When I was eleven, my family moved from Greencastle, Pennsylvania to Scott County, Tennessee, where I don't recall ever seeing a black person, except maybe one adopted or foreign-exchange kid. I heard tell of some black man trying to run a ferris wheel, one time, and getting shot at. Heard the shooter missed, but all I can say for sure is--by the time I got to the fair--some haggard-looking, white dude was running the wheel.
Fast forward a few years, and I had to select a January-Term class at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. I decided to study black gospel music. Larry Ervin taught the class. I don't know that I have words to write him for you, but I'll start here: just to think about him (and he's still alive and well) makes my eyes well up with tears. I love him like that.
Larry--and we all called him Larry--has big energy, big presence, big patience. He has a big laugh, and he has this way of looking, from day one, at a person and making him or her feel loved to the toes. I can't think someone could know Larry and not be ready to just lie down and die for him, and it's a thing that sticks like lamb stew to the bones; I haven't seen Larry for seventeen years, and I'd get hit by a train for him, yet.
So a requirement of this class, on top of getting some book smarts, was to perform in a concert with the black gospel choir. I'd thought going into J-Term that the singing would be a one-shot deal, but turns out I loved the music and Larry even more, so I joined for real and good: sang with Voices of Praise in many different churches and several different states.
I wasn't the only white person in the choir, but I was one of very few, and sometimes the only white people in the churches were the ones who stepped off our bus. I felt white, always, in those places, but I also felt loved.
I used to wonder if it were just Larry: if he cast enough light to dispel shadows in those churches. But many years later, I was driving into Goochland, Virginia and bawling my eyes out when I passed a little, white church on my right. So much light shone out its windows, and I didn't know anything about the place but wanted nothing more than to be where that light was. I turned around as soon as possible and went inside, slid into the back pew.
Fifteen or so black people were finishing up a study on James Chapters 3 and 4. They didn't seem at all surprised to see me, even with my teary face and yoga pants. The minister looked up and said, "Welcome." I listened to the rest of the study and stood to pray with the congregation. When it was over, and before I could get out the door, a woman hugged me and said she was glad I'd come.
I have sadder stories to tell about race as pertaining to my every-day life, but I want it on record: if I need a church, and there's a light shining from within one, I won't wonder or worry about the color of its people. Because--in my experience, with or without Larry Ervin--it doesn't much matter with Jesus up inside.