On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination day I learned he began to fear daily that he might die when he was about 33 years old. He was slain when he was 39. I knew he lived a terrifying life but I did not know that the preacher may have thought about dying day and night throughout the rest of his ministry and life. I wondered how much time he gave to his weekly sermons under such pressures. Maybe he managed to turn out great homilies because of the threats.
It occurred to me that our ministries need to have an element of fear when it comes to caring for the culture and the world and that will always be challenging. We clergy will definitely have moments of panic at times within our local churches but expanding beyond our temples can be much more demanding and terrifying.
It struck me that I might be able to handle fear in my ministries but not terror. Two years before I attended seminary, Henoc Mwamba, a Congolese student, finished his degree and was summarily killed when he returned home to his country. Many Africans were murdered after attending graduate schools and pursing political aspirations. A year later I was fortunate to become an emissary to Africa to meet his family in his country.
My escort to Africa was a highly regarded missionary from Arkansas named Jon Guthrie who was known throughout the denomination when he frequently risked his life during the war helping Congolese families out of the country and across borders.
I heard about one of his hazardous ventures when he was attempting to enter a Congo border. As he moved up to the gate he saw two Canadian missionaries who had just been shot and killed. Jon did not have a visa card on him but he had a typed letter from his girlfriend and handed it to the young militant. The kid held it upside down, looked it over and allowed Jon to pass through.
He was going back to save a few more clans. I assumed he thought I could help him by risking my life on the job but I was a ‘basket case.’ I happened to know that the term means a person who has all his limbs amputated.
We met in Brussels, flew for 12 hours from Rome to Nairobi, Kenya and landed in a country when the blacks were taking over and the whites were pretty angry.
A stern British airport cop asked for our passports. “No good,” he bellowed, “get back on that damned plane for your next flight out of this country!” Jon was cool and when I turned to go back to the damned plane he covertly pulled me back and said to the agent, “The second in command of the U.S. Embassy is meeting us here. Let me write out his name on a piece of paper and you ask at the gate.” Somehow, Jon sensed our host person would call it out and he did. He was a colleague of Jon, a foodbank director and not a diplomat. It turned out I had to part from Jon to get to Kenya. Fortunately, Henoc’s family had moved from the Congo to London to live; thank God for them and me losing the chance to visit the Congo.
When I spent a month at a Methodist seminary in Salisbury, Rhodesia, I was asked by a missionary if I might go with him to visit a prominent potential President who was arrested along with his supporters and sent to a remote detention camp. I was told that few people attempt to visit him but I didn’t ask why. The hostage was a middle-age graduate of Harvard and had been in the prison for over a year. When he spoke so calmly, openly and articulately I calmed down but as soon as we started to leave by car my host began looking back and forth and admitted we might get caught. I was panicky and wanted to go home… like to Los Angeles.
My next flight took me to Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was met by two Congregational ministers at the airport. After a brief conversation one said “We need to stop first to join a demonstration against Apartheid racial discrimination on the steps of the Capital. We urge you not to go with us. If we are arrested, we may be in jail for a few weeks but you, being from out of country, would likely be there for the rest of your life.” I chose to stay way back but I was still frightened.
The next day a pastor picked me up and asked if I would like to attend a bible study meeting at a home in Pretoria. The pastor said “I need to tell you, there will be blacks and whites and if we are caught we could go to jail.” I sat through the whole meeting in a cold sweat and kept watching the door.
I had heard about the diamond mine shacks where 17 to 18 years-old-boys are virtually slaves. Chaplains can visit the crammed cabins but others are not allowed into them. I was asked to preach and, again, I was warned on site that I might be jailed by being out-of-country. My colleagues kept telling me at the last minute about the agenda. I wanted to know if I might get jailed or shot at. I was terrified for a few hours but not for a few years!
When I served my first church in 1965 my classmates, Elias Galvan and Ignacio Castuera and I, were spending a lot of time demonstrating in the streets of L.A, over racism and education needs. They were OK marching on the outside edges of the marches. I chose to stay in the middle of the crowd where there was less spit and middle-finger waving. When we were in a rally on one occasion a motorist yelled out that Martin Luther King had just got shot and killed. Those protests were not only energizing but fearful at times. However, when we are in with a crowd the terror can be less frightening.
I am still in awe of those unwavering missionaries who chose to put their lives in danger to confront xenophobia but now we are warned that racism is emerging its horrid head more than ever in the world. Professor Kathleen Belew claims, in the New York Times, that white power never disappeared and ends her column by stating “…It was known but not forgotten. We must, collectively, recognize its strength and history, or our amnesia will make it impossible to respond to such activism and violence in the present.”
“Great beings, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have managed themselves to meet it.”
Emerson, The Conduct of Life, 1860