Thursday, December 13, 2007

Patron Saint

On Thanksgiving I obscurely gave thanks for the Rev. A. Ritchie Low. Here's why:

Most Baptists don't have patron saints, but maybe that is because they just haven't found there's yet.

I've found mine. His name is Rev. A. Ritchie Low.

I discovered Ritchie Low when I was researching former ministers of the church where I am now pastor. There were funny stories about a number of ministers - one whose "sermons were hortatory" but who was better remembered for his wife's culinary skills, his love of a fast horse and the "glop of a clambake he proposed." The story on Ritchie Low, pastor of the United Church of Colchester from 1927-1933, was equally anecdotal, replete with stories of erratic and dangerous driving through the backroads of rural Vermont.

The usual stuff you find in church histories. Nothing to get too excited about. But then this one line stuck out. During his tenure he "began working out plans for interracial fellowship at the child level." Plans for interracial fellowship in the early 30s? In Colchester, Vermont of all places?

When I was installed as pastor I told the congregation that I had no idea what interracial fellowship at the child level would have meant in this part of the country at that time. But, I said, "one of these days my wife Irie and I are going to have a child, and Ritchie Low's plans will come to fruition. You will have interracial fellowship a the child level every Sunday." We do now. On March 28 of last year Irie and I had our first child, Gabrielle Zipporah Price, the bi-racial child of a white man and a black woman.

If the story had ended there it would have been a pretty good one. But it didn't end there and is now becoming a great story.

I put Ritchie Low on the backburner for about a year but not long ago I was reading a history of race relations in Vermont and lo and behold there is a minister from the United Church of Johnson, VT who in the 1930s helped to integrate the major downtown Burlington, VT hotel. I knew then there is a story that needed to be told about Ritchie Low.

In 1943 Rev. Low traveled from Johnson, VT down to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. There he stayed in the home of Adam Clayton, Powell, Jr. and upon his return began the Vermont-Harlem Project which would bring over 100 Harlem children to Vermont during the summers of 1943 and 44. This was a project aimed explicitly at bringing blacks and whites together. In an article in the 1946 summer issue of Common Ground Rev. Low wrote:

These were not underprivileged boys and girls in the usual sense of the word. They were coming as representatives of the thirteen million colored people of America. They were coming as friends, as ambassadors of goodwill. They were coming to the Green Mountains so that we might get to know them and, through them, their race.

The Harlem-Vermont Project made headlines throughout the nation and brought Rev. Low considerable attention. One quote from a Time Magazine article from August 28, 1944 was especially prescient for the day: "The Negro is not a problem to be solved but a human being to be understood."

Rev. Low continued his work at improving race relations in America before his untimely death on Christmas Eve 1948. He even traveled to the South as a part of a vanguard of civil rights activists, gathering information and encouraging blacks to organize for equality. In an article he wrote for the Christian Century titled "Zigzagging through Dixie" he wrote of the trouble he caused when he decided to sit at with the blacks on the back of the bus in Savannah. In that article he also described the inherent disparities between blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South.

I have to confess that I feel very connected to the Rev. Ritchie Low in a very mystical kind of way. Two white pastors, the same small Vermont church, both our lives surprisingly bound up with the story of race in America. The world outside the church would call it ironic. But inside the church we have an even better term for it I think. The communion of saints. That sounds right even to my Baptist ears. Perhaps it should not be too much of a surprise that Rev. Low began his tenure here at the United Church of Colchester on the first day of November - All Saints Day.

The thing is almost nobody has ever heard of Ritchie Low or the United Churches of Johnson and Colchester. And that's perhaps the whole point of the story. A guy from nowhere Vermont does some seemingly small, hidden act and it helps to change the world. It helps to change the way whites and blacks think about each other. It helps to change the laws so that a white man like me and a black woman like Irie can marry each other in the South. And it helps to change America so that wherever we bring our daughter Gabrielle there is interracial fellowship at the child level.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Putting the (other) B in Baptist

When I was installed as pastor I asked one of the church pillars to say a few words. He told those gathered that I was teaching the congregation how to say Baptist like a Texan.

"Babtist," he said.

I didn't get it.

"Babtist," he said again.

Everyone was laughing, but I had no idea what was going on.

Finally he clued me in. "BaBtist. You say it with two Bs."

Things finally made sense for me a couple of weeks ago when I received a letter from my uncle down in Texas. The letter was addressed to:

The United Babtist Church

You can't make this stuff up.

Oh well, I borrowed a line from Stanley Hauerwas last Sunday and told the church that I'm proud of my accent. It is like my bellybutton; it reminds me that I came from somewhere.

Baptist and Blogger Part VII

Gil Gulick, a third year student at Wake Forest Divinity School is doing research on Baptist bloggers and the role of the blog in 21st century Baptist life. He solicited my help. I thought I would share my answers to his questions here with you. I think something profound is happening with blogs and I would be interested to read what Gil arrives at.

I'll do this in a series of installments. This is the seventh and final installment.

7. Historically, Baptists have been a people of dissent. How does blogging
fit into this idea and the Baptist idea of priesthood of the believer?

Like I said, this is a thoroughly democratized medium. Greg Horton of theparish is a great example of a guy who is writing honestly about faith and the struggle to live fully into Christ's claim on our lives. Greg probably wouldn't last very long in most traditional pulpits but his blog gives him a platform for all sorts of unchurched and outchurched folks to come and wrestle with God over his words. Blogs offer a counter to the neo-clericalism of our day which tries to determine who can and can't say something. If Roger Williams were alive today Rhode Island would be a blog. Heck, maybe it is. I'll Google that and see.