Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

In Christ…

The St. Louis of my birth and formative years of the 1950s and 1960s was a segregated town. Blacks lived principally in the neighborhoods of the inner city and those running west and on the near north side. Whites lived largely on the south side, the far north side and, beyond the municipal boundaries, in the suburban areas.

In 1982, I was called to serve a church in Charleston, South Carolina. As I toured the city in search of housing, wherever I looked, though there were areas that were chiefly black or white, in the main, the neighborhoods were integrated. The realtor, noting my surprise, pointed out, in an airy, matter-of-fact fashion, a conspicuous reality of institutional slavery: “The distance between the master’s big house and the slave shacks was never that far.” His point. In the South, blacks and whites always lived in proximity. In this, I recall a Civil Rights Era maxim: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too high.”[1]

This apparent, what I deem, Southern racial/relational closeness comes to mind in light of a number of weddings that have been held at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla’s and my Spartanburg, SC, bed and breakfast and events facility.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my assumptions (read: biases) overthrown when white couples and black couples have commissioned black clergypersons and white clergypersons, respectively, to officiate at their nuptials. In speaking with the clerics, almost to a person, I discover that their affiliations with those to be wed extend far back into the years and are rooted in long-lived familial and neighborhood connections. Although the church communities of the South (everywhere?), by and large, remain racially segregated, personal relationships of deep affection across color lines have stood the test of time. In this, for me, a blessedly beatific counter-image in these days of rising racial animus, I, with gratitude, sing:

In Christ there is no east or west,

in him no south or north,

but one great fellowship of love

throughout the whole wide earth.[2]

Amen, I say! Again, I say, amen!



[1] “High” used interchangeably with “big”; meaning socio-economically prosperous and/or politically prominent. The other part of the saying is: “In the North, the white man doesn’t care how high the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too close.” I don’t know the author of this aphorism, but Dick Gregory (Richard Claxton Gregory, 1932-2017), a comedian and social critic of no mean genius, and a fellow St. Louisan, was fond of repeating it.

[2] Words by John Oxenham (aka William Arthur Dunkerley), 1852-1941

4 thoughts on “Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

  1. Paul,

    Thank you for this!!! I’ve always felt that clergy was “colorless”…. Let me explain what I mean. When I needed guidance or counsel or prayer, I found the door labeled Rector, and I didn’t care what the person looked like. I just wanted my prayer or counsel. So it’s great to read this blog post .. and read the words to your “song”. Stunning in their simplicity but a HUGE message.

    When I met you, I recognized your brilliance in about 10 minutes. Then when I heard you preach for the first time, I was blown away! When people put all that together, and your wise counsel, I just don’t think what you look like matters. People feel the heart and soul of their pastor / rector if they are true Christians.

    When I read this earlier today I couldn’t respond… because I was too emotional. I went to my family folder on my phone and looked at the photos of our 25th anniv vow renewal. Knowing what I know now, I am sooooooo glad we didn’t wait to do that. AND most importantly I was thrilled that it was YOU who did our ceremony. I wouldn’t have cared if you were orange or purple. We had a connection with you and no one else would have worked.

    I also believe that as a cradle Episcopalian, I was taught that when a Rector is selected, you accept them … No matter what they look like and I always did. Even when I visit a church on my many travels I’m just happy to be inside the church and I listen to the words that they share and try to glean a message from it that I can take out into the world. Most of the time that works well and I’m made to feel welcome by that person.

    Much love!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Loretta, yours is a heart of goodness and gold and yours are gleaming eyes that see beyond and through the surface of color to the human soul of folk, which is boundlessly colorless and equal in its God-given created beauty. I am grateful for your witness to God’s truth. As for my brilliance, now, you know, you are kind…too kind. Much love, always

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Paul,

    I so much appreciate knowing of the experience you and Pontheolla have had with regard to weddings at Clevedale and the history of “mixed race” officiation at those weddings. Like Loretta, I feel emotional about it, but I am so glad that deep family, friend, and neighborhood relationships exist in the Spartanburg area and make it possible that the closest pastoral relationship may be a pastor of a different race than the folks getting married. What a beautiful thing that is!

    I frankly LONGED for some relationship across the horrible color divide when I was young and growing up in Spartanburg and Inman. For whatever reasons, and they were probably myriad, I never had that as a child, and I believe I was deprived of something terribly important. I used to listen to the Sunday night services at a nearby African-American church (AME, I believe) in Inman on summer nights when all the windows were open and so wish that I could walk in the door and be a part of the marvelous sounds I heard from people I KNEW had to be wonderful people to make that incredibly joyful music. I am somewhat embarrassed to even admit it, in light of the fact that it was my own race doing the dividing and oppressing, but I always thought segregation was cruel to white people as well as to black people. To tell people they could not associate with the people they wanted to know and associate with was, in my view, hateful, stupid, and wrong no matter what race you happened to be. I have so many memories of bewilderment and frustration about the state of things between the only two races I was aware of as a child. I am still bewildered and frustrated, I guess, to tell the truth, which is one of the reasons I am so glad to have simply stumbled upon Clevedale – and thus you and Pontheolla – last summer, right there in Spartanburg.

    Bless you for sharing your stories of the weddings. It warms my heart to know about them.

    Once again, Paul, thank you for just being you and for speaking your heart’s truths about your life and the place and time in which you live. I’m always ready for your next observation, your next blessing, your next piece of wisdom and grace.

    Much, much love to you and Pontheolla and to Clevedale for the very real ministry that it is in the world.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Karen, your transparently honest sharing of your experiences of/in growing up, which bespeak the separation of races, compel me to think AND feel afresh of the violence we humans do unto ourselves in dislocating ourselves – by virtue (though little virtue there is in it) of our externals – from the grandeur of connection one with another, one to another. Oh, may we, please, learn and practice a new, another way. Love, Paul

      Liked by 1 person

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