This post is the eleventh in a series, “Lessons from my Father, Lewis Marler,” who lived from 1921-1998.
I grew up in the heart of Dixie during the most tumultuous times of the Civil Rights Movement. I was born in Selma, grew up in Montgomery, and went to high school in a Birmingham suburb called Gardendale, AL from 1955-1973.
My father became the pastor of a church in Montgomery, AL when I was five years old in 1960 and we were there until 1970. It was a racially tense time to say the least. Blatant discrimination was part of the culture and fabric of society and rarely questioned. I can remember separate public water fountains for the “white” and “colored.” School integration was supposed to start in 1963, but I never saw a classmate with a different skin color until 1967.
My father and mother were different than the society in which we lived. As were a few others.
In our home, my sister and I were taught that all persons, regardless of skin color, were children of God. They were constantly teaching us different ways of thinking and acting than everything we heard outside the home. When other people in our neighborhood and church used the “N” word to talk about persons who were black, my father always referred to African Americans as “colored.” This was progressive for a white man to do so in the 60’s in Alabama.
One particular story I remember was when integration in the high schools was finally becoming a reality in 1967-68. The church where my father was pastor happened to be on the street that was on the geographical dividing line that determined where students would go to high school. If your house was on the same side of the street as the church, your children went to the traditional white Sidney Lanier High School. If your house was across the street, your children were zoned to attend the traditional black Carver High School.
I remember seeing almost every house on the opposite of the street go up for sale in the same week when the zoning districts were publicized. Hundreds of houses had for sale signs in their front yards, as white families protested by selling their homes and moving to the white side of town.
And the church was not exempt from this discrimination. One Sunday I overheard some of the deacons talking to one another as they smoked under the big oak tree, “What are we going to do about that trouble-maker King?” They said a lot more than that.
Later in the week, during an open church business meeting one of them stood up and said, “Pastor, what we are going to do if some of those Negroes try to come to our church?”
Now first of all, the likelihood of anyone who was black wanting to come into our lily white church was almost zero. Our worship services were downright boring compared to their own. But fear ruled the day. The deacon persisted to put my father on the spot. “Brother Marler,” he said, “What do you want us to do?”
My father walked up to the podium and leaned into the microphone and called the deacon by his first name and said, “Well, I hope you will help them find a seat,” and he sat back down. End of discussion. Silence. Someone made a motion for the business meeting to end.
I remember to this day how proud I was of my father at that very moment.
And years later when I became the Chaplain in a HIV/AIDS clinic I asked him what he thought about me caring for persons who at that time were primarily gay white men. He said, “Malcolm, its not any different than those days in the 60’s. Everybody needs someone to love them and care for them.”
And he was right. Black or white, gay or straight, we all need someone to love us. Whatever the cultural issue of the day is, anytime we exclude rather than include members of the human family, we are missing the mark.
How do you draw your circle in the human family? Who is in? Who is out?
Lewis Marler taught me to always love people first.
My father taught me so.
Are there people in your life who have taught you important lessons that were different than the way other people believed? How did they do so? How have you applied that to your life now? Would you share in the comments below?
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