I Am Sending You

February 24th, 2013

The following story is excerpted from Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi, the true story of Dr. Charles Johnson, an African American pastor in Mississippi during the summer of the Freedom Rides. He was unwittingly thrust into the heart of a national tragedy, serving as a key witness in the infamous "Mississippi Burning" trial.

Charles came to Christ at about the same time he fell in love with a woman. He met and married his wife, Carrie, at the age of 17. They were firmly fixed in Praise Temple, and they learned to walk together as a married couple during the same years they were learning how to love and praise God.

A couple of years into their marriage Charles began to feel a nudge. He had been heavily influenced by CR Smith‘s great passion and zeal for Christ. CR’s spiritual fervor was contagious. Charles wanted more. He wanted obedience. He wanted to trust God and walk with Him. He wanted to follow His Lord.
After thinking about it for a time he decided to talk to CR about what he thought might be a genuine calling from the Lord.

“I think I’d like to attend the Nazarene Bible College there in West Virginia,” said Charles to his spiritual mentor.

“You know you’ve got a wife, now. . .” responded CR, suggesting the gravity of such a decision.

“I know,” answered Charles. “I feel like God is calling me to do this. But I don’t know if I can afford it.”

“You really want to go?” asked CR.

“I really do,” responded the earnest young man.

“Well, if you can work your way through Bible school,” started the businessman, “I’ll get you there.”

CR assumed the few debts the young couple had and paid for them to travel to West Virginia to start in the Nazarene Bible College. There was never any question which Bible College Charles would attend. He wanted to serve in the denomination in which he’d found life in Christ, yet the other Nazarene school in the South, Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville, Tenn., did not welcome black students to enroll.

Life at Institute was hard but gratifying. Charles threw himself into his studies while also seeing to the needs of his marriage. Working through the night as an orderly at St. Joseph Hospital in Charleston, Charles would take a bus back to Institute in time to catch class in the morning. He’d sleep when he could, sometimes between class or in the afternoon before heading to work. Sometimes he’d catch a few winks in a vacant wheelchair when things were slow at the hospital, or on the 30-minute bus ride between work and school. When Charles could stay awake for them, the evening meals were the young couple’s opportunity to connect each day.

They lived on campus with the other twenty full-time students with families and six faculty. It was a tight knit community at the Bible College. JoeAnn Ballard, a compassionate ministry founder and director in Memphis, Tenn., who also attended the Nazarene Bible College reflected on her experience there: “You really came to depend on your teachers. They became your parents and your family. There was a lot of trust.”

In school, Charles studied church history, theology, and Bible. He also learned that the Nazarene tradition names a distinction between social holiness and personal holiness, but sees the two as inextricably linked. John Wesley, upon whose theology the Church of the Nazarene bases its holiness doctrine, was known to say, “There is no holiness but social holiness,” meaning that a person’s moral character means nothing if it has not been extended to the pursuit of just and righteous relationships. Or, in the words of Mississippi Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “Ain’t no such thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face.”

The holiness doctrine communicated there harmonized biblical teaching with both a personal and communal responsibility to grace. Holiness was expressed as whole-ness. A person surrendered to God’s will is a whole person as body, soul, and spirit. The good news is that all the world become whole, to become complete in Christ.

Charles was at the top of his class. He demonstrated an academic and spiritual fortitude to the faculty and administrators during his two years in Bible School. This was a most gratifying time in his life, a learning experience that seamlessly combined education with practice. The community of faculty and students all living together on the campus in Institute was deeply rewarding.

After two years of education at the Bible College Charles was ready to serve a church. Near the end of his last semester of classes, he would meet with Warren Rogers, now the District Superintendent of the Nazarene church’s Gulf Central District—an ecclesial district encompassing all of the African American churches that spanned 16 states. The superintendent was responsible for matching ministers to the churches in his charge, so when Charles met with DS Rogers he would learn which church he would be serving in his first pastorate.

When Rogers arrived, Charles was ready. He had done his research on the churches in need of a pastor. At the top of his personal list was a racially diverse church in progressive San
Diego, California. The description of the assignment pinned to the bulletin board in the college commons area captured Charles’ attention:

Strong, mid-size church with a diverse membership and long history. Financially self-sustaining the San Diego church offers a regular weekly salary and a parsonage.

Attached to the post was a small photo of an impressive church building and another one of the parsonage. The house was a spacious ranch-style home with a two-car garage attached at one end. Charles’ imagination came alive. He saw himself ministering to a godly folk in a paradise of white sand and blue skies.

Not only did Charles know where he wanted to go he knew where he did not want to go. There was another church open for appointment. It was in Meridian, Mississippi. To the degree San Diego sounded desirable Meridian sounded undesirable. It was a small church struggling to survive on district mission money located in the heart of the Deep South. Next to the description of the church was a photo of the small, square building and the little block parsonage to the rear corner of the sanctuary. It looked dismal.

Charles pitied the poor fellow to end up going there.

And so me and the Lord had already talked. I told the Lord and three more folks, “I’ll go anywhere but Mississippi!” That was my prayer. Because I had seen some terrible things happening there—he shakes his head as if to shutter the national reputation of Mississippi free from his mind—I really didn’t want to be a part of it. I was afraid of it.

The San Diego church stood on the precipice of an unending horizon while the Meridian church teetered on the edge of despair.

There seemed to be only one reasonable option for where to send a capable Bible college graduate.
Over the next few days, before his official meeting with Rogers, Charles found ways to run into the District Superintendent, and hint about his desire to move to serve in California. I dropped so many hints he had to stumble over them.

It came time for me to meet with the District Superintendent, and I went in and I was really confident because of the fact that he knew me and we knew each other and these DS’s, you know, when we like each other. . . let’s just say I knew I had right coming.

When Charles was summoned from the other students he entered a room where the District Superintendent and a couple of faculty members sat together in dark suits on the opposite side of a long table. Charles took his seat before his teachers and mentors anxiously awaiting word of his ministry assignment.

In a deep, baritone voice the District Superintendent started carefully and methodically into Charles’ case: “Brother Johnson, you have done well, here, at the Bible College. You have worked hard and proven yourself in several areas.”

Charles had been right about his superior’s view of him. This was going to be alright. As the DS slowly chose his words Charles imagined the glorious future before him.
“Brother Johnson, I am sending you . . .”

Between “I am sending you” to the next statement I could envision the sea gulls flying over the ocean . . . I could see the white sand on the beach of San Diego and I could see all of the beautiful blue waters! And I could see myself—sometimes, when I get a break—running through the sand! I was, oh, so confident this was going to be the end of the story. I sat there waiting on the next part because I had already envisioned where I was going.

“. . . I am sending you to a Utopia. . .” continued the seasoned superintendent.

Hmmmm…. There wasn’t but one utopia that I knew of and that was in San Diego. I could see that picture of the two-car garage in my mind. Didn’t even have a car but I wanted that garage! I could see that big, beautiful church.

“I have a Utopia for you. . .”

I could hear the drums rolling in my ear. Charles knew the next words would be “San Diego.”

Again, DS Rogers started over, “I am sending you. . .”

By that time I felt like a peacock, my feathers—telling the story Charles fans out his hands before him as if to display a spray of colorful feathers—my feathers making a beautiful sight as I strutted across the chicken yard! I was happy.

“I am sending you…,” said the District Superintendent finally, “to Mississippi.”

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