One never knows when the phone might ring or who might be on the other end of the line. Last summer my children picked up a phone in our hotel room and heard the dial tone. They asked in confusion, “What is that weird sound?” My children know nothing but mobile phones without dial tones. This summer I showed my children one of the earliest phones – an Alexander Graham Bell crank phone. We also looked at a switch board as a history lesson in how phone calls were placed and connected.
One never knows who might be on the other end of the line. This afternoon my dear friend Leroy Garrett called. I often hear from Leroy and it is always a bit like Christmas to enjoy a conversation with a churchman of such great significance. Leroy is a remarkable historian, a Harvard trained philosopher, a towering figure in our Stone-Campbell tradition, and my friend. Now, rarely do I share these stories but this one was significant.
Leroy mentioned that it was merely a footnote on the Restoration movement – a story that he has not thought of in 72 years. This afternoon he was taking a nap and remembered his college janitor from his days at Fred Hardeman College. In 1940, Leroy remembered this African American janitor that served the college. Leroy would often get a chance to visit with him. Leroy could not remember the man’s name. It was really aggravating him that he could not recall his name. (Personal side note: I’m in my 30s and I cannot remember the names of any of my janitors in school. That might be the sign of either a poor memory or my lack of interest in those who serve. I can only hope that when I am 93 years old I could remember the names of all my school janitors).
Later, as Leroy was eating a sandwich, the name “Spence” popped back into his head. The man’s name was Spence. Leroy then went on to tell a couple of stories. Other students were also friendly with Spence. One time they decided that Spence would be worth interviewing. They intended to interview Spence before chapel one morning. They wanted to ask him about life and faith and his work. Again, this was not to be part of formal chapel but would be before chapel in 1940. The approached Brother Hardeman, who nixed the plan. He indicated that the school could not have a black man in the front speaking to everyone.
Spence had a double stigma. Not only was he black, but he was also Baptist. Evidently Spence was a big fan of brother Hardeman and had asked Hardeman to preach his funeral. When Spence died, brother Hardeman did preach his funeral. Leroy speculated that Hardeman doing the funeral must have meant that he affirmed Spence as a saved believer. Hardeman had crossed denominational lines and racial lines to do this funeral, which was significant in that time period. Leroy could only surmise this fact (since Leroy did not attend the funeral), but this supposition was backed by yet another story from the past.
Brother Hardeman’s mother was a Methodist – a life long, never-been-immersed, faithful Methodist women. Hardeman told students that he knew that his mother was saved. Her life and her faithfulness were clear indications of her salvation. This story again is a very “small footnote” of Restoration History, which Leroy imagines that no one alive today knows or remembers.
I remarked to Leroy that sometimes it takes family members with whom we have great differences yet the strong ties of blood that force us to expand our worldview. Out of our love for those in our family we allow a greater measure of grace. It seems that if we were to extend this John 17 kind of love to others who are not kin nor blood relations, what a difference it would make. Leroy wholeheartedly agreed.
Then, he shared his dream. As he took a nap thinking about Spence, E. B. Hardeman, and Hardeman’s mother, he imagined going and speaking with the esteemed preacher. Evidently Hardeman thought a lot of Leroy as Leroy was asked by Hardeman to preach in his place one Sunday. This vote of confidence was a huge boost to Leroy. Anyway, Leroy began to dream about going to Hardeman and asking why he wouldn’t share these beliefs more publically. While in classes they were all taught the sectarian party line of “we are the only ones going to heaven,” these stories about Hardeman’s Mother and doing the funeral of a black Baptist man indicate a deeper thought that Hardeman did not believe this junk.
Leroy imagined gently going into the office of his mentor and asking him to write an article for the Gospel Advocate telling the story of his mother or sharing his experience of preaching the funeral of the black Baptist janitor named Spence. Leroy imagined that Hardeman would have listened.
On the phone, Leroy and I imagined what might have come by such an exchange. It might have let to an article. It might have led to Hardeman being dismissed as a liberal. It might have led a university to take an entirely different direction in terms of sectarianism.
You never know who might call.
You never really know the significance of a conversation, a phone call, an article, a stance taken.
Each moment is packed with an eternity of possibility. Will we stand by and support racism, triumphalism, exclusion, or will we visit the office or place the phone call or write the article?
The moment is yours – invent something together with God that will last.