Editor’s note: What follows is a supplement for teachers of Courageous Churches, the newest online curriculum from Acacia Resources. Each Friday, curriculum editor Jan Turrentine offers illustrations, insights and tips for the next lesson in the series. Today’s supplement bolsters the fifth lesson, “Asa: The Courage to Change Culture.” The following story appeared in different form in the Dec. 2001 issue of Reader’s Digest, “The Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Picture it: A Catholic funeral mass. Blacks, whites, men, women, Catholics, Baptists. And Mennonites—scores of them—all at the altar to receive the wafer of Holy Communion from a priest who knew what he was doing really wasn’t allowed. He did it anyway.
That’s the way Coach would’ve wanted it.
Perry Reese Jr., single, black and Catholic, walked into Berlin, Ohio, a suspicious stranger. He was ushered out at his funeral mass by a town of adoring Amish and Mennonites who eventually dubbed him the Original Black Amishman.
How did he do it? How did he enter their culture, challenge and change their thinking and leave them full of possibilities they never knew existed?
His vehicle was basketball, but his message was unwavering, unconditional and often very tough love.
When he first became basketball coach at Hiland High School in a town in the middle of the largest Amish settlement in the world, many in that community thought the federal government had sent him as a spy. Others thought he was part of some plot to bring blacks into their county.
His only motives were to love, teach and coach their children. Person by person, he won them over by looking them directly in the eyes, smiling, speaking and joking good-naturedly.
It didn’t hurt that he quickly turned around the struggling basketball program, even though his players were typically spindly, short kids; children and grandchildren of Amish who had jumped ship and become Mennonites, enduring the ostracism that went with that decision.
Because of his steady, faithful influence, people in the community eventually discovered that Perry Reese shared their values, virtually all of them.
He was humble, quickly bolting away anytime someone tried to take a team picture.
He was unselfish. He regularly gave away much of his salary to the kids he taught and coached.
He worshiped faithfully at St. Peter Catholic Church in Millersburg and respected the religious traditions of his players and students.
He worked tirelessly, often scheduling 6 a.m. practices and strictly enforcing 10 p.m. curfews. He was known to call players on the phone at 6 a.m. and say, “I’m up. Now you are, too.” And then he would remind them that he was always available for them, anytime, anywhere.
One writer said, “He out-Amished the Amish, out-Mennonited the Mennonites, and everyone, even those who’d never sniffed a locker in their lives, took to calling the black man Coach.”
He once told a friend if he hadn’t become a coach, he’d have become a priest. Parents trusted him with their children to the point of relying on him to instill shared values in their children. He did that, and more.
He took players to each other’s churches and to his own. He introduced them to literature, music, foods and experiences they otherwise would never have known.
Most of all, he introduced them to possibility. In a community where beliefs had not changed for 200 years since Amish settlers first arrived from Pennsylvania, Perry Reese Jr. encouraged kids to move beyond what they knew and explore the rest of the world. And, of all things, go to college.
More and more, kids accepted his challenge, along with the laundry baskets full of supplies he would give them of things he knew they would need away from home.
The people of Berlin grew to love him so much they feared that some other school would make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Women began stocking his pantry with groceries and his kitchen table with home-baked treats. Families regularly invited him to their homes for meals.
But that wasn’t enough. Together, Amish and Mennonites decided to pay his rent, one month per donor. So many people volunteered that they had to have a waiting list. When a leaf fire burned his garage, they replaced it. And they raised $1.6 million to build a sparkling new gym.
When Coach was diagnosed with an inoperable malignant brain tumor, the town was devastated. They banded together to pray and provide around-the-clock care during the two months he had at home.
Before he died, he used his $30,000 life savings to start a college scholarship fund. Others contributed, quickly growing it to well over $100,000. But Coach’s influence extends much deeper than financial.
One of his former players has decided that he, too, wants to become a teacher and a coach. But not with white kids from two-parent families. He’ll coach at-risk black kids in an inner-city school.
Several of the families in Berlin have adopted biracial or black children, something they probably would never have known was possible had it not been for Perry Reese Jr.
Sometimes the courage to change culture is as simple as showing people possibilities they never knew existed.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.