segregated God’s children?”As surely as if we made them use separate restrooms or water fountains, eat at separate lunch counters, or sit in the  back of the bus. We fought that battle in this country decades ago. We decided clearly that all our citizens should have equal access to public facilities, education, employment, etc. We’ve since extended that protection beyond racial discrimination to those who are discriminated against for various other reasons.  Granted, “all” doesn’t yet mean “all” for everyone everywhere in our land. But we’ve established the principle. Old patterns of segregation are unacceptable. All people in this country deserve equal access to public facilities, resources, and opportunities.

It’s no accident that Christians were, and continue to be, at the leading edge of the civil rights/human rights movement. We understand that human beings–every single one, no exceptions–are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). We know that a person’s worth isn’t measured by assets and liabilities, appearance, or a resume of gifts and abilities. Our worth does not lie in what we’ve accumulated, accomplished, created, or built. Our worth lies in our createdness that is the overflow of God’s limitless love. We–and every person who’s ever lived on this planet–are equally and infinitely valuable to God not because of what we’ve done, but simply because we are.

Last Sunday’s service moved from Pastor Don’s message into the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In that transition, I realized (and Pastor Don later agreed): “The best seat in the house” is right here at the Lord’s Table! We United Methodists place no ecclesiastical hurdles in anyone’s way. We welcome everyone who wants a place at the table. After all, “[God’s] kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God.” (James 2:5 MSG) Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we affirm and proclaim that promise. We celebrate God’s love that has drawn us together in Christ even as we recognize that our table still has empty placesto be filled as more and more folks discover their worth as precious children of God.

Now it’s the middle of the next week. I’ve been watching and listening to endless versions of the question: “What’s he/she worth?” I hear too-easy answers rooted in money, power, and celebrity. I hear fearful answers based on believing what’s right (according to me and my tribe) and condemning, even demonizing those who hold any other belief. I hear and see disturbing answers that say, “Unless you’re like me/us/our group/clique/cult, you’re worthless.” I hear, see, and feel too much ungodly segregating of God’s children going on–even by God’s children!

Jesus show us a different way to live together. The world I see desperately needs a different way. I’ll do what I can. Will you help? Good. He’s promised that he will too. Working together with him, we will see that promised Kingdom become a deeper, fuller, truer reality than we dare to dream.