Abiding Across Fear and Difference
By Riley Jones, student, Columbia University
My father always said that fear is simply a gauge of one’s capacity to overcome a challenge. As I’ve gotten older, that has only become clearer. Fear is an emotion that keeps us on our toes while we await whatever may come next. While we all have an instinctual sense of our limits, there are times when those limits—or at least our conception of them— stand in the way of truly basking in the richness of the world God has given us. Instinct tells us to avoid the unknown. God calls us to receive the unknown with his guidance. This is especially true when we are called to embrace other identities, cultures and perspectives that are different our own.
Abiding in God’s promise in spite of our fear of the unknown requires courage. In the 20th Century, Black Americans displayed much of this type of courage. One man, in particular, exemplified this phenomenon very well. He was well-educated, having done graduate work in theology. As pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church he challenged his congregation to be vigilant in the face of a blatantly oppressive system. He even went as far to suggest that Black folks in Montgomery should boycott the segregation of the bus system. No, his name was not Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Rev. Vernon Johns is a relatively obscure personality in the telling of civil rights history.
Rev. Johns was born in the wake of the Reconstruction era in Virginia. After finishing at Oberlin College, he studied theology at the University of Chicago. When he arrived to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he was well received because of his education, but started to ruffle feathers as he settled into his pastoral role. “The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story,” written and produced by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Earl Jones captures this well. A senior deacon at Dexter Avenue had been intent on giving Rev. Johns a hard time because of disagreement with his approach to the question of racial equality. Deacon Hill felt that Rev. Johns was too assertive, perhaps even too dangerous for the well-established congregation to follow him completely. It was, however, after Deacon Hill took the time to listen with an open heart to Rev. Johns reasoning that he was swayed to believe that he too had the power to confront racism. This comes to a climax when Deacon Hill sees the Montgomery Police department abusing its power and decides to confront them, which ultimately results in his death. The sermon that Vernon Johns preaches (link to sermon clip) in honor of the fallen Deacon Hill is instructive for all of us.
He begins, “Brother Hill found a cause worth dying for. I envy him. Like Moses, he was a peaceful man who saw something that so horrified him that he was compelled to act.” Deacon Hill channeled his energy, not inwardly to fuel his own cowardice, but rather extended himself to another human being in his time of need.
In Exodus we see Moses struggling with being chosen to deliver his people from Egypt, conversing with God saying, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” And with that simple and profound command, Moses began a journey that delivered the Israelites from their suffering. It was Moses’ ability to abide in God’s promise which turned his fear of into fear for. Rev. Johns understood this feeling and called his congregation to act; for that he was removed and cast aside, never to be heard from again.
Rev. Johns finishes his sermon by highlighting the lessons to be learned from the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, saying that he “spoke the words that transformed a lynching into a crucifixion, that made Jesus not a condemner but a redeemer. He said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” For those of us who have the blessings of education and of opportunity, we know our responsibility to speak on behalf of those who need us. Silence in light of the systematic mistreatment of God’s children—whatever the form—contravenes our ability to truly abide. Rev. Johns knew this. He did not speak up for his own self- gratification, but rather for those that would come after him. His disruption of the status quo paved the way for a young preacher to start a movement that changed the world. We all have the power to do the same.
Questions to Ponder:
- What horrifies you?
- What things in our world are so deeply perturbing that they keep us awake at night?
- What are we afraid of? Who are we afraid for?
- In viewing the video clip on Vernon Jones, how does he teach us what it means to abide?
- What does it mean to abide in light of fear? What does it mean to abide despite fear?