Back in 1961, Gurdon Brewster was a seminary student at Union Theological Seminary, training to be an Episcopal priest. When this Northern liberal raised his hand to volunteer as a summer intern at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he had no idea what lay in store for him. He tells this story in No Turning Back: My Summer with Daddy King.
Why did you volunteer to be a seminary student at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1961?
BREWSTER: As I was raised as a white student in the North, I really wanted to get a larger perspective and to see the world through the eyes of a black Christian and the eyes of the Kings. There was a program that was sending white students to the historic black churches, and I was fortunate enough to be chosen and got the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
What was it was like to preach from the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church?
BREWSTER: The first experience I had in preaching was the very night I got there. We had dinner and then Rev. King Sr. asked me to come to evening prayer. So, I went to the prayer service and in the middle of the first hymn, he handed me a Bible and said, "You're going to preach after the first hymn." This terrified me because I had never preached before. But I couldn't say no to the preaching invitation. During the first hymn, I was looking for a text, which I finally found at the end of the last amen and that was the text on the beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount. I began to open my mouth and all of a sudden, somebody right in front of me said, "Preach it, Brewster!" Then [the church] was filled with "amens" and "halleluiahs," and I almost jumped out of my skin. I finally began to get used to it and really began to love their encouragement and finally began to appreciate the power of the dialogue between the pulpit and the congregation. So, it became a wonderful give and take when preaching from the pulpit.
What did you learn spending time in the kitchen with Daddy King?
BREWSTER: It became clear to me that I was going to be the cook during the summer. So, I began to cook breakfast for Daddy King. While we were eating breakfast together, I began to ask him about his life. At first, he didn't really think I was really interested or that the answers weren't very significant. He thought everybody was more interested in the life of his son. It took him a while to realize that I thought his own life was really important. But I persisted and kept asking him about his life. I learned that he had grown up as the son of a sharecrop farmer in rural Georgia. He had struggled incredibly from being a young boy working behind a mule, going to school from time to time. But then his father would bring him onto the field again. He amazed me at how he could evolve to being the pastor of this large church. The path from there to Ebenezer just took an extraordinary amount of struggle. I became filled with admiration for what he had gone through.
Describe the reactions you got from white clergy when you wanted to invite their youth groups to meet with the Ebenezer youth group.
BREWSTER: This was in 1961. It was only five years after Rosa Parks sat in the bus in Montgomery. So it's very new in the movement. When I first tried to get the youth groups from white churches together with Ebenezer, I met with a lot of resistance. Some of the clergy thought they needed police protection to come into the Ebenezer Baptist Church. It took a huge amount of work, and a number of people -- I was surprised -- were just not interested in coming to Ebenezer. Toward the end of the summer, I got a number of churches to agree. We ended up having a wonderful meeting between maybe four to six youth groups and our Ebenezer Baptist Church youth group. Dr. King spoke.
What did your summer teach you about dealing with the hatred you encountered in Montgomery?
BREWSTER: I learned that it is one thing to resist nonviolently and to stay there and not fight back, but it is something very different to try and love your enemy. That takes very deep spiritual insight and discipline. I learned later on in the civil rights movement that for a mass of people, it's much easier to buy a gun than to try and love your enemy.
[To be continued ... ]
Becky Garrison is one of the many people interviewed in the documentary The Ordinary Radicals.