When I finished the passage, I let the Bible fall to my side with my finger firmly planted in Luke, chapter 6, and said quietly, “Blessed are the poor.” All of a sudden, a small man sitting just in front of me, not eight feet away, called out, “Yes, brother, preach to me!”
I jumped. This was immediately followed by another, who said, “Amen, brother,” and soon a chorus of “Amen,” “Yes, Lord,” and “Preach to me” filled the room, before I had said anything.
Did I blush? Did I show my astonishment? Was my terror visible to everyone? This is not how preachers were greeted in the Episcopal churches I attended in New York.
— from No Turning Back
At a time when “separate but equal” schools were under orders to integrate, Freedom Riders and civil rights workers could be beaten or killed and all of American society was learning to deal with a revolution in race relations, a 24-year old, idealistic and slightly naïve Episcopal seminarian from New York volunteered to spend the summer serving at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Gurdon Brewster was studying at Union Theological Seminary and had been working in minority communities in New York. He was tossed into the heart of the black civil rights struggle in the South at the church led by co-pastors Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. and his son Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gurdon Brewster would go on to spend 35 years as Episcopal chaplain at Cornell as well as earning an international reputation as a sculptor. His summer at Ebenezer had a transforming influence on him. An emotional meeting with some Ithaca schoolchildren observing the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday made Brewster think back on that summer of ’61 and his encounters with both love and hate, commitment and evasion, and the deep differences in religious belief and practice within Christianity. He has now shared that experience in his book, “No Turning Back: My Summer with Daddy King”.
Brewster clearly experienced cultural shock immersed in the energy and emotion of an African-American church. There was also some consternation among church members. No congregant wanted to board him for the summer and he settled in with “Daddy King” and his family. But everyone seemed willing to give the novice preacher a chance, and he began to draw close to the slow hymn singing, emotion and call-and-response that were remnants of African culture and a history of slavery. Every jolt seemed to carry an opportunity for spiritual and intellectual growth, and Brewster benefited from those moments.
But his learning curve was also twisted by contact with mainstream white clergy who clearly didn’t want to get involved when Brewster proposed a joint meeting of black and white church youth groups. One minister even suggested that such a gathering might be possible as long as police were present. (An interracial youth meeting did eventually happen that summer).
During his time in Atlanta, Gurdon Brewster had the benefit of the friendship and counsel of Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr. Daddy King was a sharecropper’s son who struggled to get an education and was an activist for the black community in Atlanta starting in the 1930s. His son had recently led the successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. and was emerging as a voice of conscience for the nation. Dr. King’s teaching of non-violence and love as a response to hate and oppression was difficult for Brewster to apply as he discovered segregated facilities, racial epithets and threats of violence, including an incident where three hostile white men nearly attacked him in a church parking lot. When he told of his fear and doubt about non-violence at that moment, Dr. King’s response was, “You’ve got to reach down deeper until your suffering and love draw you closer to God.” Brewster wrestled with the difficult directive to love one’s enemies.
Gurdon Brewster remained close to the King family and the congregants at Ebenezer. In 1979 he invited Daddy King to preach at Cornell, and the elderly minister spoke of the many losses that he had suffered. “God has taken much away from me, but God has given to me even more. I am a grateful man.” Then he added, “Brewster is like a son to me.” It was a moment of both deep emotion and amazement for Gurdon Brewster, who writes in “No Turning Back” that till that moment he had not fully appreciated the depth and richness of their relationship.
Gurdon Brewster will join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to recall the summer of 1961 and the people and ideas that changed him and the nation.