Building Creative Communities for the New Economy
Scratching the Surface
Ever visited a Pentecostal church in southern West Virginia? You may be in for a surprise.
It's a dazzling August Sunday morning, too early yet to be hot. The sun has already begun to burnish the mountains' hundred different shades of green with a hint of gold. I catch a startling glimpse of clear blue sky every now and then as my husband and I wind along a narrow two-lane road in Logan County, following a creek through a maze of steep ridges.
We're driving from Charleston, following directions to a church we've never visited before. It's described as a new white building with a large paved parking lot.
We're passing houses along the way that look like they might have been plucked from the pages of Southern Living. A farm with a big new house and barns and white fenced paddocks looks like someone's postcard fantasy. My husband and I look at each other. Apparently there's more than one southern West Virginia. This one doesn't get much publicity.
We turn on Trace Creek Road and in about a mile there's a white frame church up on the hill to the right, surrounded by a big paved lot. We've reached the Church of God in the Name of Christ Jesus.
There are so few cars on the lot that we think we might have missed the service but we go into the sanctuary anyway. A man in a motorized wheelchair is facing a congregation of about 20 people who are scattered around the big room. There are more men than women, a majority of them appearing to be in their thirties and forties, and a handful of women and children. It's approaching 11 o'clock, and the children are about to be dismissed for Sunday School.
The people seem mildly surprised to see two strangers walk into their church. Several men approach us and extend a welcoming hand. Pastor Johnny Meade, the man in the wheelchair, introduces himself. I tell him I've come to ask his congregation about racism in this region of Logan County, where Megan Williams, a young black woman, was tortured and sexually abused by a young white man, his mother, and coterie of associates early in October, 2007.
Later that month, when members of southern West Virginia's black community planned a candlelight vigil for Williams, this congregation, led by Pastor Meade, invited them to hold the vigil at this church.
On this Sunday morning, the congregants are about to study the fifteenth chapter of Romans in the Bible's New Testament, and they invite us to join them.
The first person reads "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up."
Another reads "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God."
The reading of the 33-verse chapter continues around the room until it is complete. Pastor Meade opens the discussion. "We pride ourselves in being a non-racist church. We have many black folks who are dear to us. We have fellowship with a black church at Whip. Sister Racine Jackson is pastor there. Her adopted son, George Scott, pastors a black church in Huntington. He has held several revivals for us. We are colorblind."
A chorus of amen goes up.
"And if we aren't, we should be."
Another stronger chorus of amen sounds around the room.
"As far as race is concerned," Pastor Meade continues, "I was raised in a coal camp. A lot of people lived in double houses when I was growing up. Often, as was the case with us, there would be a white family and black family on the two sides of the same house. We didn't know the difference in races until we got older."
"What happened," he says, referring to the Megan Williams case, "took place about a mile and a half below the church here. I pass by there three, four times on Sunday. I never knew it was going on. It can happen right under your nose and you don't know it."
One of the men in the class says, "You see how God has worked it out that these visitors would come today, interested in this particular topic. I think there's a lot in this chapter that speaks about racism. They talk in this chapter about not putting away our brothers and sisters' convictions. That would be a type of racism, or prejudice, I think. According to the word of God, we are not to please ourselves, even as Christ did not please himself when he was here. We need to open up and be like-minded toward each other."
Pastor Meade speaks up again. "How can there be any racists among us? As Gentiles, we are an outcast race of people as far as the gospel is concerned. If we are welcomed into the Kingdom, then everyone is welcome."
When last year's candlelight vigil was being planned rumors began to fly around the county, particularly in the Chapmanville District. "You see how wide our roads are," Pastor Meade says. "There was no place for these people to go except the road.
"I was concerned about what I had heard. That fellow Al Sharpton was supposed to come to a meeting somewhere, so I began to try to find out where. When I found out it was at Cora, I drove up there.
"Cora is about 99 percent black folks. The first person I ran into was Sister Dillard, a black woman from Omar where my wife grew up. She was doing a TV interview. She turned around and saw me. ‘Brother Meade!' she said. She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. I kissed her cheek. I tell her why I'm there, and she said, well, go on in the church, where the pastor and others were waiting for Sharpton. He never showed. Anyhow, I talked to the pastor, and I told them if they needed a place to worship, to have the candlelight service, our church is open. The congregation was with me on it.
"Well, the black community started out for our church in the daylight from what used to be called Black Bottom down in Logan. I found out later that some of them said, ‘if it's dark, I'm not going there.'
"We heard rumors about what might be done, that somebody might get up on the mountain and disperse the vigil by gunfire. I can't say I didn't have some anxiety over it, but it didn't change our minds."
The church opened its doors, and that evening, black and white folks prayed together in the church near Chapmanville as they had many times before, but his time, with TV and newspaper reporters telling the world about it.
On this Sunday morning nearly a year later, the congregation talks freely about their experiences and feelings.
An older woman speaks from the back of the church. "To me, Jesus himself was not what they call a white person. We are Gentiles. He was a Jew. Everybody has some degree of color, and to me, I can't see why we should judge another man's surface. The black people, the white people, the Jews, the Indians, they are all created by God himself. I believe in Jesus Christ who said all—blacks, Jews, Indians, Buddhist believers—everybody is in there. He said all who would come and believe on Him will be saved. If they turn from their wicked ways, it doesn't matter what color they are."
At the end of the session, one man ventures onto the subject of race and politics. "You know, they said if Obama doesn't win in the West Virginia primary, that's a clear cut statement that people here are prejudiced. That's a wrong statement to make, I think. White people will accept Obama because of his white heritage, and black people will accept him because of his black heritage. He's neither black nor white. He's American."
Another man pipes up. "To me, both candidates are not worth voting for." Laughter ripples through the room. Someone clapped loudly. "Doesn't make any difference whether it's a black man, white man, Indian or Jew, I think what I'm going to do is write in Ralph Nader."
"And that's your right, brother," somebody said, laughing.
by Rebecca Kimmons