Earlier this year, I joined with my brother and other family members in establishing a foundation called 1256 Movement. I grew up 40 miles north of Black Wall Street, the epicenter of a place that was grand and thriving in 1921. In a couple of days, white mobs reduced Black Wall Street and many homes in the area to ruins. The scars are still visible. The wounds are still fresh. 1256 homes, banks, cafes, hotels, and homes were burned to the ground. 10,000 African-Americans were suddenly homeless, 300 killed. The story is irrepressible, rising from the ashes of institutional denial and indifference, and it is being retold today because justice demands honesty in conversations that are uncomfortable. One of our purposes in the 1256 Movement is to not only tell the story of those horrible days and the oppression that followed the upheaval and destruction of lives, but also to tell the story of restoration and redemption in the lives of both black and white people here and now.
The following is simply one story in that ongoing storybook of renewal and healing.
December 6, 2020
“A white man has not preached at this church in it’s entire 97-year history,” my brother Greg informed me after I asked him what his plans were for the weekend. He had been invited to preach at the St. Andrews Baptist Church, a historically black congregation in North Tulsa.
So I decided to go since the closest I had been to a church like St. Andrews was watching Belushi and Akroyd in the Blues Brothers movie when James Brown led the congregation in a rousing rendition of The Old Landmark, as Jake back-flipped down the aisle after seeing the light of salvation beaming through the stained glass window of the Triple Rock Church.
I wandered into the sanctuary and sat in a pew, mask on, looking for some indication that it was alright for me to be here among the black congregants. One lady across the aisle rose up and walked over to me. She said, “Hi!”. She told me that there isn’t anything to be afraid of and emphasized this with a hearty, “We don’t bite!” I chuckled and relaxed taking in the moment. The head count of white people included the lead guitarist in the worship band, my brother Greg, and me. It feels odd to be in the minority.
I sat with my hands folded in my lap waiting, as a door opened beyond the podium at the front left corner where the pastor had his office. The pastor emerged and grinned in my general area and waved at me. I turned and looked back over my shoulder thinking he was waving at somebody else. But it was me he was waving at. I got up and followed him into his office. Pastor Judge Bailey is a multi-tasking bundle of energy. He plays the keyboards, prays, emcees, preaches, reads scripture, and offers up praise in the name of Jesus more times than I can count. I introduce myself and notice my brother Greg is there. Greg is dapperly dressed in a blue checked houndstooth suit and I note that he doesn’t normally look this polished when he preaches. There are several deacons wearing suits and ties, women in fancy feathered hats, and a few here and there of the younger generation with stylishly torn jeans. After Pastor Bailey welcomes me I return to my pew and look back to the office door which is open and Greg and Pastor Bailey are laying hands on one another in a kind of masked Covid style holy moment of prayer. The worship is beginning now.
What struck me about worshipping with St. Andrews church was their gratitude and love for something far deeper and greater than their own selves. They thanked God for their salvation and called on the name of Jesus again and again. And as a deacon read scripture before we took communion, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me,” I realized that these were the very words engraved in the communion table of my home church, and I thought of a line from a U2 song:
I believe in the Kingdom come, Then all the colors will bleed into one
But yes, I’m still running, You broke the bonds
and you loosened chains, carried the cross of my shame, of my shame
You know I believe it.U2 “I Still haven’t found what I’m looking for
The white guy in the worship band has reading glasses pushed up on his head and he is playing lead along with a bass player in a white silk suit who could have come directly from the Triple Rock Church of Blues in Chicago. A young man plays a drum set and I notice that he is the first person I met when I walked in as we exchanged a friendly head nod and a how ya’ doin.
I’m wearing Levi’s and a pullover sweater and a checked blue shirt and I feel underdressed.
Greg talked about Zacheus and how salvation came to the house of this short tax collector who previously had been a player in the game of financial oppression. Now he was giving away four times what he had wronged anyone plus half of his wealth. Greg talked about 1256 Movement and there were some hallelujahs and amens but there was also a palpable sense of “well, let’s just wait and see.” I met Mary who worked for an architect in Utica Square before she retired. She asked me what I did and I said, “I’m a homebuilder.” Afterward, Mary handed Greg a note and told him she didn’t really understand all that he was saying or doing or intended to do, but she had an uninhabitable home with a leaky roof and could we help? Greg went to Mary’s home and toured it and looked at the leaky roof. Greg and I don’t know if this is what we are being led to in addition to new construction, but the conversation with Mary led us to the possibilities that include helping black folks in this area restore their homes and to be proud of them and live in them once again.
One thing Greg said last Sunday was so incredibly simple yet moving. “I’m sorry. My grandfather may not have been there in 1921, but I’ve been a part of the problem of injustice as it relates to the aftermath and institutional unfairness that has continued to exist and I’m sorry.”
Afterwards, one of the St. Andrews congregants, a woman about my age, the same one who came over to me when I sat down before the service and told me not to be afraid, said to my brother, “Nobody has ever said I’m sorry to me for what happened. Thank you.”