The Church in Socially Turbulent Times: The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s from the Perspective of an Urban Pastor

[1] As I reflect on it from the vantage point of forty years, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in not so sleepy Selma, Alabama marked a decisive turning point in my ministry. I arrived at my second congregation, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square, Chicago, one of nine congregations in the newly formed Northwest Lutheran Parish, just weeks before the historic Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights.

[2] On what was immediately dubbed Bloody Sunday by the media, six hundred black protesters set out on March 7, 1965 from Brown Chapel in Selma on a civil rights march to the state capitol in Montgomery fifty miles away. They only got as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the edge of this small southern town. There, a sheriff’s mounted posse charged the marchers firing tear gas, swinging bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. The march’s leader fell to the ground, his skull fractured. Others fell screaming as troopers advanced and white on-lookers cheered. ABC interrupted its showing of the movie, “Judgement at Nuremberg” to air the shocking footage of Bloody Sunday.

[3] My wife Jean and I watched in a horror that soon turned to resolve when Martin Luther King’s image flashed on the screen. He called upon “people of good will across America” to join him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge two days later to restart the aborted march. Following the breaking news, our conversation was not about if one of us would go, but when and which one of us would head off first for Selma. As it turned out, I joined literally thousands of people at Brown Chapel who answered King’s call: clergy, laity, members of Congress, prominent citizens, students, union members, professors, men and women from every walk of life. A week later, Jean joined many thousand more who ended the march with a triumphant entry into the capital city and a nationally televised rally on the capitol steps. Five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Call
[4] What was an exhilarating episode in our personal faith journeys was an unsettling event for most of those in our congregation. I made just one phone call to the president of the church council before I left for Selma late on Sunday night. He was unaware of the news from Selma and had no opinion about my decision. By the time I returned several days later, literally everyone in the all white, middle-city neighborhood and congregation knew where I had been.

[5] On Sunday, March 14, 1965, St. Luke’s recorded the largest attendance at worship for years. I preached on the texts and announced that those who were interested in discussing my participation in the Selma march were invited to remain in the sanctuary following the benediction. No one left. There were some hostile comments, as I anticipated. Most of the criticism, however, had already been aired over the phones and the fences. There was also some cautious exploration of the issues: Why were the “colored” people in Selma so upset? Weren’t the protesters wrong for breaking the law? And what did all this have to do with being Christian anyway? But, I was completely unprepared for what turned out to be the main theme of the conversation. Most of the comments and questions expressed an authentic concern for me and for our family. Furthermore, they were made in a hesitating way that hinted at an underlying sense of confusion and hurt. How could I put my own life at risk in this way? Did I not consider what might happen to my wife and children if I had been injured or killed in a demonstration? And most pronounced of all, how could I do this to them? The implication was that I was their pastor and I belonged to them and I had no right to jeopardize myself in this way.

[6] Part of my surprised response was the expression of gratitude for their concern. I recognized that, though we had been among them for a short time, the pastoral bond they had known with my predecessors had already fixed on us. But as this line of conversation continued, another response began to form in me. I remember thinking about the three dimensional nature of the call. My call to ministry was to the congregation to be sure, but before that, it was God’s call to me through the church. At that moment it became clear to me that what was going on at the Edmund Pettus Bridge was God’s call through the church to me. I tried to say this as best I could in this initial, and ministry-forming, congregational conversation. I went on to suggest that, as time went on, I hoped I could help to make it a call from this congregation as well. I remember quoting the title of a popular book from the 60s, The World is my Parish. I said that our ministry is to each other, but it is also to our neighborhood, our city, our nation and our world.

[7] In every way this conversation was only a beginning. Some members left the congregation. For the most part they were already gone. They lived in the suburbs and their link to the church in the “old neighborhood” was loose and largely sentimental. Mostly, people stayed. They were not a very verbal bunch. This was a blue-collar community and words did not come easy to everyone. The professional people in the congregation were not in the habit of questioning the pastor. But Bloody Sunday had stirred their curiosity. They wanted to know more about this strange young pastor and they were willing to continue the honeymoon for a while longer.

Rabbinical Ministry
[8] We started with bible study. The summer before coming to St. Luke’s, I took the Bethel Bible Study course in Madison, WI. This was the second defining element in my ministry in this time of turmoil. I began to see myself as a rabbi, as pastor/teacher to the Parish. Both the pulpit and the chalkboard were my tools of ministry. I worked hard on both Sunday sermons and the Sunday adult Bible class.

[9] I liked the Bethel Series for its clarity, its unique way of organizing the biblical story to help lay people grasp and remember the dynamic flow of the holy history. I even liked the illustrative posters that went with each unit, some with blond-haired, blue-eyed disciples. They were always good for a laugh, and they also served as excellent retention tools, as the authors called them, to help students remember what they had learned about the sections of scripture and how their interconnectedness. But I came to realize that we needed more. Dr. Robert J. Marshall’s excellent series, “The Mighty Acts of God,” added depth and was a source of homework for the course. My weekly job was melding these materials into a lively congregational formation course attended by many members and most leaders. (I made a special invitation to them.) The biblical story provided many opportunities to refer back to Selma and to explore the relationship of love to justice both in scripture and in the world today. It also laid the groundwork for what was to come.

[10] What came was the rest of the 60s. Martin Luther King didn’t stay in the South. He came north to Chicago. He marched on the south side, on the west side and then on our side of the city. He held rallies in Soldier Field and marched down Michigan Avenue at rush hour tying up traffic for miles. The only thing more radical than the civil rights movement for a growing number of St. Luke’s members was the biblical movement from Abraham to the prophets to Jesus, the man for others and crucified God. Many of them got it, not all, but many. They still didn’t talk much about it, but some rode the bus we chartered to King’s rally in Soldier Field, some marched on Michigan Avenue and some stood by as King marched for open housing in a close-by neighborhood. But it was when a cross was burned on the parsonage lawn next to the church and when strangers passed out Nazi brochures in front of the church comparing the skull of an ape to the skull of a Negro that most members of St. Luke’s in Logan Square knew they were on the right side of this great national social struggle.

[11] Saul Alinski, the founder of the community organization movement in Chicago, became a primary guide for me as we moved from reacting to these outside events to building a sustained social action program in our congregation. Both in courses that I took from Alinski in person and from his famous handbook for community organizers, “Rules for Radicals,” I learned the wisdom of starting with activities that addressed the needs of congregational members and, over time, built beyond them to serve the broader community.

[12] Focusing on our own senior citizens, we engaged a host of supportive services through the church aimed at maintaining them in their neighborhood residences as long as possible. In time this program grew into a Logan Square Senior Center, a collaborative venture of several area churches. St. Luke’s young people had difficulty finding a place of their own in a crowded urban neighborhood. A program that turned over an unused parish hall to the young people mushroomed to become a neighborhood youth club with 200 teenage members. Ministering to the needs of a mentally challenged young adult in the parish grew into a School for Challenged Children and their families. Every Friday night 35 students, often with their parents and other siblings, gathered for worship, “Friday school,” and fellowship. The community needs of congregational members for better city services became the occasion to initiate a community organization program in the church basement that, in time, became the Logan Square Neighbors Association.

[13] A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a former member of St. Luke’s now in her 90s. She wrote, “During those years we learned for the first time that the church had a ministry not only to its members but to the community as well.”

Mutual Ministry
[14] But not everyone was convinced.

[15] Ted was a young executive, the only one in the congregation. He had grown up in the neighborhood and in that congregation. Older members had played a significant role in his adolescent development and supported him in his budding career. My ministry emphasis on the social issues of the day was deeply disturbing to Ted. He regarded them as a distraction from the proper work of the church. I was the first pastor in Ted’s life who was his junior. This made it easier for him to question me, something he did with regularity. His most barbed criticism came as I left for vacation at the end of my first year at the parish. “Well,” said Ted, “I hope you have a good vacation and that you get your head screwed on straight before you return.”

[16] In spite of our many differences, I liked Ted. We were closer in age than I was with most of the members. His caustic farewell was not so much a surprise as it was a signal that something had to change in our relationship. When I returned, I invited Ted to lunch. I told him I respected his commitment to Christ and the church. I knew he had a deep affection for St. Luke’s and was trying to live a responsible Christian life. I acknowledged the obvious fact that we were coming to the faith from very different backgrounds and experiences. I acknowledged that these led to critical differences in the way we were hearing scripture and consequently, how we understood Christian discipleship in the modern world. In further conversations, we agreed to have lunch together every other week for three months. In preparation for our time together we would both read the texts for the next Sunday and tell each other how they spoke to us.

[17] As the weeks past, our relationship and respect deepened for each other as persons of faith and conviction. We learned that our differences were not so much based in biblical interpretation as they were in the application of the message in practice. Ted was totally opposed to what he considered to be liberal, symbolic actions that did not result in real change. I came to understand that high sounding moral positions and pronouncements that are not related to tangible proposals for change lead to frustration and anger more often than not. Ted became an ally in ministry. He helped me reduce the rhetoric and increase the ways people could participate in meaningful acts of ministry and change.

Driven Deeper
[18] One of the more difficult parts of ministry in this period of turmoil for me had to do with the erosion of the ecumenical ministry team that had grown up in the Logan Square neighborhood. Our ministry vision had been captured in the title of Gibson Winters book, Metropolis as New Creation but this dimmed during the darkest hours of the 60s, after the assassinations. Two young Roman Catholic colleagues left the priesthood to get married. A Presbyterian pastor and his wife were killed in a gang-related conflict. A short time later, a UCC friend abruptly resigned his parish. Several weeks later, he authored an article published in Red Book magazine entitled, “Why I left the Ministry.” He charged that the church he had been called to serve was not Christian. As I sat in my study reading his conclusion I thought about my former colleagues and had to ask myself: “Why am I still at it?” The answer came slowly. It was buried in the training, the theological tradition, and the experiences that had formed me. It remains a conscious conviction today. I had never been led to expect the church to fully embody its Christian calling. All ministry is a process of becoming.

[19] This loss of pastoral colleagues at a critical time of ministry, nevertheless, has led me in two directions. One has been to search for companions in ministry wherever I have gone. When other clergy were not available, I sought and found a sustaining and satisfying relationship with laity in ministry. At St. Luke’s, a lay text study group and a daily 7:00 AM prayer service supplied most of these needs. The larger learning, however, was that I needed to develop the spiritual disciplines that could sustain me with or without the support of others in ministry. Daily remembering baptism, personally appropriating the forgiveness of sins, and adopting an organized and consistent method of intercession are the life long habits that had their origins in my ministry at St. Luke’s in a time of turmoil.

[20] It is one of the lessons of history and my personal experience that times of turmoil can be exciting and fruitful times for the church. At such times the issues are clearer, the choices less ambiguous, and the way of obedience more obvious. While the imperatives of scripture always require uncommon courage and sometimes carry considerable consequences, the assurances of the gospel seem to ring with greater resonance and relevance. What was a curse for the ancient Chinese seer can be a blessing for the church’s people: “May you live in exciting times.”