The New York Times on Sunday told the story of Robert Frank, a photographer who criss-crossed the nation, “seeing it as an outsider, a Swiss who left Zurich in 1947 in search of broader horizons.” Years later, he told the Times, “That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people.”
It reminded me of the early 80’s when I covered religion for the News & Observer. One of my duties was to report on what was said from the pulpits on Sunday mornings. The idea was that clergy had a sizable audience and influence; if we were covering governmental meetings, we should cover “meetings” of the faith communities.
I understood the thinking, but I didn’t like it. It meant that I spent half of my Friday trying to find a preacher who planned to base a sermon on a newsworthy topic. Then I spent half of Sunday reporting and writing it. Basically, it cut down on the days when I could write stories with more impact on the faith community and community at large.
But, yeah, whatever. In any case, I could only write about sin and forgiveness so many times. I worked hard to find a sermon on a topical issue — social justice or something happening in the world — and many times, I’d get there and the promise of the sermon topic wasn’t fulfilled.
I kept it up for about a year, and don’t remember the topic of a single sermon now. But I do remember one thing: I was welcomed with open arms at the black churches; I was just another parishioner at the white churches. Even when I was asked by greeters at the white churches why I was there, my response was answered with a simple, “Welcome!” and they moved on to the next worshipper coming through the door.
But at the black churches, I was routinely invited to sit with someone in a pew, to join them for the potluck after the service, to talk about my background, and, most important, to be invited back next week. Maybe that welcome was because I was the only white face in the crowd. Maybe it was because most of the white churches I visited were traditional mainstream congregations. Maybe it was because they were simply more welcoming.
Or maybe they thought I was an angel. Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”