In summer of 1963 I was 16 years old and had just finished a promising sophomore year of high school. I was finding high school much more satisfying than the bleak years of junior high. I’m sure it was, at least in part, due to the number of fulfilling activities – choir, drama, clubs, honor society, etc. – that provided both personal stimulus and social connection. I had just had a featured role as the hapless Hugo in Bye, Bye Birdie, our biennial high school musical. (Sophomores were not allowed to have singing roles, so Hugo provided an opportunity to shine in a speaking role.)
I was also very involved in the Baptist Youth Fellowship on the local and state levels. That summer I was privileged to attend one of the high school conferences at the American Baptists’ national assembly, Green Lake, in Wisconsin. I had been going to church camp on a state level since I was in the 4th or 5th grade. It was a huge part of every summer. The opportunity to learn, to deepen one’s faith and just hang out with friends at Camp Palomar (in southern California) or Cathedral Pines (in central Idaho) provided life‐shaping experience. Still, for teenager like me going to Green Lake was a big deal!
Right now we are caught up in a lot of press about the summer of 1963 and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It has also been a time to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” (Yes, I know it also means my 50th high school reunion is just around the corner!) Living in Boise, Idaho, that summer was still a time of innocence for me. Washington and the Civil Rights Movement were far away, something we read about in the Idaho Daily Statesman and saw occasionally on television, but they didn’t have much direct impact on our small, largely white, western city.
There were a few black people in Boise. There was St. Paul’s, the black Baptist church, with which we occasionally had worship exchange, but the harsh reality of racial and economic injustice didn’t affect us much. I do remember when Congress began to debate civil rights legislation there were ugly ripples among my peers about how the legislation would create a huge influx of black people into Boise and we would lose our freedoms so that they could gain theirs. The arguments were absurd and I recognized that on the spot. It caused tension within my social circles.
Another memory I have of that time is the way in which my father, Baptist pastor, born and raised in the deep South, in so many ways conservative in his theology and politics, supported that legislation. He must have had a profound understanding, given his roots, of what was being asked of our government and how right it was. He didn’t need to take a stand for the Civil Rights Movement in Boise in 1963, but he did. I believe it was a gospel mandate for him. It certainly helped to shape my understanding of and passion for a “social gospel.”
So, back to Green Lake. That high school conference featured the Rev. Dr. Paul Stagg as speaker. Paul was a small, passionate man who was part of the Division of Evangelism for the American Baptist Convention. He belonged to a remarkable team of
social gospelers put together by Jitsuo Morikawa to guide the “evangelism” efforts of our denomination. Morikawa and his team believed in and practiced an “evangelistic life‐style.” That is, there was a story to be told but there were also lives
to be lived. It was important to let people know about Jesus, but it was also important to see and emulate the way Jesus lived in service of those most in need in his society. A personal relationship with Jesus inevitably led one to work for social justice and, to a significant degree, vice versa. The practice of social justice could lead directly to an encounter with the living Christ.
Paul Stagg was also a college classmate of my father’s, who, in 1958, had been fired as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Front Royal, Virginia, for his advocacy of racial integration. These “sons of the South” had been touched by Jesus and the gospel in such a way that they became activists in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Paul’s prophetic preaching moved that group of high school kids deeply. By the end of the week we had drafted a petition in support of the movement and all signed it. I don’t remember the content of that petition but I do remember how important it felt to each of us to speak up. Youthful enthusiasm, yes, but also a commitment I hold to this day.
Another memorable element of that week was that my dorm counselor was the great Charles Emerson “Chuck” Boddie. At that time he must have been a member of the Division of Evangelism as well. I know he was a great preacher, song leader and, eventually, the long‐time President of American Baptist College, an African American college and seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. His gentle presence and moving music left an indelible impression on this white boy from Idaho. (Indeed, a couple of years later, Chuck was the speaker for the Idaho BYF Convention, stirring some 600 youth from around the state with his signature song, “I Can Tell the World” – also the theme of the convention.)
I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this, except this summer’s commemoration stirred my own memory to harken back to where I was and how I was shaped by the summer of 1963. It was a significant time in the life of our nation. Events of that
summer helped to alleviate some of the most overt forms of racism and economic injustice in our society. It would be nice to settle into our fondest memories of that time. But the truth is that time marches on. The progress of 1963 was neither comprehensive nor complete. Racial injustice and economic inequity are still endemic to life in the USA. The dream has not been delivered. It has been deferred, confirming MLK’s worst fears. It is past time for us to take up the cause again – to speak, to march, to advocate for justice and fairness. Justice deferred is justice denied, and until all of us are free, none of is truly free.
Racial profiling, the new Jim Crow, which finds our prisons crammed full of young men of color, a shrinking middle class with an increase of those living in poverty while a very few grow obscenely wealthy, all situations against which Jesus would
rail, are the order of the day. From our own comfort he still calls us to follow. The reign of God, for which he gave his life, is a beloved community in which we find our common humanity and the common kinship in the One who has made us and
loves us all ‐ equally. That reign recognizes that God provides abundant for everyone to have enough to live in reasonable comfort. As disciples we’re called still to find ways to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freedom
for the oppressed and that acceptable year of God when we may yet “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.