What I Forgot to Ask the Guru

The guru is gone, off to India to tend to the responsibilities he has there. I am hoping that some day he will return but for now will trudge onward in my feeble effort to understand the world.

There is one question, however, which we did not get a chance to discuss, which was this: Are there “other factors” besides faith, which affect religious belief and/or religious affiliation? For example, sociological or cultural factors.

The answer, of course, is yes. Were it not for these “other factors,” I could well be an evangelical, Southern Baptist. Consider this true story (also described in Civil Rights Journey):

I grew up in a proper and conservative family in Nashville. My father was a banker, and his father was in his day the president of two banks, including one that failed in the Great Depression. My mother was a loving, stay-at-home mom, who was active in all sorts of civic things like the Junior League and a thrift shop, which she had organized as a charity. We belonged to a country club and lived in Belle Meade, a close-in suburb where most of Nashville’s elites lived. Most important, my family was deeply involved in Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Nashville, now Christ Church Cathedral. When I was growing up, my father was Senior Warden (Episcopal church talk for “chairman of the board”), and my mother was head of the Women of the Church, not only for Christ Church but for the entire Diocese of Tennessee.

The Billy Graham Crusade came to Nashville in the late spring of 1952 when I was 10 years old. Enormous planning went into these crusades, and lay leaders of all denominations were engaged by the Graham Crusade and expected to support the event, an effort which included both of my parents. Attendance at the Nashville Billy Graham Crucade was a command performance for my parents and for me. I asked if could bring along my best friend, Walter Wilson, who lived in a big white house at the bottom of the street we lived on, and they agreed. The revival was held in the giant Vanderbilt football stadium, which had thousands of seats, which on the evening of the revival were jam packed. For their role in promoting the event among Episcopalians, my parents were given VIP seats at the 50-yard line about a third of the way up.

Being a 10-year-old, the last thing I wanted to do was sit with my parents, so I convinced them to allow me and Walter to sit where we wanted to. We climbed the steep stadium stairs all the way up to the top row where a few empty seats were available and where we had a spectacular view of the extravaganza– the choirs, the bands, bright colors, banners with crosses– and could feel the excitement in the stands. There were a couple of warmup speeches or mini sermons, a few more vibrant hymns by the choir, and then the great evangelist appeared on stage to the roar of the crowd, louder than anything I had heard in Vanderbilt Stadium except maybe the rare time when Vanderbilt scored a touchdown against the University of Tennessee. For two 10-year-old kids, it was a sensation.

Billy Graham did not disappoint. For me that was not hard  because I knew very little about Billy Graham and had not given the event much thought ahead of time. But his message of sin and forgiveness and redemption captivated me, and I could tell it also captivated my friend, Walter. When the call came to come down to the podium on the field to be saved and born again, hundreds and hundreds of people were leaving their seats to go down to the field. I could feel my heart pounding. I looked at Walter. He looked at me. We nodded to each other. Down we went.

As we approached the VIP section where my parents were sitting, out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed my mother and realized that she saw Walter and me, headed for Billy Graham to be saved and born again. She had a look of horror on her face. I was surprised, but we continued our descent until we reached the row where my parents were seated when a strong arm reached out and dragged me into an empty seat. It was my father. Walter looked puzzled but followed me and sat down. In a stage whisper, which was overheard by everyone sitting near us, my mother scolded me, “What do you think you are doing? You can’t go down there! You are an Episcopalian, for goodness’ sake! They are Baptists!

There was lots of murmuring. Several people shouted, “let them go, let them go!” Someone else shouted, “Shame, shame! Jesus saves!” Another, “Satan.” Others just groaned.

My mother later explained that I was already a Christian, attended church and Sunday school every Sunday, was the leader of my preteen Sunday school group, and all that would come of this if I had gone down to the field was that they would have tried to make me into a Baptist, who she insisted were “just different” from us Episcopalians. I apologized to Walter, who said not to worry since he was a Southern Baptist already and had been born again twice.

But I still occasionally ask myself the question, what would have happened if I had gone down there, and how might it have altered my life’s journey,

The other true story is from the 1990s. It also involves a Southern Baptist.

Embry had seen a photo of her cousins on the cover of a National Geographic magazine featuring an article on old time “camp meetings,” which caused her to reach out to them. They invited us to join them for a few days at one of the oldest camp meetings in the country predating the Civil War–the Salem Camp Meeting in Covington, Georgia. A camp meeting is essentially a week-long revival and family reunion. I had never been to a camp meeting before and was fascinated by the experience. Camp meetings usually happen toward the end of the summer or early fall of  each year where extended families gather for a week of worship, music, and socializing. The large campground in Covington included a few tents but mainly consisted of hundreds of ancient, makeshift tin and wooden huts, which gave the feel of a huge summer camp. Multiple generation families sat around campfires, chatted, told stories, visited old friends, sang spirituals, and played gentle music on guitars. It was a genuine, spiritual atmosphere.

The highlight of the Covington tent camp experience was listening to sermons from guest preachers, and each year a preacher is selected to give two or three sermons a day for several days in a large, outdoor pavilion accommodating several hundred people. This year the preacher was a Southern Baptist minister from South Carolina. He was young, handsome, and charismatic. In those days there was some leeway in the Southern Baptist Church regarding theology and matters of faith. A few Southern Baptist ministers even described themselves as liberals or progressives. This guy was obviously one of those rare birds. I was both amazed and impressed. As a somewhat skeptical graduate of Union Seminary–and an Episcopalian! — I found myself agreeing with most of what he said. I also was impressed that he seemed to be well received by a Southern and, I would assume, conservative tent camp congregation.

Then came his final sermon, where he abruptly changed course. This is the way his sermon went:

“Well, you have been listening to me all week talk about matters of faith, and I’ll bet that you believe that I would say that there is really not that much difference between the various Protestant denominations. We are all Christians.”

Most people nodded.

“Well,” he continued, “I am here to tell you that there is a huge difference, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different.”

I thought, “Uh oh, here it comes. The fundamentalism is in him after all.” 

Puzzled looks appeared on many faces in the congregation along with a few murmurs.

 With a sheepish grin  and a twinkle in his eye, he continued, “So here are the differences and pay attention because they are important, very important: I am a Southern Baptist and proud of it. A Southern Baptist is a Christian who has been washed.”

People in the congregation nodded.

“Are there any Methodists in the congregation?”

Many nodded, and some raised their hands.

“A Methodist is a Baptist who can read.”

A few chuckles.

“Presbyterians?”

More hands went up.

“A Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college.”

More chuckles.

“And an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments turned out all right!”

The pavilion exploded in laughter.

So, yes, readers, there are real differences between the Protestant denominations and between the various pathways in the religious quest for ultimate meaning and reality.

And don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

 

 

4 thoughts on “What I Forgot to Ask the Guru

  1. I totally agree! As I am still typing with one finger, I will not elaborate here. Cultural, social, and financial differences, skin color, marital status, etc all matter…

  2. Joe,
    I read this aloud to Elizabeth in the car. We both got a kick out of it. Having grown up Southern Baptist, married a Presbyterian, and navigated to being an Episcopalian, I can relate. Good stuff!

  3. I remember that day the Glasgow family was at the Vandy stadium listening to Billy Graham.
    My Dad, Mom, and of course Susie and I went forward. Emily would have been 4-5 so I doubt
    she walked down to the field. We didn’t know any Episcopalians then. It didn’t bother
    my Presbyterian parents to go down. We are just less discriminating and more gullible – is the way I see it now.
    I remember the hymns which Graham used- catchy tunes with simplistic lyrics.
    “Just like I am” comes to mind.
    I would like to know what your Mom and Dad really thought of his influence and his politics. Would he have
    been a Trumpster? I think so.

    1. Thanks, Sam. His son, Franklin Graham, is a Trumpster, but at least one child, a daughter, is progressive. I think they had several children. He was away on crusades all the time and probably not a good father. Embry’s parents knew the Grahams-mainly through the Montreat connections, I think– and thought highly of them. I think they may have had a house there. I definitely do NOT think that Billy Graham would be a Trumpster were he alive today. In my view he had integrity, was sincere and, yes, I think a great man in his time, though I did not and do not agree with his theology or his generally conservative politics. However, that was then when traditional conservatives had not gone to the Dark Side. I know he supported Nixon, at least for a while, but I recall he had second thoughts. There is room in my world view for people with different views as long as fundamentally they have integrity and honor and respect those with opposing views. In the Evangelical world, no one has come close to Billy Graham.

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