Dr. Wall is associate professor of biblical studies and ethics at Seattle Pacific University. Seattle, Washington.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 28, 1988, p. 828. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
How a small yet significant development in interracial relations in a congregation came to a climax on World Wide Communion Sunday.
Is World Communion Sunday a symbol of all believers’unity in Christ or a display of continuing disunity? I saw this issue dramatized one Sunday in the mid-’70s when I feared our World Communion celebration would explode into an ugly demonstration of worldly divisions.
Two women were walking down the aisle to receive the symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These women represented a conflict that in the previous months had torn apart the church, the community and me. This conflict was a small version of a broader one that had troubled our nation for a decade and today still plagues many parts of the world.
This particular crisis began one Saturday afternoon. I was dressing for a wedding when the telephone rang. The caller, named Mary, said she was a Presbyterian who had recently moved into our area from New Jersey. She had attended a Baptist church near where she now lived, but really had not felt at home there. Could she attend our church?
“Of course,” I replied. “Everyone is always welcome at our church.”
Those words came out automatically. Churches in every community I had lived in said the same thing. “Everyone is always welcome” was understood by people in each community to mean “everyone like us.” The fact that this woman felt she had to ask indicated that either she did not understand unspoken rules or she intended to test them.
As I was going out the door the telephone rang again. This time it was a young woman who was a member of my church. She spoke with some agitation. “The woman you just talked to — she called from my house. Did you know that she is black?”
“No, but I wondered,” I replied.
“It isn’t my fault,” she continued. “She came over to use my phone. Then she saw the offering envelopes on the coffee table. I told her we had a friendly church and that you were such a good minister. And she said that she was a Presbyterian, and . . .”
“Don’t worry; you did what was right,” I assured her.
The wedding with which I assisted was held in a large Baptist church about five miles from the church I served. Perhaps I was just in a bad mood, but I did not enjoy that celebration. The wedding cake symbolized my perception of the whole affair. It was huge, expensive and garishly decorated, with tasteless layers and sickeningly sweet icing.
Later that evening I learned that this was the church Mary had attended. She had been invited first to witness the baptism of a neighbor’s daughter. After she attended the next two Sundays, the minister was warned in an anonymous telephone call that the church and/or parsonage would be burned down ‘if that nigger keeps coming to church.” (Within a year. however, the congregation voted that people of all races would be welcome at their worship services.)
But what would happen at the small church I served? It was located in what had been until after World War II an isolated fishing village. Most of the residents were descendants of English peasants and sailors who had settled on the coast of the New World in the late colonial period. They were warm and friendly to people once they got to know them, but they would not choose to be in the forefront of social change.
The only black woman who had ever lived within three miles of the church was married to a white soldier. People who upheld community tradition seldom spoke to her, and when they did it was with the sort of benevolent bewilderment that others might display toward the village idiot or the town drunk.
On Saturday evening I spoke to all the elders to explain the situation to them. None of them shouted Hallelujah! One expressed fear that this woman was part of a conspiracy, and that if she came one Sunday, the next Sunday there would be a dozen blacks at services not to worship but to make trouble. Another worried that Mary’s participation might cause a drop in contributions, and pointed out that our budget was tight enough already. However, one of the newly elected women elders volunteered to bring Mary to church.
Two minutes before the prelude on Sunday morning Mary slipped in quietly and sat on a back pew. As we began the service, the congregation was tense and quiet. It was as if we were on a small boat, drifting over a dangerous shoal. Everyone was afraid to make a sudden move or speak above a whisper for fear that even such slight disturbances could cause the craft to lurch against the sharp rocks that lay hidden just below the waves.
We made it through that Sunday, and through a dozen succeeding Sundays without an obvious incident. A few people began to speak politely to Mary; others obviously avoided her. Some hoped that she would quietly disappear.
However, this was not to be. Mary began attending the church membership class I taught, and on the Sunday before Christmas she joined our church.
I was, in general, very proud of how the congregation accepted this. One of the people who pleasantly surprised me was Jan. Her only excuse for being a “liberal” in this matter was that the pain and suffering she had endured as an aging widow who had reared a large family alone had purged her heart of the pride that prevents people from loving and understanding others.
When we moved into the living-room for our conversation, I knew it would be a serious one. Sam told me who in the church was most upset, and the comments that some were making about going to another church or canceling pledges of financial support. Then he said, ‘This has been my church for 40 years, and nobody is going to keep me away. But with Margie it is different.”
Margie joined in. “I just can’t go back. I wasn’t brought up that way. It doesn’t seem like the same church any more. I can’t go back.”
She wasn’t angry, she was afraid. It was as if her husband was trying to walk on water, and though he might not drown, she know what would happen if she tried.
Margie had been taking care of the communion service. Before I left she brought me a box containing the communion utensils and suggested that someone else take over this responsibility.
For the following seven or eight months, Sam came to church alone. Then one Sunday Margie came and sat in her usual seat beside Sam on the next-to-the-last row. I never asked what caused her to change her mind, but was pleased to see her in her seat every Sunday up through World Communion Sunday.
Communion had come to have a growing significance for me and the church. We had studied it in Sunday school and church membership classes. For a year we had been using the liturgy in the worshipbook. Families in the church took turns baking a large loaf to be shared in the service. A widow had donated a chalice, pitcher and plates for the bread in memory of her husband. We set up tables before the front pew and invited worshipers to sit at table to receive the elements.
On World Communion Sunday, everything seemed to be ready when I checked just before the prelude. The larger-than-usual congregation included both Mary and Margie.
The service seemed to move quickly to communion. I gave the invitation to the Lord’s Table: “Friends, this is the joyful feast of the people of God. Many will come from east and west, from north and south, and sit at the table in the kingdom of God.”
It soon became apparent that too many were coming. We were running out of cups, and at least a dozen people in the back rows had not been served. I whispered quietly to the person in charge of serving, “We need more cups!”
“We don’t have any more!” she replied in a loud whisper.
What were we to do? A sudden inspiration came to me, and I shared it with the congregation immediately. “We have run out of cups. It is not a Presbyterian tradition, but I invite all those who have not been served, and are willing, to partake of a common cup, the chalice.” (I had poured wine into the chalice as a symbolic gesture.)
A dozen people started coming forward. I could hardly believe it when I realized that Mary would be sitting on the end of the front pew beside Margie when I served the cup.
In my heart I thought, “God, why are you doing this to me? I had planned such a beautiful day to honor your name, and you conspired to use it all to destroy me. Open up the floor and let me fall straight into the flames of hell, and get it over with flow!”
When I gave the chalice to Mary, she cradled it gently, drank and passed the chalice to Margie. Margie drank and passed the cup to her husband. He drank, as did all the others at the table. Then all returned quietly to their pews for the closing hymn and benediction.
As the choir sang “Amen” I went to the door of the sanctuary, and as the congregation began to file out I prayed, “Lord, let now your servant depart in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation.”