The Common Good
July-August 1999

The Grace to Endure

by Ted Parks | July-August 1999

After James Byrd Jr. was brutally murdered by racists in jasper, Texas, the town did not explode. That wasn't an accident, as black and white churches refused to let hate have the final world.

Greater New Bethel Baptist is the church home of the parents of James Byrd Jr. Their son was dragged to his death along Huff Creek Road outside Jasper, Texas, last year in perhaps the most publicized hate crime of the last two decades. The trial of the first of three men accused of the murder ended February 25, 1999, with a death sentence. The two others await trial.

Byrd’s execution at the end of a 28-foot logging chain attached to a pick-up was a throwback to lesson-killings from before the civil rights movement. It made Jasper the coveted battlefield of the KKK and the New Black Panthers, both of whom came to town to play the murder for all its worth. For area ministers such as Rev. Kenneth Lyons, pastor of Greater New Bethel, one thing was clear: The Jasper churches had to do something.

Not that Jasper is short on churches. The tally from the Yellow Pages is 27 churches for the town’s 7,000 citizens—Lyons estimates the actual number is likely more than double that. Non-denominational, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptists, and Church of Christ—the Christian population is legion. When you go out to Sunday lunch in Jasper, almost all the men are in coat and tie. You can bet they just got out of church.

The local Ministerial Alliance felt that the town was looking to its ministers for "comfort," said Rev. Bobby Hudson, pastor of the Good Will Baptist Church in nearby Pineland, the organization’s president when the Byrd tragedy occurred. After Byrd’s death, alliance members met every Monday morning to pray for Jasper. Out of the pain, out of the almost-certain longing for revenge, escalation of violence, and schism down racial lines, the ministers decided that they "needed to stand in unity," explained Hudson. Despite what happened in town, they would take a prophetic stance by speaking with one voice. A Church of Christ pastor said that the ministers’ united stand "sent a message" to people outside as well as inside the faith.

One of the first efforts to pull the town together on the basis of common faith was the prayer vigil the ministers organized on June 15, the Monday after Byrd’s funeral. The event brought between 1,000 and 1,500 people to the lawn of the courthouse where, eight months later, a jury would sentence the killer to death. The program focused on comforting the Byrd family, but the event itself evidenced the respect that the Jasper ministers had come to have for each other, even in a place where fundamentalist fights over doctrinal minutae must surely have raged at one time. Rev. Joe Hailey, minister of the Jasper Church of Christ, explained that a member of his church suggested the song "Love One Another" for the vigil. A cornerstone of Church of Christ worship is ß cappella music. The organ on hand for the vigil remained silent as the crowd joined in the song. The ministers perceived the prayer vigil differently than its portrayal in the media, which quickly turned away from the prayers, the ministers said, to the few dissenting voices of anger in the crowd.

Alliance members also decried attempts to exploit the Byrd funeral. When national personalities descended on the town and invited themselves to be featured speakers, the ministers struggled to keep the emphasis on what they felt was the real job, which was not an "agenda" but to minister to the family.

‘Sing With One Voice’

THE LOCAL MINISTERS sought not only to touch the soul of hurting individuals, but also to help keep Jasper from coming apart at the seams. Rev. Lyons of Greater New Bethel Baptist spoke of the Byrd family’s deep desire that the town not polarize. Mary Ann Hall, a friend of Byrd’s mother, Stella, described her "lack of vindictiveness" and echoed the ministers’ sense that the family’s longing for both peace and justice helped the whole town through the touchy times after the murder and trial. The spirit of the response was "No Jesus, No Peace," as a minister’s lapel pin put it, manifested in a family that chose reconciliation over rancor and unity over fragmentation.

The churches weren’t the only ones to make an active response to the tragedy. Community leaders confronted the killing with dialogue. For instance, the CEO of the main hospital in Jasper, George Miller, called a meeting of Jasper leaders four days after Byrd’s murder which Robert Hall, a Church of Christ deacon, called "the most remarkable meeting I’ve been to in my 40 years in Jasper." Blacks and whites talked openly as they poured out what the deacon termed "testimonials." Hall, whose father had founded a key local employer, Visidor, said the city’s mayor used to work in his father’s company as a shipping clerk. Hall also talked about the Visidor Company picnics, in which all 700 employees—black and white—ate and played together.

The deacon’s response to the meeting, as well as his picnic memories, sounded a common theme in Jasper. Blacks and whites have always been together in certain contexts. The community is trying to knock down other barriers. Again, the church is a focal point. Jasper churches were already sponsoring "Sing With One Voice," an annual event that brings together choir members and singers from all the churches. Ministers from predominantly African-American and predominantly white churches exchange pulpits. The church in Jasper is an essential piece of the social fabric that weaves so closely together family, work, government, and faith.

A case in point. Jasper Church of Christ is a congregation with an average Sunday attendance of around 300. Its connections in town are numerous and direct. The city manager, Kerri Lacey, is a member. The assistant city manager, David Douglas, formerly attended, and his father was a church elder. Member Tom Crenshaw had run against the mayor in the last elections. Member Bill Snelson, owner of the local Firestone store, is president of the Chamber of Commerce. And there are tight links to the tragedy itself. Church member Kimble Morgan, son of the church secretary, sat on the jury that convicted Byrd’s murderer. So did assistant city manager Douglas.

For Kimble Morgan, the hardest part of serving on the jury was facing the heinousness of the crime. Though Morgan said the killer obviously "acted against what we all believe in," Morgan downplayed the role of jurors’ private religious views. He saw his own duty as a civic one: hear the evidence, review it, follow the law. "Whenever you take someone’s life, there are penalties set up for those actions." A deep sense of compassion, though, came through even the straightforward approach to the trial. Morgan said that jurors felt sadness over what they had to do. They hurt for all the families involved.

Making Sense of Tragedy

FOR REV. JOE HAILEY, the Jasper Church of Christ pastor, the emotional and spiritual wounds from the murder went deep. "I’d go to bed and try to sleep," Hailey said. "My mind obsessed over what had happened." The feeling was "as if a daughter had been violated." His congregation suffered physical damage in the tense days following the murder. Somebody scratched "KKK" on the church bus, knocked out a headlight, gouged a tire. Ironically, the church was unable to respond to the city’s request to use the bus to transport the jury because of the racist language and obscenity that had disfigured it. When the church’s annual Vacation Bible School fell on the same day that the New Black Panthers and the KKK decided to show up in town, Hailey sat by the police scanner. Teachers, parents, and students—including both African-Americans and whites—made it through the day unscathed.

The Jasper ministers tried to make theological sense out of the small-town tragedy that had, as Bethel Baptist’s pastor Lyons put it, "reached out to the nation and to the world." Where was God as James Byrd’s body was dragged over the asphalt of Huff Creek Road? A Presbyterian minister said that "God acted afterwards." Another pastor said he found a place for God in the murder itself: "Everything that God allows to happen is for a reason," he explained, saying that perhaps the message was "Jasper, you need to wake up." Lyons, too, looked for God’s presence in the horror. "God was speaking through this tragedy," Lyons said, "trying to speak to the heart, to the soul."

Rev. Louise Row of Jasper’s First Presbyterian Church was reminded of the gift of life itself and looked inside her own heart. "There is still room for improvement with how I treat my fellow [human beings]," Row said. "When one hurts, everybody hurts. The healing has to start from within."

Tearing Down the Walls

THE RESPONSE OF the Ministerial Alliance to the racial hatred moved from heart to mind to action. Nancy Nicholson, a member of Jasper First United Methodist Church and of the mayor’s Task Force 2000, reiterated the key role the alliance had in the efforts to keep Jasper from exploding. She singled out one symbolic act: The alliance had the fence torn down that had separated blacks and whites even in the Jasper City Cemetery. They accompanied the event with a service in which African-American and white Christians heard New Testament readings about walls between living people coming down.

But how do you get those walls down, especially those inside that no one sees? Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan believes that deep-down racism has to be cured by "truth-telling." Kirk-Duggan, an associate pastor of the Phillips Temple CME Church in Berkeley, California, and director of the Center for Women and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union, said that "analytical-critical listening" is essential to get healing started. People have to be "fully present before someone else" to learn to read others’ actions and words, Kirk-Duggan said. They especially have to take a hard look inside to see what racial attitudes and pain are really there.

Sitting in church through countless sermons and hymns will not alone do the trick. Church leaders need to bring Christianity to bear directly on racial problems. People must rethink their concept of God, Kirk-Duggan said. She warned against an unhealthy fixation on God as prosecutor, instead seeing the truly good news in Jesus’ ministry as his call to find God’s image in every human being. Emphasizing the "Imago Dei" that all of us bear, Kirk Duggan said, would let us see that "here is a child of God connecting with another child of God."

I returned from Jasper encouraged and confused. Encouraged by ministers whose personal devotion to Christ, more than any clearly enunciated theology of social action, instinctively turned them to God and to each other in the aftermath of violence. But I left with the haunting question about why years of open Bibles do not necessarily yield open hearts and embracing arms. While so much was being done on the surface to get blacks and whites together, a subtle "we" and "they" still popped up in the Jasper vocabulary. Like Peter in the temple courtyard, their language betrayed them, betrayed the emotional and spiritual divisions inside that are so difficult to bring to the light.

At a Sunday night service I attended in Jasper somebody requested "Burdens are Lifted at Calvary." I wondered which burdens and just how God works to change the historical, economic, and social strictures that fertilize the soil where hatred grows. I asked myself why God sometimes appears only to give the grace to endure until Christians finally get the vision to battle what keeps them apart.

The ministers and their flocks in Jasper are trying hard to live that vision.

TED PARKS, an associate professor at Pepperdine University, described himself as "a Southerner reared in a conservative but richly Christian setting."He visited Jasper in March to understand how "such hatred can manifest itself in a community so permeated by Christian teaching and practice."

From Spiritual Pain to Earthly Change: Jasper’s "Task Force 2000’

Along with their determination to be a source of spiritual unity, several ministers in Jasper were part of a more earth-bound initiative for change—the mayor’s Task Force 2000. The task force grew directly out of the meetings that business, government, and spiritual leaders in Jasper initiated in the wake of James Byrd’s death. At first prayer was the main agenda, but the meetings eventually led to Mayor R.C. Horn’s appointment of 40 to 50 citizens to a committee that began to address Jasper’s racial, social, and economic problems in a concrete way.

Everybody in town was invited to the task force meetings. The committee announced times in the local media and even included invitations in utility bills. The task force’s strategic plan calls for action in four areas: economic development, education, spiritual outreach, and social responsibility.

Jasper has suffered economically. Some see a close connection between the town’s lack of opportunities and the rage that exploded in the man who murdered Byrd. Observers point to a 12.5 percent unemployment rate in Jasper and to the loss of jobs to automation in Jasper’s leading industry, lumber. The city is laboring under a walloping $125 million in "stranded debt" from a power generation facility that busted its budget. The debt burden has jacked up electric rates, discouraging the growth of industry.

Task force members assigned to economic development are pushing for a new industrial park and a campaign to get out the word about what Jasper has to offer. Those working on education are helping bring a community college to town—the nearest is an hour away—and attempting to "promote excellence" in Jasper schools.

A result of the task force, one member added, is that "instead of complaining at the coffee houses," people in Jasper are "getting together."—TP

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