Monday, January 21, 2008

Faith Works 1-26-08
Jeff Gill

In the Shadow of a Mighty Fortress

Rev. Dr. Vernon Johns is not a terribly well-known name even among folks who know the story of the American Civil Rights movement. I’ve got a couple reasons to lift him up this week after the King commemoration last Monday.

Almost 40 years older than the newly ordained young fellow who succeeded him at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, named Martin Luther King, Jr., it could have been Johns’ shadow that obscured King. He refused to get off of a bus years before Rosa Parks, but his stubbornness on all fronts was so usual that no one took any notice, leading civil rights advocates to say they needed someone “a little more surprising than Dr. Johns.”

Johns advocated economic empowerment as a vital first step to empowerment under the law and in the schools, but shocked his upwardly mobile African-American congregation by practicing what he preached alongside of rural, uneducated black sharecroppers, bringing them and the produce he helped them raise to the congregation for sale on Sunday, and setting them up outside the church door on elegant Dexter Avenue, in the shadow of the statehouse dome.

He passionately preached for full access to public services and education, and for that access to come right now, immediately, with a deacon board that constantly asked him to tone it down and slow up. When they tangled, he began in his first year to simply threaten to quit, and would seemingly always have a letter of resignation in his coat pocket to throw down on the table.

For five years he preached political action and economic co-operation with his sermons and his deeds, selling stocking from classroom to classroom one week and the next week, waving produce from his own garden, roots still attached to prove their origin, bits of dirt scattering across the well-dressed front rows and fine carpeting.

Finally, he showed up one Sunday in coveralls, intending to preach in them, with a cart full of watermelons fresh from the market garden. The deacons told him to move the cart and get a suit on, Johns threatened to quit, and the board shocked him by saying “fine.” His next, and last Sunday in the pulpit, he was asked from the sanctuary if he had anything to say about his departure, and his answer before stalking away can’t be published in a family paper.

Dexter Avenue had been slow to take up the letter because it was a hard time to find clergy, and indeed it was two years (very long in those days) before they found a fresh graduate who they thought would be a calming influence after the turmoil of Vernon Johns. They hired Martin Luther King’s son out of Atlanta by way of Boston, and the rest is history.

Except the other aspect of the story that fascinates me is that Vernon Johns was every pastor’s nightmare of a predecessor. Five conflict wracked years, two of interim where Johns was still quite prominent in Montgomery while traveling to his wife’s new job at a college in Virginia, and then the offer of a trial sermon.

That week, King opened the door of his family home in Atlanta to see – Vernon Johns. Johns had been asked to preach at the “other” prominent black church in Montgomery on the same Sunday (itself a breach of the vast body of unwritten but very firm clergy ethics), and wondered if he could hitch a ride with King.

And King said “yes.” Johns, by all accounts, tried to tell him who to work with and who not to. After King took the offer, Johns would still show up from time to time in coveralls with a cartload of produce in front of the church on Sunday, delighting a few but angering many. And Johns would call to tell King what he should do about this or that.

Through it all, somehow King managed to become not only a loved, trusted, and respected pastor for a very risk-averse congregation in a time of great trial after just one year, but he also became Vernon Johns’ friend. Many who know Johns’ work well (he left very little written material behind) hear a distinct echo of Johns’ classic preaching structure and images in the “I Have a Dream” sermon of 1963.

But that achievement of coming into a divided, fearful church with a fiery, muddy prophet still haunting the sidewalks, and building that bridge, is almost as amazing to me as what King was able to do in Montgomery and Birmingham and Selma.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he tells any skeptic about the King holiday each year to go out and read Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters.” If you have a book or story that makes you proud of your church and nation, tell him at

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