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Minister's faith is civil rights and salvation is social justice


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POSTED: Saturday, February 14, 2009

“;Living God's Call to Justice.”; “;When Preaching and Worship Are Dangerous.”; “;Prophetic Preaching Versus a 'Domesticated' Gospel.”;

Those are the topics that a preacher-professor will explore this weekend in the Britt Lectures series at First United Methodist Church, 1020 S. Beretania St.

They might well be chapter titles in the life story of the Rev. William Bobby McClain, who was a young Alabama preacher when he joined Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s civil rights movement. McClain, a professor at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., for 29 years, is the author of several books and is frequently invited to lecture to religious and community organizations in the United States and other countries.

His talks at 7 p.m. today and tomorrow are open to the public. He will present a Monday morning workshop for ministers. Free parking and child care are available.

The theme of the series is directed forward—“;In Search of a Prophetic 21st Century Church”;—but if the audiences are lucky, he will also share stories from his past, an account of historical events told with the immediacy of breaking news.

McClain and another black pastor in Anniston, Ala., N.Q. Reynolds, were attacked by a mob when they tried to integrate the city's public library without fanfare.

“;There we were. I had a master's degree from Boston University, and he had a seminary degree, but we could not check out a book. The plan was that we would go in, get a card, check out a book and leave with it. Integration would be a fait accompli.”;

But the plan was leaked by a police official, and “;we met a mob of white thugs and racists who beat us. I was shot in my behind. They took part of his face away with a length of chain.”; They escaped the mob when a black woman stopped her car and picked them up.

The incident on Sept. 15, 1963, became a footnote rather than a headline because on that same day, four girls were killed and 22 others injured in the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church.

Reynolds and McClain were named members of a peacemaking group that was way ahead of the times. Under pressure from a white clergyman in the town, the Anniston mayor had named a biracial Human Relations Council. “;It was the first Southern town to make a biracial group. President John F. Kennedy called us and wrote to us commending us for serving and the town for taking a nonviolent approach to race relations.”;

McClain said, “;Most of us have come a long ways since that time when churches reflected the racism of society in general and '11 o'clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America.'”; King often quoted that statement by his mentor, Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College.

But “;racism is not dead,”; said the professor. “;There are still racial incidents, still racial profiling by the police. There are still white churches that will not accept black members. I just had an e-mail about a Methodist church which would not accept a black pastor.”;

His book, “;Traveling Light: Christian Perspectives on Pilgrimage and Pluralism,”; was used by the National Council of Churches as an ecumenical study topic in 1979 and 1980. “;I was trying to argue for cross-cultural relations, to learn to appreciate the contributions, the uniqueness and also the commonality you see with all people. We are a richer culture, we are a richer church, we are a richer nation because we have so many racial and ethnic groups.”;

An ordained Methodist minister, McClain said his denomination is a leader among Christian churches in reflecting the multicultural society. In 1968 the United Methodist Church established its Commission on Religion and Race “;to monitor racism in the church.”;

He said people of faith today still have the role to prod their government into righteousness, just as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led the march to civil rights reform.

“;The church is going to have to speak truth to power,”; he said. “;The church has to speak to the issues of poverty, health care for everyone, the preservation of our planet.

“;We have to be a prophetic church, both locally, nationally and internationally.”;

“;We can no longer allow fear, fundamentalism and the Fox Broadcasting System to set the agenda for the church. We can not let the right wing dictate homosexuality and same-gender marriage as the issue that the church spends its energy and time dealing with.

“;In the Bible, I only know two places where it says anything about homosexuality.

“;It speaks more than 2,000 times on poverty and peace. The church is called to be peacemaker. We are called to serve the poor, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked. That is what Jesus said our agenda is.”;