Called to the Fire: A review

charles_johnson1The 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.

Dr. Charles Johnson
Dr. Charles Johnson

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.

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Thank you, Dr King

kingOn August 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that galvanized a nation, with echoes heard around the world. Coming from the airport in Johannesburg yesterday, the taxi driver who transported me listened to a radio discussion on to what degree King’s ideals have been realized in South African society. I’m proud that a fellow American like Dr King left a positive legacy that is still referenced 50 years later.

The story of Jackie Robinson is brilliantly portrayed in the film, 42. As a baseball player post-WW II, he faced blatant prejudices as he broke the color barrier in professional sports. There can be little doubt that we have come a long ways since the time when “Whites Only” signs were painted on the doors of public bathrooms or over water fountains. Yet much remains to be accomplished.

But let us narrow the focus from society in general to our own personal, daily choices. Here are a few small ways that in recent years I’ve tried to narrow the gap at least a little bit:

1. There is only one race, the human race. Dr Charles Gailey, Professor Emeritus of Missions at Nazarene Theological Seminary, spoke eloquently that there are not “races,” but only one, the human race. Within that race, there are certainly variations and diversity, yet there is so much more that unites us than what divides us! When a political pollster called one evening, at the end he needed to check off the boxes on his questionnaire. “What race are you?” he asked. “Human,” I replied. There was a long silence, then the pollster responded:  “You are correct. I never thought of it that way before.” Thank you, Dr Gailey, for reminding us that what we share far outweighs what differentiates us.

2. Take a bus. You can have some amazing conversations on buses. Everyone is on a journey somewhere, and buses are among the best multicultural crossroads in our nation. (If I had more than one life, I would travel buses between cities and in cities for a year, just so I could write a book about my experiences). They say that love’s first duty is to listen, and on buses you get the chance to hear each other out. I spoke for 45 minutes with several African-American men headed to California, breaking into celebrity in the world of rap music. In that one hour, I learned more about that topic than I had learned before. I also learned that a few of my comments were perceived as racist, even though I had no idea they were coming across that way. They in-turn were interested in my experiences in Africa. We shook hands at the end, and wished each other well. My world expanded in a way that it likely would not have except for riding the bus together.

3. Gently correct. In a rural church, the greeter met me at the door and introduced himself. Within 5 minutes, he had asked me questions that were pejorative toward those who skin is of a darker color. I’ve learned that the best way to correct discordant notes in someone’s narrative is to give them a new narrative. After he had listened to our missionary presentation, you could see the wheels turning in his head as his conclusions about entire groups of people were challenged by new information. Now he knew names and details, a new narrative. At the end of my presentation, I closed in prayer, thanking the Lord that one day we would all gather in worship around God’s throne, black and white, men and women and children of all nations, to worship God eternally.

4. Go out of your way to welcome those different than yourselves. At a recent church gathering, I noticed that there were only two African-American women present. Understandably, they were sitting together. From what I could tell, no one engaged them in conversation. They looked uncomfortable, so I shook their hand and exchanged names, asked them where they were from, and welcomed them to the meeting. You could see them visibly relax as a smile replaced what had been a frown.

5. Grow beyond your biases. A friend recently talked about “Jewing someone down.” When I asked why she would use such an expression, she apologized. “My mother used to say that,” she said. “But you’re right. I’ll do better.” And so must I! You can’t help but breathe some biases growing up in an all-white neighborhood, attending a high school where perhaps only 1% of the student body was black. And I suspect that many Americans are in the same boat as myself. Limited experience with those of a different color or cultural background allows negative stereotypes to thrive since there is little first-hand experience to contradict it. But my world is growing, and as it does, I’m seeing it with new eyes.

6. Accommodate as much as possible the wishes of others. The other day I made a new friend. When I called him “Ed,” he gently corrected me. “Please call me Edward” he said. What would my new friend think if I had insisted on calling him “Ed” even though he had requested otherwise? Would that have harmed or hurt our budding friendship? Likewise, there are minority groups who are sensitive about how they are called. Out of love, we now say “little people” instead of “midget” or “dwarf.” The handicapped more positively are known as the physically challenged. When we accommodate others as much as possible, we are fulfilling the command of the Lord to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12).

Dr Martin Luther King held up a mirror to our collective face, and allowed us to gaze into it. He reminded us in his “I Have a Dream Speech” on that warm day in August 1963 that what matters is not the color of our skin, but the content of our character. Thank you, Dr King, for showing us the better path that – by the grace of God – we all can follow.