On my last Sunday in Tyler, Texas, having served a decade as the pastor of Christ Episcopal Church, I had shaken my last hand at the traditional spot outside the door of our church on Bois d’Arc. I was headed back through the church for the last time when I saw a small group of women near the front of the church house.
Bitsy Wynne, the mater familias of Christ Church, called to me as I was hurrying to get out of my hot vestments. In typical style, Bitsy queried, “Well, I guess you’re off to Atlanta to go write about US.”
I paused, and it must have been the Holy Spirit that prompted my response, because I am not that quick, “No, Bitsy. Just about you!”
Funny, Bitsy called it right. For all her bluster, she had a heart of gold, which is what I found in most of the people in Tyler. And it’s that soul that I have written about often in South of God about my Texas sojourn to Tyler.
I had spent most of my life in Atlanta, a large progressive metropolis, where blacks and whites had hammered out a relationship in the crucible of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t perfect, but there was a kind of synergy brought about by the work of leaders in the old Atlanta money, the upsurge of black political power, and the odd mix of religious leaders. Atlanta was heralded as the Empire City of the South and hyped as being an “International City”. It actually became an international city after we brought the world to Peachtree for the ’96 Olympics. Up to that point, it was more of an aspiration in the 80s when I was playing ball.
Tyler was quite a different gig. There seemed to be a deep division between black and white, with the additional dimension on Hispanics quickly changing the demographics of the city. While oil had been the economic driver through most of the century, the bust in 1983 redrew the picture of reality. There were some good things going on in economic development, a rise in the opportunities for higher education, the centering in East Texas for medical arts, the influx of some new industry, and an effort in diversification. But the city seemed to me to be at a defining moment of moving forward progressively with more seats at the table for new constituencies, or the more comfortable option of staying stuck in the “way it was and had to be.”
I have mentioned that there were a number of people who were attempting to make improvements in our common civic life. They were visionaries in their own way, fueled not of just oil, but of heart and hope. The Texas spirit is hard to beat.
One was Larry Robinson, our police chief, who had initiated community policing long before it was fashionable. Larry brought his faith commitment to bear on his work in public safety and had an ethical sensitivity as he worked in his difficult role.
Another colleague was Fred Smith, who worked for Leadership Network, which freed him to devote a lot of energy and time working with the non-profit world in Tyler. Like Larry, Fred operated out of a faith base, and it moved him to enter into the mix as Tyler sought to define itself.
Our faith commitment threw the three of us together to make a trip to Chicago to meet with a person who had experience in the work of developing community in the city. His name was Ray Bakke, a professor and consultant at International Urban Associates and the author of a well-regarded book, The Urban Christian.
Larry, Fred, and I flew to Chicago in the hopes of picking Ray’s brain in terms of how we might make a difference in Tyler. Ray had planned our brief visit carefully. He took us to several urban ministry projects to give us a sense of the energy that can be focused through community solidarity and training. He took us specifically to Cabrini-Green, a storied public project known for its roughness, but showed us how his organization was transforming the neighborhood. It was impressive.
For me, as an Episcopal priest, it was challenging to see this older man who had spent his personal capital investing his life, his days and years, his blood and guts, trying to help this part of Chicago become a better place to live for all people. The four of us wound up on the L Train, traveling at night through the heart of Chi-town, down by Wrigley Field, and other landmarks of this place.
We had asked the raft of questions we had brought with us, and Ray had dutifully, and soulfully answered them to the best of his ability. But I had one question I had been carrying in my back pocket for a while. When the night seemed to still, I decided to ask it.
“How do you change a city?”
Ray paused in the silence and chill of the late evening, looking me square in the eyes….I still remember it.
“You have to love the city.” Ray said quietly, but firmly.
My response erupted from my gut, not editing it as I would have in grad school to impress the professor. “Hell, Ray, I don’t even like Tyler. How can I love it?”
Ray smiled at me with what I experienced as compassion. And then he knocked me flat, “Well then, this will take a lot of prayer. Pray that you will learn to love Tyler.”
It was not the answer I came to Chicago to get from this high priest of urban ministry. But it was the answer I got, to the question that most pressed my soul. You see, I was trying to figure out if I could hang is this medium size city that seemed to operate with a small town mindset. It was, as we say in the trade, an existential question.
Larry, Fred, and I went back to our rooms at the Drake Hotel, caught a plane the next morning, taking us back to Tyler damn Texas. But my life was forever changed, like old Nicodemus who came inquiring of Jesus under the covering of darkness.
I begin to add a specific prayer to my daily regimen that Anglican priests commit to: Morning and Evening Prayer. I had been trained well at the Cathedral to say my prayers in a structured way in order to provide some rhythm, some centering in my life. It was the Anglican way of taking the monastic discipline of cloistered prayer and making it palatable for folks in the world.
I added a simple, but heart-felt prayer every time I paused to pray, morning and night: Give me a heart for Tyler.
I have no idea how that prayer thing works.
I decided some time back to stop pretending that I knew how it worked….and didn’t work. I don’t tend to get all spooky about such things. A pragmatist at heart, I only know that my heart changed. My attitude and service was transformed. Driving me now was not an anger over the injustice, the racism, in bias that I saw. My anger, the fire to make things change remained but my motivation was clearly different. I loved the city of Tyler, and the odd menagerie of people that inhabited that town…..MY town.
I remained in Tyler for a decade. It was a hell of a lot longer than I thought I would stay when I first landed and started looking for the first train out. I turned down a number of opportunities to “move on up” like George Jefferson, due to my commitment to be a part of the transformation in Tyler. And when I did make a move, I confess that I wept at having to leave a city and a people that I loved.
I was thinking about that decade of my life recently. I was reflecting on where our country is these days, our polarization. The spirit in the country is one far beyond hatred but is expressing contempt for those who do not share our views. This is a scary place that we are in, a perilous time at the upcoming election. I quit predicting political outcomes after 2016 and have no idea other than a predictable chaos ensuing regardless. It scares me, and that’s rare.
In the shadow of this apprehension, I am taking a lesson from the time in Texas. I have committed to praying for the country. Not just my little island off the coast of Georgia, though we need it. Not my region of the Golden Isles. Not my state. But my country, and the gaps and blindness that plague us. I am praying for a healing to the hatred and contempt. Praying for rationality to clear the suspiciousness that flourishes in fear and distrust, that winds up in the vortex of conspiracy. I am trying to remember my love for this country that has seemed to have forgotten its first principles.
Is it possible for such a diverse country, with two coasts and a heartland, to come together around a common vision? I grew up thinking it could.
I fervently thought that we might form that illusive “more perfect union”, with good hearts, sharp minds, and hard work. I committed myself to that mission early on in my life, finding my place as a faith leader as one way to make a difference. I decided to spend my one, precious life working for that goal in the way my fellow Atlantan did, knowing full well that it cost him his life. As I listen on this afternoon to a plaintive song by Rodney Crowell, my mood mellows, saddens, and wonders.
And it occurs to me, I’ve been here before. Ray Bakke’s admonition echoes to re-mind me that this takes prayer. Some serious prayer. I got to go with what I know. So I am entering this season with a commitment to prayer, with hope.
What are you doing to make things better? How are you pouring yourself out to contribute to our common life? My friend Ray suggested prayer as a starting place to change the world. What do you think?