CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…
Sometimes people are not there even when they are there.
Twice I have had experiences in the middle of conversations when people simply stopped acknowledging my presence. I’m not talking about medical situations, like Alzheimer’s, when people forget you’re there, but intentional shunning.
The first was when Richard Bednardsky tried to go to high school. I was the pastor at Cedar Lake, IN. We had our own grade school, but students went to high school in the county seat, Crown Point. Richard showed up at Crown Point HS the first day of his freshman year, along with all the other graduated 8th graders from Cedar Lake, and was told he could not come in. Richard was black. Actually only half-black. Well, probably only about one-third black.
Richard was a member of our church. I did not know his parents. Neither of them came to church. He was a bright and handsome and personable boy, very popular in the church youth group. When I made an “altar call” one day at the end of worship, for anyone who wanted to join the church to come forward, Richard did so, standing straight, all by himself.
He was a life guard on the lake. He was not allowed to be on property adjoining the lake, though. We found that out when the Bothwells were having a picnic for our youth group in their yard that abutted the lake. “But Richard is a life guard on the lake,” WWII veteran Glenn Bothwell said. He was told, “It’s okay for him to be on the lake [in the life boat that pulled drunks out of the water when they crashed their boats], but he can’t be in the lake, or on the shore.”
I went to the high school to plead Richard’s case with the principal. I told him what a good kid Richard was, how popular he was in the youth group, how smart he was, what a good citizen. The principal said it was against the rules, or the laws, or something, so he could not let Richard come to school. I pointed out there was no place else for him to go. He lived within that district. “He’ll have to go up to Gary.” “He has no way to get there, and, besides, that’s wrong.” “That’s not my problem.”
I continued to press the case for Richard. The principal turned to some papers on his desk and started shuffling them. He simply pretended I was not there. I kept talking. He did not respond. I knew he was listening, because his face kept getting redder, but he did not look at me, did not say anything, just acted like he was working at his desk. I was astounded. I had no idea what to do. I had never experienced anything like that before. I was twenty-five. He was at least forty. Here was the man who was the second-highest administrator in a large county-seat school district and his way of dealing with a problem was only to ignore it? Eventually I got up, stood there for a minute, and left.
Later Richard went to Viet Nam, not for high school, but “to protect our freedoms.”
Fast forward twenty years. A young preacher in my conference was being discontinued, not because of moral turpitude [Don’t you love that word?] or because of incompetence, but because he had not advanced in his theological studies degree in the proper ways in the proper time frame. He had fallen behind on his school work because he was spending too much time on his “part-time” pastorate. I knew him well, both from being on the District Committee on Ministry and seeing him at work in his church and in the district. He was acknowledged on the Committee and by all our colleagues as one of our very best. We were letting him go on a technicality while we were keeping a whole lot of preachers who didn’t come close to his “gifts and graces for ministry.”
I went to see the bishop. She was new. I didn’t know her well. But I knew the young preacher well, and so I argued that we should find a way to keep him, that the people in his church loved him, that he was really good at his job, that he was called by God to be a minister. The bishop listened for a while and then, as that high school principal years before, simply turned away from me and started working at her desk. I continued to talk. If she listened, she gave no indication of it. I eventually ran out of words and out of amazement at her… what? I couldn’t even put a name to it. I got up, stood there for a minute, finally left, without her acknowledging that I had even been there. Here was the highest officer in our Conference, and this was the way she dealt with an unwanted problem, simply to ignore it?
I’m a pretty good communicator. But I wasn’t even there, either time.
Public education isn’t doing very well. Neither is the church. I’m not surprised.
A follow-up on Chap Stick Wars from yesterday: I suspect I started carrying a Chap Stick in high school in the hope some girl would see my moist lips and grab me and kiss me. In college, one finally did, and kept on doing so. Chap Sticks then cost about 19 cents. It was a small investment that paid big dividends.