I have always loved the late Dan Fogleberg's music. Especially 'The Leader of the Band'. In a beautiful song about his relationship with his father and in a different discipline altogether, he sums up the feelings I have toward mine.
Over the past several months, the faith challenge for me and my family has been the progression of my father's illness.
He was taken to the hospital last Sunday for what turned out to be an ulcer. But this is in addition to his battle with prostate cancer. He's putting up quite a fight. But it's clear this combined with several other illnessess, are taking their toll.
Revs. Gerald Britt, Sr. and Jr. share have quite a bit in common: the name; relatively long pastorates (34 years and 22 years respectively); we're both PK's (preachers kids); we both have a love of books, history and politics; an often irreverant sense of humor (which is sometimes unsettling for others!); prostate cancer.
And while I don't have all of the memories I wish I had of our lives together, as I watch his strong body grow smaller and weaker, I remember with tremendous gratitude his willingness to release his namesake and Christian ministry colleague to find his own path.
I remember when he told me (a couple of years before I knew I would go into the ministry), that if I ever decided to become a minister, I should major in history, sociology, or English, rather than religion, so that I would have a profession to fall back on, if I didn't become a pastor immediately. He had graduated from the same school (Bishop College), with a major in history, with a minor in sociology and taught history for a time, in the Dallas Independent School District.
It was sound, practical advice - a pattern followed by many of my college schoolmates. The day I registered for class, I registered with a religion major with a philosophy minor. When I went to his house, papers in tow, he asked me what my major was. I told him. He heaved a slight sigh, said, 'Alright'. And supported me all the way!
After seven years in the ministry, I decided to move my church membership from my grandfather's church (my parents were divorced when my brother and I were very young and we were members of the church pastored by my maternal grandfather). But I also decided that I wouldn't be joining his church. I would become a member of a larger church, pastored by a former classmate and friend of his. Armed with every logical, scriptural and rationale I could come up with, I went to break the news to him. He immediately sanctioned and supported it as a good move! Nine months later, when the pastor of the church I joined was killed in a car accident, and I was called to succeed him, my father celebrated the church's choice and my independence spirit.
Several years after that, it was clear that my ministry was going in a direction unfamiliar in my families 'traditional' view of ministry (I'm the third generation of preachers and pastors on both sides of my family). I was becoming a preacher/community leader.
A picture of me, surrounded by other protesters and police, pouring out the contents of a can of African coffee into the City Hall Plaza pool, appeared on the front page of the Dallas Times Herald (the city's afternoon paper at the time). We were protesting Dallas City Council's appeal of a federal courts' ruling of a single member district configuration for the city council. He was asked by his peers and colleagues "What is young Britt, Jr. doing?!" He replied, "He's doing what I would be doing if I were young enough and had the same opportunity".
Ours has been a solid, father-son relationship. We love one another. We respect one another. We support one another. We learn from one another.
My 'step-father' (I hardly ever use that term), taught me quiet expressions of dignity and self worth, like when, during the hey-day of the Civil Rights Movement, he made it a point to take us places where, prior to our showing up, only white people went. Sometimes a department store; sometimes a cafeteria, but he demonstrated a confidence that suggested that he expected that he and his family to be served and treated with respect. But my birth father, taught me why that was important and put it in context for me so that I understood the broader significance of such acts.
Almost in spite of myself, I have found myself always trying to make him proud. And I've always found out that the extra effort wasn't necessary. He was proud already.
Not long before I left New Mount Moriah Baptist Church as pastor, to join Central Dallas Ministries, I was talking to my associate ministers. I told them that if I could do anything all over again, I would have spent much less time trying to impress my father and grandfather and more time trying to learn from them. I learned that they had both seen far too much to be impressed by me and I had learned far too little from two very wise men.
My blessing, however, has been to know and love them both.
Before these last days, my father, brother and I, have tried to make more time for one another. All three of us are wishing for more time. All three of us are grateful for the time we've had and, have. Even now...