There were many people who seemed to feel that once we’d had the march on Washington and once we had the civil rights bill, things were just inevitably going to be easier, that somehow we’d done it. And I can say to you only that I think that this is the most dangerous kind of self-delusion, that we have not in any way done it. And that just to the extent that we think we have, we’re going to be dismayed when we find out that we have not.-James Reeb
James Reeb spoke these words in July of 1964. He was killed in Selma, Alabama less than a year later by known white supremacists. Typical of the time, those involved in his death were acquitted by a jury of white men. Witnesses were coached by the sheriff to lie to the FBI and in the courtroom. For decades, nearly everyone in Selma knew what had really happened to James Reeb. Living in fear is a strong deterrent; no one told the real truth until just a few years ago. I could write more about how Mr. Reeb died and the impact his death had on Selma and the Civil Rights Movement, but anything I’d share would be borrowed from NPR journalists Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley. It was their podcast, White Lies, that led me to the quote above. It’s excellently done, and I’m better for having listened to it. Instead, I’ll share a bit about how James Reeb, years after his death, further affirmed my decision to leave the church that raised me.
At the time of Mr. Reeb’s murder, he was a minister for the Unitarian Universalist church. The excerpt above is from his last sermon at All Souls Church in Washington, DC. His work in ministry didn’t begin with the UU, but with the Presbyterian church. After realizing that his desire to engage more actively in social justice causes was not mirrored in his Presbyterian home, Reeb asked to be removed from its rolls. Nearly a decade later, James Reeb was ordained in the UU. It was while a member of the UU that Reeb helped promote desegregation in Boston and volunteer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Though his friends who survived that night in Selma felt he wouldn’t want to be remembered as a martyr, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his eulogy and Congress had a copy of the Voting Rights Act for review very shortly after. In my opinion, James Reeb left the Presybyterian church not because he couldn’t do good there, but because he knew he could do more good elsewhere.
I was absolutely doing good work in my previous church home, but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t encourage young girls to pursue their passions within a complementarian church, nor could I help develop healthier perspectives regarding men and women. When the entire church structure is based on a hierarchy where females are subordinate to males, boys grow up to be men who believe they deserve power over women and girls grow up to be women who believe they should be told what to do. In addition to this, my ability to share Jesus and his love was severely limited when I had to warn my friends from the LGBTQ community to hide who they were, because they wouldn’t be welcomed fully if they were honest. When I realized that I couldn’t love myself or others in the ways I needed to, in the ways I felt called to as a Christian, I decided to leave and find a new church home where I could do more good. Ironically, I chose to join the church that James Reeb left. Almost seventy years later, it doesn’t look like it once did. Maybe in another seventy years, the church I left will look different too.
I wish I could ask James Reeb how he dealt with the broken friendships and the hurt feelings. Leaving a church is, in some ways, like a divorce. It’s a public decision, available for all to consume and analyze. Sides are chosen. Assumptions are made. I didn’t denounce our former church from the pulpit. (I wouldn’t have been allowed to, even if I had wanted to, though my husband could have.) When asked, I answered honestly. Truthfully, very few people asked. I understand why they didn’t. I left because I disagreed with the church’s teachings. Given that much of my disagreement comes directly from my interpretation of the Greatest Commands to love God above all and loves others as you would yourself, asking me for an explanation would result in cognitive dissonance. Is preventing women from leadership treating others as you would want to be treated? Is telling someone else they can’t have full access to communion and membership because they are gay aligned with what Jesus asks of his followers? Put simply, my reasoning was sound. I had been taught to go back to the scriptures, and I did. Instead of finding reasons to stay, I found evidence to leave.
I wish I could sit with him and have coffee and find out how to be brave, but I think I know what he would tell me. Doing the right thing has very little to do with bravery and a lot to do with faith. Sometimes faith looks like leaving home and making a new one.