It's been 35 years since I preached my first sermon on a spring night at the church my grandfather's church.
It was the culmination of a search for purpose and direction with which I had preoccupied since the age of 15. It was the start of the journey that has led me to where I am now.
For me and some of my African-American junior high classmates, after we were bused from the familiar and comfortable environs of our neighborhood school in Hamilton Park to schools in Richardson, Texas, school desegregation triggered in us, a desire in for a deeper understanding of our cultural identity. There were no classes in 'black history' or 'minority studies'. So we took it upon ourselves to understand our own history with an enthusiasm and hunger we might not have had if we remained at and graduated from our old school. We checked out what books there were in a library inadequately stocked with books on Black history. We poured through our parents subscriptions of periodicals (Ebony, Jet, Sepia magazines) and we even bought our own books. We talked about those events and the news and, in my case, became more and more interested in the role of the church in our lives. It was that exploration that awakened in me a desire to make some contribution to my people's history.
But it was more than cultural and historical awareness that led me to the pulpit. The church had dominated my life. The message of the Gospel gave me a significance that transcended color and culture, but at the same time, the church and the Gospel were inextricably tied to the life of my people in this country. So childlike understanding of what God's Love grew into an obsession of what I should be doing for God and for my people. The answer to that question evolved into what our religious tradition refers to as my 'call' to the ministry.
That night, more than three decades ago, still has more emotional claim on me beyond what I am capable to adequately express.
The actual acknowledgement of that call came years later, when, at the age of 18, I told my grandfather, Rev. L.J. Batty (who was convalescing from surgery and still in the hospital), that I wanted to be a preacher. I actually thought he didn't hear me. Grandpapa, was short in stature, no more than 5'4, but was a giant to all of us. By 1975 he had been pastor of Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church for 46 years (he would continue as pastor for another 23 years!). He was a formidable figure in our family and in our church community. But he was a loving, devoted husband, father and grandfather and my admiration and respect for him was unbounded. I would later tell my father whose reaction was a little more enthusiastic.
|Rev. L.J. Batty|
My preparation, at that time, was prayerfully trying to choose and make sense of a text I felt led to select. As a senior in high school, I knew how to research papers for English class, not formal sermons. But growing up in church I had heard countless messages preached and I thought I could at least follow the pattern to which I had become accustomed.
I had committed to prepare an actual manuscript. That meant, for me, handwriting the sermon and then typing it. I took several days to carefully write it out and then I went to my father's house to type it on his electric typewriter.
I decided to put together the type of manuscript I had seen my father use. For the most part, I had always seen my grandfather use handwritten notes. Occasionally, when used manuscripts, he did so using the 'hunt and peck' method on an OLD manual typewriter. Amazingly, he (and my father), not only typed their sermons and lessons, but each Sunday's bulletin and various reports for church business meetings.
|Rev. Gerald Britt, Sr.|
He left the room and then returned periodically to see how I was doing. As the evening wore on, he returned more frequently. At some point he said, 'Let me see if I can help you out...' I wasn't struggling. I think he just wanted to see what I was going to preach!
As we went through the sermon, he pointed out some areas that needed polishing. And at one point told me something I never forgot. There were points in the sermon where I wrote 'You...' as in 'you should do this...' 'You need to change...' 'You need to do that...' 'Always use 'we' not 'you', he instructed, '...Never set yourself above the people that way. Always let them know that you share their condition'.
April 20 arrived, I arrived at the church about a little after the scheduled time of 7:30. Shady Grove seats maybe about 200 people and, the normal Sunday night attendance occasionally may have been 35-50 people. It was full on this night. I walked in and went to my grandfather's office: a small room off west side of the building that, at most had room for 5-6 people. It was a place in which I had always been welcome. I would come in and browse through Grandpapa's books. He never scolded me for looking at his mail, or the denominational newsletters and papers he had scattered on his desk. I was always enthralled by the posters he had on the wall: revival meeting posters, district calendars and the like. I was always in awe of the pictures of area pastors that were on those posters. They were photos of austere looking men, staring imperiously into the camera lens. To me, they had always been imposing and important men with great responsibility. This night, I looked at those pictures a little differently...I was, I thought, about to become one of them!
For the most part, I waited in his office by myself. Looking over the manuscript. Praying. Listening to the hymns and the prayers that you could hear easily from my grandfather's office. My uncle, a member of the church who had recently married my aunt and had turned down my grandfather's offer to be trained as a deacon because it was too much responsibility, came back and talked with me. After a little while he said, 'You be a good one, ya' hear?' I nodded and assured him I would try. Not quite a year later, Uncle Clarence would acknowledge his call to the ministry.He he served a church in east Texas for a short while and for at least 30 years has been pastor of the historic Hopewell Baptist Church in Dennison, Texas!
I left the sanctuary after reading a verse of scripture I had recently discovered in the book of Jeremiah, 'Be not afraid of their faces; for I am with thee to deliver thee saith the Lord'. I uttered a prayer and took the short walk through the door of the office, across the narrow hall through the door that leads to the sanctuary, almost directly into the pulpit. I heard the low murmurings of 'amen' from a nearly standing room only sanctuary, into a pulpit that was filled with preachers. Grandpapa had allowed me to sit in the pulpit for a couple of weeks to get used to being up there, but this was different. When I stepped into the pulpit I had only expected my grandfather and my father to be there. But there were men, whom I had known, pastors, who were friends of my grandfather and father, that I'd never have imagined taking the time to be present. They are all gone now, but I will never forget them for being there: The Smith brothers: Revs. Calvin and L.C., pastors of the Mt. Rose and Love Chapel Baptist Churches, respectively, both former members of Shady Grove; Rev. Palmer Rayford, my grandfather's longtime associate minister; Rev. Donnie Bogandy, my father's associate minister; Rev. Governor Thompson, another pastor and former member of Shady Grove, along with, of course, my father and my grandfather.
The youth choir, of which I was still president, sung that night and after I took my seat, they sung their final number. Then my grandfather got up to talk about the occasion and introduced my father, who presented me. Then my aunt (Uncle Clarence's wife) played the piano, my mother the organ for the song that traditionally precedes the sermon and I stood and approached the pulpit for the very first time. I allowed myself to take in the moment. I looked out into the faces of relatives, fellow church members - most of whom had been surrogate aunts and uncles throughout my life. Members of my father's church. Members of other churches with whom Shady Grove and Memorial Baptist Church's had fellowship. There were classmates, friends with whom I had grown up, co-workers from my part-time job at Presbyterian Hospital and...others. I tried not to be overwhelmed. And to calm myself after the congregation was seated after the hymn, I began, what would be my custom for the next several years, I read I Corinthians 13...'Though I speak with the tongue of men and angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal...'
For years afterward, I would recite this as an introduction to my messages. While there are those who would impute some deeper meaning to this, it was my love of this scripture and the fact that it calmed my nerves as much as anything that were the reasons I employed these verses.
After this, I launched into my message. The subject: 'Why Does Man Need God?'. The scripture text was Mark 5:1-20. The theme of the message was that man needs God because without him, man travels a path of self destruction.
I wish I had some funny anecdote or some humorous incident that took place that night. Actually, the sermon event itself passed without incident or accident. With as much passion as I knew to employ, I read the manuscript I had prepared. The message was received enthusiastically. The pastors in the pulpit, when they had their remarks after I was done, commended me on my poise and publicly counseled me to remain faithful to God. My father and grandfather were proud, as were the other members of my family. My grandfather called for a vote by the members of Shady Grove to license me to preach the Gospel. This, in our denomination, is the first credentials a minister receives prior to ordination. A motion was made, seconded and the church unanimously voiced their approval. We received a collection, there were announcements and a few more remarks, was allowed to give the benediction and it was over.
And, 'it' began...
Later that evening, I got in my 1969 Mercury Montego, and sat there for just a few minutes, trying to get my head and heart around all that had happened. I uttered a prayer, asking the Lord to create in me a passion to be better. And then I said, 'I don't know where You want me to go from here. I know where I want to go. I don't know what you want me to do. But wherever I go, please take me there by preaching...' Although I'm sure I didn't fully understand what I meant, over the years, I can say God has honored and answered that prayer again and again.
In about five weeks, I would graduate from L.V. Berkner High School. That fall, I would enroll at Bishop College to study for the ministry. In 1982 I would be ordained and assume the pastorate of the New Mount Moriah Baptist Church and this incredible journey continued along a new and exciting pathway. I continue along that pathway still...