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Four Men from Berwyn

Late Sixties images should include a gallery of burning cities all over America, images most of us would rather forget. People died in violent street protests. People were killed. Shot. In the middle of the horror in Vietnam, National Guard troops were called up to police burning streets in Newark, Detroit, LA, cities all over America. The nation was torn asunder by racial hatred. 

In Cicero, Illinois, a small, community-based Christian school, faced its own racial crisis when African-American parents from one of its supporting churches asked to have their children enrolled in what had been an all-white school in an all-white section of the city. The board agonized but finally refused, claiming that admitting the black children to what had been an all-white school would put the entire student body and the school itself into jeopardy--no, into danger that was very, very real. 

Fifteen or so years before, a black family attempting to move into Cicero, came home to discover everything they owned stacked up in the street, a mob of 4000 having formed to make sure they understood African-American people were not welcome in Cicero. Animosity is too lean a word; hate is what motivated that mob, hate fueled by the fear the white and ethnic population of Cicero saw on a slippery slope: if there's one black family, next week there will be a half-dozen. A year from now there'll be a score. 

Many of them had experienced similar neighborhood transitions, often difficult, often violent, in other Chicago communities. They didn't want black people in the neighborhood because they were sure that, soon enough, black people would be the neighborhood. 

When the Timothy Christian School Board determined those black children would not be enrolled, they argued that those black children could not be enrolled because the fever of racial hatred--which is to say racism--in the neighborhood was so high that every last dear little child--white and black--would be in danger at the hands of the same mob who had piled that black family's belongings in the street outside their home. Warnings were given--shots would be fired, the school would be torched--bloody threats were made. The board decided they could not risk the torch of hate.

All of that happened almost fifty years ago, but I remember it because I was convinced, and I was not alone, that what happened at Timothy Christian School, Chicago, was the outing of inherent racism in my own ethnic and religious community.  I was a college student with decidedly liberal leanings at Dordt College, a very conservative place.  My father--a wonderful Christian man--considered Martin Luther King an "agitator" who couldn't be trusted because he'd frequented the company of known communists. King wanted war, not peace, my father would have said. Wherever King went, racial animosity didn't diminish, it grew, like a fire.

Timothy, to me, proved beyond a doubt that my people were racists.

Just a few weeks ago, at a restaurant in Berwyn, Illinois, I listened to four retired white men remember that era in their lives, four men who were part of the community that rejected those black children, four men who still attend Berwyn Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church, four men who were, back then, accused of the sin of racism by people like me because those men sided with the board's refusal to admit black children. 

Two of them cried when they recounted those days. All four spoke passionately. Even though almost a half century has passed, they look back on that crisis as horrifying in every detail. The tensions, the threats, the impossible decision, and the hate that decision created, all of that constituted a moment in their lives like few others.

I'll tell you what I expected to hear from them: I expected confession. I expected these retired men to say they were sorry for refusing admission to black children. I may have even expected tears wrung from heartfelt repentance.  

There were tears, but I was wrong. Each one claimed that if he had to determine an answer to the request of those black parents again back then, if he had to relive all that hate, his answer would be the same because each of them was absolutely sure that horror would result, not from African-Americans, but from their own white neighbors. That's how much hate they witnessed and feared.

I listened to their stories, as did our whole committee, a committee composed almost totally of people of color. It's important to know that the white folks--me included--sitting around that table were a minority. 

There we sat, a church committee, a denominational committee, whose most pressing concern is racial reconciliation, listening to four white men tearfully recount the horror they'll never forget in all its heart-rending detail, but sticking with a decision that made them look and sound, back then, just like their own racist neighbors. 

It was a powerful and tearful moment, a precious moment I'll never, ever forget.

Back then, were they right? 

I think not. But there's far more hesitation in my voice when I say that, fifty years later. Today, I know them. Today I understand them far better than I did when I was twenty because I've heard their memories and their life stories both before and after the Timothy crisis. I listened to their testimony of faith. I saw tears. I felt in all of those stories the very real humanity of those men, which is to say, by way of my faith, I felt the image of God right there in them as they sat and talked around that breakfast table.

The work of racial reconciliation is never easy, but it is blessed; and this morning, I am greatly thankful for those four men, for what they told us, for how they opened their hearts and filled ours.

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