Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Charles Wellborn: A clear voice of conscience

It was a time we must never forget

Too soon we forget the terrorism of the 1950s and 1960s. The cross-burnings, obscene telephone calls, character assassination and political intrigue on those who believed in and fought for human rights and dignity, and against bigotry, hate and indifference.

I was reminded of those years when I read of the passing of a man who stood for equality for all races. Charles Wellborn, a native of Alto, Texas, with degrees from Baylor University and Duke University, Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary and until his retirement in 1992, the director of Florida State University London Study Center, London, England.

Jody, my wife, described Wellborn as one of the best preachers she ever heard and the clearest voice of conscience among that generation of Baptists. Dr. John Wood, long-time pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waco, was mentored in high school by then seminary student Wellborn. (Wellborn's roommate at seminary was Howard E. Butt, Jr., one of this generation's best laymen preachers and founder of Laity Lodge.)

Charles Wellborn, 86, was buried October 14, just a few blocks from the church he pastor after leaving Baylor University, the Seventh and James Baptist Church.

It was during his ten-year pastorate at Waco's Seventh and James Baptist Church, adjacent to the Baylor campus, that the church opened its membership to people of all "races and colors." It was 1958 and Waco still had the stain of hanging Jessie Washington before a huge white crowd in 1916. (It was one of 500 lynchings recorded in Texas from 1880 to 1930.

Soon after the news that the church welcomed any and all, Wellborn began to receive threatening phone calls. Then a cross was burned on the lawn of the parsonage. It was fast becoming one of the darkest days in America's church history. It was a time when the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan revived. Other civil rights villains became more bold.

It was a time when local blacks were turned away from church doors by self-righteous and self-deluded ushers and deacons. Some preached a Gospel left over from slavery days. Popular Bible interpretations endorsed white supremacy. There were those who simply "did not want to get involved." It was a time when many forgot what Jesus said to the Apostle John, "Behold, I stand at the door: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him" (Rev. 3:20).

It was a time we should never forget. Hard lessons were learned during those days of turmoil. The experience, bad as it was, made the nation and the churches stronger. But, there are still those who would like to go back to those "good old days." With white Americans fast becoming a minority like their ancestors were at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, there is a new uncertainty out there. Keeping folks "in their place" is not as easy as once-upon-a-time.

No one likes to recall such disturbing events as took place in 1916 and 1958. Others, like Wellborn,(Presbyterian Robert McNeill; Methodist Dallas Blanchard; Episcopalian rector Duncan Gray; Catholic priest William Warthling; countless Jewish Rabbis), stood their ground against congressmen, senators, governors, mayors and even fellow clergy in a fight against the segregationist's attempts to keep the "coloreds" under their storm-trooper-boots-mentality.

Years later, the city of Waco officially apologized for the 1916 lynching, noting: "When you have a deep enough infection and you just open it up a little bit and let air get to it to heal over, it will come back. It will keep coming back until you open it up and you let it heal from the inside out."

Charles Wellborn, WWII ski patrol in Italy, Baylor grad, a clear voice of conscience, continues to speak through his writing. He wrote seven books, two plays and more than 100 articles in scholarly and popular journals. He was a frequent contributor to the independent journal "Christian Ethics Today". His was a life of outspoken integrity and service for others. He was a man for his times. We must not forget those men and their contribution to our nation.

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