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

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 1-27-08
Jeff Gill

When the War Strikes Close To Home

One day last year I came home, north a bit from Cherry Valley Road and Rt. 16, and from our driveway I could see a column of black smoke south of Rt. 16, as it turns out right along Cherry Valley Road.

It was a blow from the Iraq war striking within a mile of my house.

If you didn’t know the war had come to Licking County, let me explain, or at least explain my inference.

What had happened was a young man, new to driving a tanker truck, just back from surviving a tour driving such heavy vehicles around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, had rolled over the edge of the 175 year-plus Showman Bridge into Raccoon Creek.

He was not impaired, and the weather was fine, and in my opinion there is only one explanation for what killed him. When you don’t know which curve harbors snipers or which bridges hide bombs, and you deal with that uncertainty for a year, you don’t just shift back down to civilian pace overnight.

The young man who had proudly and honorably served his country by getting supplies and gear from point A to point B quickly and in one piece came home to support his new family in Ohio by doing much the same, but the tendency to punch the accelerator and go easy on the brake led to a load slosh that tipped him onto a railing, into a creekbed, and to his death a mile or so from my home.

Can you see why I think it’s fair to say he’s a casualty of the Iraq war? Sure, young drivers misjudge curves and turns all the time, and he might have lost his ticket if he had never been overseas. But I make that sweeping left turn from Reddington onto Cherry Valley over the old aqueduct all the time, and I keep thinking about how just a little too much “gung ho,” a bit too edgy a nerve ending about crossing where you can see the piers where they meet the water, and whoosh, bam, boom. You’re dead.

Of course if the military paid a full benefit for such a death after discharge and coming home, they would end up spending billions, right? Insert your favorite military spending joke here.

This won’t be a Purple Heart or a name for some future Iraq “Conflict” memorial, just an unlucky guy who died trying to make a living after surviving military service. Now, if he had some kind of brain injury, which the VA tells us is showing up for one in five returning vets, maybe he could have gotten a medical check that would have taken him out of the cab of that truck on that day.

Did he have some level of post traumatic stress, undiagnosed, that could have been treated to help him throttle back in life in general, and in heavy trucks specifically? They’re suggesting that half of returnees from both Iraq and Afghanistan should get assessment and treatment for PTSD, helping them ease back into the rhythms of hometown life.

With the primary debates and discussions, I heard an interesting quote out of South Carolina from a man who said he voted for John McCain. “I think he’ll get us out of Iraq fastest.”

That’s interesting, since many other candidates are working hard to say specifically that they’ll get the troops home fastest. McCain’s said quite a few things about Iraq, but getting the troops back home soon isn’t one of them.

But this fellow was a retired soldier himself, and what he seemed to be saying was that he knows how soldiers feel about war, and about being overseas, and he knew McCain had spent five and a half years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton wanting to get home.

What too many folks don’t seem to know is that soldiers and sailors and Marines and aviators all have three things in common if they’re career professional military. 1) They love training. 2) They are made somewhat uneasy by peace and quiet, ‘tis true. 3) They hate war.

Truly, the warrior class as a whole hates war. They like knowing that their training and preparation makes them ready for actions that most citizens are not capable of, and need someone to perform from time to time, such as flying helicopters out over the Gulf Coast and New Orleans to save 30,000 people from rooftops after Katrina. They like that knowledge, that capacity in themselves, a great deal.

They hate war, though. They know what it does to their friends and to the innocent and they know full well what it does to themselves. They love training all the more, so that sweat displaces blood.

Will McCain get our troops back to driving tanker trucks, slowly, down Cherry Valley Road? I don’t know about that, but I can see why someone would think he’d try, and try effectively.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story of war and peace at