The sign in front of church read, “We know no strangers, only friends we haven’t met.” My closest friend from my military days told me years later, “You know, Steve, that sign was not true for me.” I asked him what he meant. He said, “I was the wrong color.” While I knew there were no black persons attending this southern state local church, I had no idea why. He told me he endured negative comments and prejudice for years.
I asked Wayne why he never told me and why he kept attending as he endured racism among his Christian brothers and sisters. He said, “You were my friend and I was there with you and for you.” I had no idea. But then, I remembered something…
It was 1975 and Mary and I had just been married. That same year our pastor came to us and asked if we would start a Sunday School bus ministry. We asked him what that was. He sent us to a training, we bought a bus, painted it red and white and hit the road every Saturday morning. We filled that bus with unruly, unchurched but extremely happy kids. We played games, sang songs and had contests to and from Sunday School.
We visited, with a pocket full of candy, those kids faithfully every Saturday and we knocked on new doors as well. Soon we filled a second bus and then a third. Parents even began to come with us and then we received some alarming news.
Our pastor called Mary and I into his office. He, with great uneasiness said, “We have a problem with the bus ministry.” He went on, “The board is complaining of the costs; your kids do not tithe.” And then he added the most shocking words, “As well, your kids are the wrong color.” We had no words. The bus ministry was in question and perhaps on the chopping block of this local church board and congregation.
Finally he said, “They have given me an ultimatum; it’s either Steve and Mary’s bus ministry or them, their tithe and of course me being able to continue here in ministry.”
We truly thought it would be the termination of our outreach to those wonderful kids, “our kids.” Surprisingly, the pastor then spoke these bold words, “So, here’s what we’re going to do. Rather than bringing the buses into the back of the church and unloading, we’ll now bring the buses to the front parking lot. We’ll unload directly to the main auditorium, placing your kids and your helpers (lots of helpers) in all of the front rows you can fill. We’ll then begin Sunday School classes for the first ten minutes there with a general opening. Every congregational member will be forced to sit behind your kids and look at them each Sunday morning.”
This courageous step meant certain death to our pastor’s job and the ministry we loved. He ended our conversation with a few words we’ll never forget, “We will give every reason in the world for the members who do not want this ministry to continue the opportunity to leave this church!” What a brave man of God taking such a brazen step because lives matter. We grew in our respect of this godly man who would place his ministry on the line for an integrated church and we learned a great deal about Christ-centered leadership that day.
Our kids were of black, brown, Latino, Asian, Caucasian and mixed races and we often sang, no screamed, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves…”
Decades later we visited that church. It is now a mega congregation with numerous Sunday morning services. There is no bus ministry, but as Mary and I sat in the balcony overlooking the crowded seats we noticed something. I leaned over to my wife and quietly remarked, “Are you seeing what I am seeing? Do you think the bus ministry of decades ago planted a seed for this?”
Later in talking with the current pastor, we asked him the demographics of his congregation. He unashamedly stated, “Our demographics are exactly the same as the demographics of our community.”
We went to lunch with my friend Wayne that day. Even though we left this church years earlier to move back to PA, Wayne stayed. Today Wayne is the prison ministry chaplain for the church, a church that perhaps now knows no strangers, only friends they haven’t met.