I felt like I grew some as a person today. I had stopped by a nursing home to visit a lady from church who is staying there for a few days to recover from an operation that she had last week. She is very anxious to get out of there. After I left, I decided to go across the street to visit a newer church of Christ that has been located there for about a year. It is on the West side of town, and what really distinguishes it from the other area churches is that it is a predominantly black congregation. Growing up I had wondered some about why more black people wouldn't just come and join the white congregations. (Of course, it never occured to me as a white person to try and go join a black one...it's easier to leave the responsibility end up to someone else) In a Restoration History class I took last semester, I gained a lot of better perspectives on the great extent and nature of some of the racial problems that have existed in churches of Christ, but I think today gave me a much deeper understanding.
I went over, opened the front door, which was unlocked, and heard a strong deep voice say, "Hello!" I went through the foyer into a very small office where a gentleman was sitting who I knew had to be the preacher. We introduced ourselves, then had a talk about his congregation, who he is, where he came from, etc. His name is Jesse Drayton. He has been preaching for 44 years. He informed me that he is 75 years old, though I wouldn't have guessed he was much older than 60. Learning about some of his views and struggles was very challenging to me.
He had one primary complaint about the churches in Searcy; namely a lack of cooperation and a spirit of competition. I don't think this is true of every member, but I certainly perceived an attitude of this sort while I was in undergrad. He talked of some ministerial meetings where, according to him, many of the ministers wanted to talk about nothing but numbers of attendance and contribution, as if they were trying to outdo each other. I wasn't there, but that was his perspective. Isn't it a shame we can't all work towards just helping people become Christians, and not worrying about which congregation gets to call them "members".
I knew some about this congregation because I had received a couple of letters from them out in Rose Bud, where they were asking for some financial help to improve the building where they are meeting. At Rose Bud, we have been having a little bit of a financial pinch of our own, and I knew we couldn't contribute, but that was part of why I wanted to come by and wish him well. Apparently, before this congregation moved locations about a year ago, it had been in a neighboring town, meeting in a terribly inadequate, hole-in-the-wall building. In the same town is a white congregation with less than 20 members. They tried to talk to the white congregation about joining together so they could all utilize the better building owned by the white congregation, but some of the older white members were completely unwilling to worship with the blacks, so they were forced to look for a new building elsewhere.
Since they've been in this building, Brother Drayton has been asking congregations around for some financial help to improve the building. I happen to know for a fact that two of the larger ones have millions in the bank, but would not give any to help him. Again, I cannot judge these churches because I only know one side of the story. I do know that each of them has multi-million dollar family life centers, etc., while all this congregation was trying to do was raise enough money so that they could put in a bathroom. They told Brother Drayton, "We're not in the construction business."
In looking at why they wouldn't be more anxious to help him, I know one obvious reason they might hold back some is that he is very conservative (something common among our black brethren). Another is the simple mentality like I had, "Why can't they just go to a white church and add more of a black flavor to it?" But they told him that they were concerned about giving money because his church didn't have elders, or men qualified to be elders. It was his thoughts on this that really challenged me.
He said (in my paraphrase), "Mark, we don't have a lot of black men who are stepping up to be preachers or elders or church leaders. They tell me we don't have men well-trained enough to step into these positions, but a lot of our problem is that when I was growing up, we (black people) weren't allowed in your colleges. We couldn't get good education or good training. I went to a preacher school, but I didn't get to start my college degree at Lubbock Christian until I was in my 30's. I know that a lot of people don't like the idea of having black and white churches, but I believe there's still a need for what I'm doing. Eventually, I hope we can all be completely integrated. I know there are some congregations where there are blacks and whites, but most of these blacks are those who are college educated. Around here, most uneducated blacks have an inferiority complex, and don't feel they could ever be accepted at a predominatly white congregation. They grow up believing they are worthless. I am working with them to convince them that they are not of any lesser value because of their color, and to get them built up to the point where more integration can happen. It just isn't as easy as some people think. Anyone is always welcome at our congregation, but I believe that what I'm doing needs to be done."
I knew most of this this intellectually, but I had never thought about how that all actually pans out in real life. You deny these men good Christian educations, treat them as second-rate Christians, and then expect them to meet the same standards with significantly fewer ways to achieve these standards? I really can't tell a black man how to be a black man. I've almost never been around them. But the effects of previous racism, even from decades ago, still does have negative effects on the church, particularly in the leadership.
Brother Drayton told me about a lot of the mission work he has been involved in. He's done some work in Africa. In the states and abroad, he has started five different congregations from the ground up, and I think he's doing a good work here in Searcy. He's 75 years old and he still has to preach because he has nothing...no retirement or anything else. He's given his whole life to teaching the gospel, and it humbles me to think of how blessed I've been already, when people like Brother Drayton have really made sacrifices of themselves for the good of the Gospel. I don't think he's going to be poverty stricken if he stops preaching; his kids have grown up with good educations and morals, but it's sad that someone who has lived for such a noble calling wouldn't be afforded more comforts nearer to the end of his life in this world.
I hope I don't write this post in vain. I have only met him once. I have no idea what his doctrine is (he did make it clear he doesn't like all the mood-lighting, hand-clapping, and hand-raising at Downtown), and I may find out there are better reasons why some have not been so supportive of his efforts. Even so, he is a man who has really given a lot of himself, and I feel nothing but respect for how he's lived his life. I can't imagine what it must have felt like to say, "I want to preach the Gospel", then have a "Christian" university reject me and say, "Go some place else...you're the wrong color." After a lot of what I got to study this semester, I'm honestly amazed that there are any black people at all in churches of Christ. Fortunately, there have always been people who can see the truth of the message, despite the imperfections of the messengers. May God have mercy on all of us as we continue to work towards healing leftover pains of the past.