“If I ever hear the word “n____” come out of your mouth, I will wash your mouth out with soap.” – Grace Burns, 1969
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Rules The World
My momma saved me from racism. It was 1969, and I was in the second grade. My friendship with my new African American classmate LC was something that was considered forbidden at the time by some local people. However, it was my momma who gave our friendship its greatest affirmation, support, and blessing. Her life and loving, quiet kind deeds would save me from racism’s bitter poison. She modeled to me the ancient way of the unconditional and non-discriminatory love of God demonstrated in Jesus. My mom’s courage to take a stand on racism in our neighborhood would completely alter the trajectory of my life.
She showed me how to live that ancient way of Jesus which at its core is to love your neighbor as yourself and to treat other people the way you want to be treated.
Boundless Remarkable Love
My mom demonstrated to me and others the defiant, militant, and loving message of Jesus. For example, in the practical teachings of Jesus, it would be wrong to forbid a white child and a black child to become friends. Why? He taught us to love God, love neighbor, treat other people the way we want to be treated and make peace with our enemies. My mom believed this wholeheartedly!
Unfortunately, my momma’s kindness and unconditional love upset some of our neighbors and the status quo. Why? Because she was challenging the declining racist social order of the day by following the ancient Way of Jesus. She knew it was wrong to separate two little boys who wanted to be friends just because one was black and the other was white.
She never faltered one time. Her love for LC and the safe space she created for our friendship during the beginning school desegregation in Lebanon would echo in my heart like the still small voice of God for the rest of my life.
Her genuine Christlike acts of kindness to people of color became the tools that would till the soil of my heart to embrace goodness, beauty, restorative justice, and reconciliation. As a sweet momma, she prepared my heart for the liberating arrival of the Holy Spirit and God’s Dream of love, freedom, and hope for all people. The same Dream that Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed before his untimely death by an assassin in 1969. This would be her greatest gift to me that I would cherish for the rest of my life. See: Growing Up White In The Segregated South
Remembering Southern School Days
First Grade Sucked
I was never much for school. Sometimes I cannot believe I have an earned doctorate. I can remember the first day of the first grade. Do you remember your first day of the first grade of school? Most people I meet do not. I didn’t want to be in school; I wanted to be out in the woods or around the creeks. Also, I can still remember waking up on my first day of school and raising out of bed, looking at the wall and saying, “Oh my God, I’ve got twelve more years of this!” I did not want to be in school. And I often went to great lengths to get out of attending my classes; I really did. Those stories and adventures are for another book.
Second Grade Was Traumatizing
The second grade was a tough grade for me. I had a pretty tough teacher, and about every other day, I was getting a paddling. Back then, paddling was the way to deal with children like me. The teacher would often make you bend over, and she would give you around 10 wacks with a flat board that was at least two-and-one-half feet long. Unfortunately, the board had many small holes in it. This gave leverage to the teacher using it and made things sting more for the student being disciplined. So I was getting paddled all the time.
At some point during our class time, the teacher would say, “Does everybody have their homework?” I’d look at LC and my other friends and say, “Homework? Did you know anything about homework?” She would bring a few other boys in front of the class and me. We got paddled for not having our homework completed. Some of us got a paddling just about every day. This happened many times when I was in the second grade.
Flash Backs And Nightmares in College
In my freshman year of college, I can remember waking up regularly in a sweat right before an exam. Why? Because I had nightmares of getting paddled in front of my second-grade class! I must have been projecting my anxiety from my childhood onto my impending college exams in fear that I was not prepared enough. I realize this sounds crazy, but as you can see, I was deeply impacted by those regular paddlings from the second grade. But, of course, I’m a grown man now. I don’t have those dreams anymore. And I’m happy to say that I’m fully recovered, and I never had one of those dreams again after my college days. Amen and Hallelujah!
Momma Commits A Scandalous Act!
My First Encounter With Overt Racism
But in my second-grade class, there was a little boy who got the worst of our teachers’ discipline, and he was black. He got more paddlings than everyone else. It often seemed to me as a child that the teacher had it out for him. He definitely got more abuse than anyone else. I reported what was happening to LC to my mom. I told her, “Momma, my teacher mistreats my new friend LC. It seems like she doesn’t like him. She’s very mean to him.” My mom said to me with a slight smile, “We’re going to do something about that.” I had no idea what she meant at that moment.
My mother may not have fully realized the implications of her upcoming actions. But the winds of hope and freedom were blowing and stirring in Lebanon, and like autumn leaves stirred on the ground, people were getting caught in its currents. Times were changing. My momma, LC, and I were about to be caught in the beautiful spiritual currents of God’s love and hope. The Kingdom of God (God’s Dream for The World) had arrived in Lebanon, and we were about to experience it together in all its glory.
Momma Comes To School
Momma came to school the next day after our little talk. It was a beautifully warm and sunny spring day. The air was filled with the smell of sweet flowers and freshly mowed grass. School had just let out at 3:05, and I was out in front of the elementary school playing on the newly mowed school lawn. My friend L.C. and I were running, laughing, and playing; it was such a beautiful spring day. Although I was just a child, that day stands out in my memories as an extraordinary moment forever frozen in the endless visual frames of my mind.
Momma Creates A Serious Scandal
My teacher came up to my mom and said, “Mrs. Burns, I have a deep concern. Your son Jeff is getting awful close to that little colored boy. I thought you would want to know about this and I am sure you would disapprove of it. But I am glad you are here to see it with your own eyes. You’ve got a big problem on your hands.”
I do not think my teacher was ready for my mom’s scandalous response to her concerns about the forbidden friendship that LC and I were developing. My mom grinned at her and said, “I am so glad to hear that. That’s what we want to see happening in our home. In fact, we want to have LC home for dinner tomorrow night.” No doubt, this act of love was both culturally subversive and scandalous in the eyes of my second-grade teacher. The Kingdom of God drew near my teacher also, but she did not have the openness of heart to hear or see it.
LC Talks About His Experience With Racism
Recently, I Messaged LC on Facebook. I asked him for some more details from his vantage point about those early days of school desegregation in Lebanon and our friendship. He shared that he attended the black school in Dante, Virginia, about 30 minutes from Lebanon. When the Dante school shut down because of the Integration of public schools, LC and his family moved to Lebanon. See: 7 Stories of Growing Up Black in Appalachia
His first experience with other white children in a school setting was in the first grade. It was hard for him to make friends. These were challenging times for many African Americans as they entered the white schools. See School Desegregation in the U.S.
Second Class Citizens
As I was Messaging LC about our friendship, he said, “Meeting you and Richard in the second grade was great! I thought I was not ever going to have any white friends. The last white person (my age) that talked at any length at that time was a little white girl that had never touched black skin before. So I let her touch my hand. She giggled and ran. The other whites I encountered were poor white kids that I knew who lived in slab town (considered the poor section of town). It was an unspoken assumption that they were trash or 2nd class citizens just like black people.”
An Unthinkable Illusion That Was Terribly Real
It seems like an unthinkable illusion that white and black kids were kept separated by white neighborhoods and segregated schools. But Segregation and Desegregation were painful realities for many people of color in the South.
A historian who knows the history of Lebanon and Russell County very well sent me an advertisement in the Lebanon News of the black school in Lebanon closing and being auctioned off in 1965. I am so grateful to Gregory Lepore for taking the time to find this advertisement and share it with me. See The Desegregation of Virginia Schools See Greg’s website: Russell Country History.
The Day LC And I Become Friends
LC shared with me a few years ago that my white friend Richard and I came up to him on the first day of second grade. LC said I smiled and said to him, “Hi! My name is Jeff, and I would like for us to be friends.” LC believes this was a defining moment in his life as a child. He felt so relieved that we wanted to be his friends.
My mom taught me how to be kind to new people and make them feel comfortable. In a big way, her lessons during my childhood led me to become a peacemaker after being a minister for 18 years.
Blessed Are The Peacemakers
My Mom Impacted Me As A Peacemaker
I became a peacebuilder between American Muslims and Western Christians in 2005. When I speak to Muslims and Christians about the first step in bringing the walls down between them, I focus on friendship and eating together. I make it clear that unless we eat in each other’s homes and our children play together; we are not friends. We are only having polite talk or some shallow coexistence.
My mom seemed to know intuitively that only genuine friendship could bring down the fortress of racial inequity and the discrimination around us. It seemed so natural for her. I guess Jesus taught that to her. In addition, I remember reading somewhere that Jesus loved to hang out with the poor and marginalized of society.
Separating The Wheat From The Tares
I can assume that some good Christian white folks in my town at that time never saw or heard Jesus’ stories of inclusion. Maybe it didn’t matter to them. There were, however, many white people who did know His teachings and loved people well. There were churches in our area where black people were welcome with kindness, but others turned them away at the door.
I know from personal experience that the more fundamentalist churches (not including the Pentecostal churches) did not make black people in my area feel welcomed in their services. But, on the other hand, the mainline and Pentecostal churches were more inclusive to people of color.
My momma could not change the school or the town on how they felt about people of color or the poor. But she knew she could at the least influence the hearts and minds of her children. And a few others who listened to her and saw her Christlike example.
Momma Gave Me A Warning
That night, when my mother put me to bed, she said something that I will never forget. “Jeff, I want you to be aware of something. I’ve already talked to LC’s mother. She’s permitting LC to come and visit after school. Tomorrow when you bring LC home, there might be some trouble in the neighborhood. Some white folks don’t believe white and black children should play together. So I want you to know that tomorrow you might see a different side of our neighbors and friends and you need to be ready for it. I want you to hold LC’s hand when you come through the neighborhood, and as you and LC walk down our street, you might hear the neighbors say a horrible word, and it’s one of the evilest darkest words in the world. It is the word ‘n___.’”
I remember she leaned in close and looked me in the eye and said emphatically, “If I ever hear that word come out of your mouth, I promise I will wash your mouth out with soap.” Then she asked me, “Do you understand me, son?” In terror and awe that only a child could feel as he tries to wrap his brain around having his mouth washed out with soap, I responded with enthusiastic obedience, “Yes, momma.”
The Power of A Mother’s Influence
Momma Saved My Soul For Ever
That day my mother saved my life. It was the beginning of my salvation. It was a moment that would forever turn my heart away from the path of excluding others because of the color of their skin. Even when there were moments I was tempted to do so, I would remember this moment. Her words put something in my soul that I’ve never forgotten. It changed me.
My momma’s words fell on good soil that day, and their impact would produce a harvest of love and goodness that would set the course for my purpose and destiny as a preacher and a peacemaker. Her admonition was like the prophetic voice of God speaking to me from eternity through the life and lips of my momma. God had spoken, and I was listening.
Momma Taught Me To Love The Poor
Momma did not just show love, compassion, and friendship towards people of color. She did the same for the poor around her. I remember there was one white family in our neighborhood who were particularly poor. Many in our neighborhood would have nothing to do with them. Yet, they stood out in their poverty; dirty clothes and skin, a run-down unpainted house, cars in their yard that did not work, and more.
On one particular Saturday, their family threw a birthday party for their youngest daughter. Their kids went through the neighborhood, inviting everyone, but there seemed to be a community consensus that no one was going to let their kids go to her party.
My momma found out about this hateful conspiracy and made my brother Tim, and I attend the party. But my friends could not believe it and put pressure on us not to attend. So my younger brother and I were the only ones in the neighborhood who showed up, along with my momma. I resented this at first. After all, I was embarrassed because I worried about what my friends thought about me going to the party. But now I am so glad she made me go. It seemed to bring a lot of joy to the little girl and her family.
Once again, my momma taught God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven.
Momma’s Short Walk To Freedom
The next day after my momma talked with me about bringing LC home and the potential implications that could occur, LC and I walked home from school through the neighborhood. About 15 others kids and several pets were with us, and my momma was leading the pack. LC and I walked behind her.
In one way, it seemed like momma was leading some joyous children’s parade through our neighborhood. There were always kids at school who would ask my mom if they could come home with me after school. Of course, kids always wanted to come home with me. My mom usually said yes as long as their parents did not mind. These kids knew that there would be cookies and milk at my house, a big yard to play in, and of course, me as the official game master to invent endless games and worlds to explore.
As we continued our walk to my house, I held LC’s hand as mom had requested. Also, as little boys, handholding was an easy and natural thing to do back then. As we were going through the neighborhood, I remember and noticed that most of the neighbors were out in their yards that day. I thought they were excited to see our little parade. I guess they got wind of my momma’s little march to freedom. LC grabbed my hand – I could tell he was terrified – he said, “Jeff, I don’t belong here. They hate me. Look at them; they’re so angry. Look at the anger in their faces!”
God’s Love Pushed Back The Darkness
I was seven years old and white. And I possessed no reference point to comprehend LC’s fear or the dark and unwelcoming emotions he was sensing from neighbors I loved so freely. So I responded to LC, “No, that’s Miss Johnson. She likes everybody! Hey, Miss Johnson! How are you doing? Hey, Miss so and so, Mister so and so, this is my new best friend LC, and he’s coming home for supper with me today so we can play.”
I remember LC saw anger, but when my neighbors looked at me, I wondered if they thought during that moment and remembered, ‘This is Jeff, Carl and Grace’s little boy that we all love.” I was like Dennis the Menace in the neighborhood; everybody loved me and dreaded me at the same time. Yet, as they looked at me, a certain shame, sadness, or softening seemed to come over their faces. Something seemed to lift off of them at that moment.
Finally, they said, “Hi, Jeff!” and they all – one by one – began to go back into their houses or continue doing stuff in their yards. It was as if God’s love and kindness fell over the neighborhood that day. I believe they tasted the beautiful sweetness of the Kingdom of God and were left speechless; for at least a few hours.
A Quite Life Altering Moment
That day when LC walked home with my mom and me changed our lives forever. Similarly, I remember walking home with LC on many occasions after that sacred moment. He came to my home regularly, and I would often go to his house. We were close friends for many years until life took us in different directions. But as children, we were inseparable. We reconnected about four years ago in 2016. We met at a Mcdonald’s in Lebanon and discussed those days and how challenging they were for people of color everywhere. I directed the conversation to my momma. She was in her 80’s at the time. LC looked and me with a broad smile and remembered momma with great love and affection. He said, “Your momma was the mother of us all.”
Love Like Martin Love
Six years before I met LC in 1969, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington DC. I believe that the Dream that Martin Luther King spoke about that day was basically God’s dream for the world. Moreover, Coretta Scott King said that when Martin gave his speech, the Kingdom of God fell upon all of them.
Martin said, “I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with all its vicious racists and with the governor having his lips dripping with words of interposition and nullification, that one day, there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.” See Martin’s complete message: I Have A Dream
Momma Lived Out Martin’s Dream
My mom had the same Dream in 1969 on the dead-end of Banner Street street, in Lebanon, VA, where we lived. She helped me to become a part of that powerful dream. But then, the Kingdom of God blew into little Lebanon and fell on us. Those who could see and hear the wind of the Spirit would never be the same again.
My mom taught me to love my black neighbors. She showed me what it meant to follow the ancient way of Jesus truly. But, unfortunately, I did not find this ancient way in many Southern churches I was a part of. See Confessions of A Recovering Evangelical Ex-Pastor But before you’re too hard on Southerners, keep in mind Martin Luther King Jr., with all his marches and all the things he went through the South, said his biggest failure was in the northern city of Chicago. Did you know that? He walked away feeling like Chicago was his biggest defeat. Why? Because the hatefulness he encountered there was far worse than the most segregated parts of the South where he had marched and protested.
Why Racism Lingers In The Church
Racism and prejudice are everywhere. See Texas Bans Teachers From Talking About Race or Racism. The Fundamentalist churches that I associated with in my youth and as a minister were very excited about the Bible. They would hold the Bible up and say, “This is the inerrant word of God, the Bible, the Book that everyone must obey.” Also, when the Spirit would move in the church, they would shout as they dreamed about heaven.” But they did not share the Dream of Martin Luther King or my mother, God’s Dream for the world.
I heard a lot about heaven and the importance of the right doctrine and “being saved,” but I heard very little of this amazing ancient way of Jesus. This Way distinctly calls us to love God, love neighbor, treat other people the way we want to be treated, and reconcile to one’s enemies. People worshiped Jesus, but some did not follow His Way when it came to people of color. It was easier to worship Jesus than to follow him.
Jesus loved the hated Samaritans, showed deep kindness to the poor and hungry, elevated women to a place of friendship and honor, and had dinner with tax collectors and sinners. How did so many Bible-loving people in the South miss this part of the Gospel?
Don’t Call Me A Racist!
Also, to be identified as a racist was offensive to some good Christian people. See: Letter From Birmingham Jail They were not in the KKK or overtly cruel to people of color, but yet they did not take a strong stand to change things either. They just assumed that things would get better on their own. In the end, they did not want to make waves with the system of white privilege from which they benefited. See: Hi, My Name Is Clint Schnekloth, and I Am A Racist
I knew back then I was called by God to make a difference as my momma did. God gave me a prophetic voice, and a lot of people did not like it. That is why I became a preacher and a peacemaker because I wanted to change things. I owe that to my mother and her influence on my life.
I Welcome Your Comments
Any thoughts on what it means to be a racist? Why do you think racism lingers in the church? Do you think the racial struggle in this country is getting better or worse? Why do you feel this way? Any thoughts on what needs to change? What would Jesus say about racism in our nation and the church? I’d love to hear your comments!
I am a full-time peacemaker in the way of Jesus. Also, I am a Life Coach, avid bodyboarder, oceanophile, and father of an amazing 14-year-old daughter. I love to write and try to make the world a better place. In addition, I am a Life Coach and YouTube Influencer.
As a peacemaker, I focus on peace and social justice activism and bridge-building between Muslims and Christians.
If you’d like to get to know me better, please follow me on social media.
My Blog: http://www.jeffburns.org
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Until next time.