I passed a man enjoying some shade under the pecan trees of our church parking lot on my way home for lunch last week.
The door of his car was open and he looked to be relaxing and doing some reading.
I almost walked by but then I stopped and spoke with him, as I was curious about someone choosing to hang out in the church parking lot.
The man told me his name was Larry. He was from Athens, Georgia, and he pulls into our church parking lot sometimes when he is over our way meeting with clients and has some time between meetings.
“To me a church is a refuge,” he said. “It just always reminds me of a safe place.”
As Larry spoke, I looked over in the back seat of his car and noticed several copies of The Yellow Pages, some in good shape and some that looked like the fingers had already walked through them many times.
Larry is very personable. I could tell he meets and engages people easily. He is in his early 60s, wears glasses, has a slender build and is African-American.
With a couple of questions of his own, he discovered that I am the pastor of the First Baptist Church, which opened up new topics of conversation.
I told Larry about our efforts to build strong relationships with our African-American neighbors, sharing our plans to bring our church, a Hispanic church and an African-American church together in December for a meal, music and a speaker.
We hope this will lead to breaking bread with each other next year in small groups in each other’s homes as a way of breaking down some of our stereotypes and barriers.
“In my job I’m invited into white people’s homes all the time,” Larry said. “In fact, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even see people as black or white anymore. I just see them as people.”
“Well, wasn’t that part of the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. had?” I asked.
Larry’s world has progressed much farther than much of America’s. For many, the color of our skin still stands out as much as the color of The Yellow Pages.
However, he did acknowledge, and we both agreed, that lately there has been more and more news of racial tension in our country.
I told him that each time I met with the other pastors to plan for the December event, a new tragedy had happened that we were grieving about.
As we parted ways, he thanked me again for being able to park in the church parking lot.
“I always look for a church,” he said again, “because I know I’ll be safe there.”
I thought about his words the next day when I woke up and read what had happened inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
In the days since that horrific crime, the families of the victims, the members of the church and the community have taught many positive lessons about how people of all races should come together in love, solidarity and compassion for one another.
They have come together in the same place where a gunman took away the lives of their brothers and sisters to profess that he cannot take away their faith in their Lord or their fundamental belief that through the Lord, love overcomes hate and forgiveness trumps revenge.
They are showing us how to live out Romans 12:1, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
As we have witnessed this sea of color coming together, I hope their bond of unity permeates our communities, saturates our churches and sweeps our nation.
I also pray that the spirit that seems to live in my parking-lot friend, Larry, and which was taught by Martin Luther King Jr., may live within more of us as well: “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even see people as black or white anymore. I just see them as people.”
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.