The history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States has always fascinated me. As a Nazarene, a book that addresses civil rights and adds a Nazarene angle is a double winner. Chet Bush’s Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi – The Story of Dr. Charles Johnson (Abingdon, Nook edition, 2012) is one such book.
Charles Johnson has served for many years as pastor of the Fitkin’s Memorial Church of the Nazarene in Meridian, Mississippi. Called to the Fire chronicles Johnson’s struggle as a Bible College student about to graduate, desiring the sunny skies of San Diego but sent by his District Superintendent (and the Lord) to the hotbed of Mississippi during the upheaval of racial confrontations.
The biography opens with the October 1967 trial of defendants in the notorious murder in Neshoba County, MS of civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. Johnson served as a witness for the prosecution, having known and worked with Schwerner for several months prior to the slayings. The middle chapters go back in time, filling in details about Johnson’s upbringing, call to ministry, and organizing of the Meridian Action Committee (MAC) which fought for a better life for African-Americans living in Meridian, MS. Chet Bush praises Johnson, noting that he worked to “help the whole man” (p. 8). Bush continued:
Charles Johnson dignified a people by demanding justice for them. Charles Johnson dignified another people by demanding justice from them. This is the nature of prophetic speech and the effect of justice restored. Justice means to invite a healing to occur both in the life of the oppressed and an oppressor, for it is beneath the dignity of a fully whole person to treat another as a second-rate human” (pp. 8-9).
Called to the Fire is nuanced in its treatment of racism. Johnson recognizes that the blanket warning that his own mother gave him as a boy to not trust any white person was as much a form of racism as that received by African-Americans at the hands of whites. This introduces a dilemma (p. 31): “How does one break from the mold of racism when a mother must teach her child a healthy distrust toward another people to keep him safe?” Such a stereotype about whites crumbled under the fatherly care Johnson received from a white evangelist, C.R. Smith, who showed compassionate love to Johnson and many other destitute African-American boys living in Orlando, Florida. Johnson observes (p. 36):
What I was hearing from Mother and what I was seeing in C.R. Smith just didn’t match up. As I watched C.R. I saw that he wasn’t like what I had been taught white people were like. He was breaking down the stereotype for me. My walls of fear were crumbling.
What a beautiful description of the possibility of racial understanding that is as close as positive interactions between individuals. Though our skin color differs, we can be united in our common humanity.
Bush is sensitive when dealing with Johnson’s first marriage. His wife suffered from anxiety that was heightened by the very real threats that the Johnsons received, such as harassing calls in the middle of the night. When she died young of congestive heart failure, Johnson knew that “terror” was what really killed her, concluding: “We lost her in the war” (p. 99). This episode humanizes Johnson who had difficulty reconciling the demands of pastoral ministry with duty to his emotionally fragile wife.
For all its strengths – including the short length of just 148 pages, making the book readable in a single sitting – Called to the Fire has a few shortcomings. There are no photos of Charles Johnson after 1988. Also, note 3 on the final page of the Nook edition ends abruptly, with incomplete wording. Hopefully this kind of e-book conversion error can be corrected in future editions.
Whatever its faults, Called to the Fire is a well-written, fascinating account of a pivotal decade in American history as seen through the lens of a Nazarene pastor. In light of the recent racial confrontations in the United States, it’s refreshing to read of the difference that one pastor – filled in equal parts with resolve in the face of injustice and the winsome love of God – can make in a troubled world.