June 11 – Plunging into the Promise – Rev. Soozi Whitten Ford

June 11 – Plunging into the Promise (June 2020) – Rev. Soozi Whitten Ford

The following article references Soozi’s previous words on Exodus 14, found here. A version of the combined articles will appear as her column in the next issue of The Observer.

I was privileged to serve the First Baptist Church of Casper, Wyoming, on two occasions relatively early in my ministry career. I was the youth pastor between college and seminary, and then returned about eight years later to serve first as the associate pastor and then as the lead pastor. There were many wonderful people in this congregation who loved, shaped, and formed my pastoral identity in the almost 13 years I served among them.

Silas Jones was in his late 70s when I moved back to Casper in the late 1980s to begin my pastoral ministry. He and Eunice were from the Deep South and had moved “out west” during one of Wyoming’s many oil booms and stayed, making Casper their home. One of the stories in the church’s history happened during the Civil Rights movement and racial tensions of the 1960s. The pastor of North Baptist Church, predominantly African American, contacted the pastor of First Baptist to request the use of First Baptist’s baptismal. There were several children and adults who had requested baptism, it was the dead of winter, and North Baptist had no baptismal in their modest building.

First Baptist’s pastor and deacons were somewhat willing but felt it necessary – in “good” Baptist tradition – to pass this decision to the church body before granting permission. I wish I could say it was an amicable discussion and an easy, positive decision. Just prior to the vote, Silas stood and asked to address the congregation. Roughly paraphrased from what was reported to me, he said, “I grew up in the South and what I learned about whites and blacks doesn’t make much sense to me right now.” Reportedly with streaming tears, he continued, “If I believe Jesus died for everyone, how can I vote to deny North Baptist the use of our church just because they are black? They love Jesus as much as we do, and they deserve to be baptized by their pastor.”

Fast forward to the mid-2000s when I was serving on the region staff of Mid-American Baptist Churches (Iowa and Minnesota). We regularly joined ABC Nebraska and the Dakotas for “Tri-Region” events, including an annual Women in Ministry retreat. Enjoying a get-acquainted afternoon walk with Rev. Charlene Morris-Quarrells, she and I talked about our respective faith journeys, including the stories of our baptism. After professing faith in Jesus at the invitation of her Sunday School teacher, Charlene was baptized in the winter of 1964 at a white church in her town, because hers did not have a baptismal.  We were amazed to discover that, some forty years later, we were serving as ABC clergy colleagues in Nebraska and Iowa/Minnesota – and both of us had such strong ties to FBC Casper, Wyoming.

Never underestimate the long-term effects of making right – and just – choices. Like Nahshon in the Midrash version of Exodus 14 (and Silas Jones), leading others into the deep waters of God’s promises is sometimes the only way.

I am a white woman who has access to privilege and power not so easily afforded to others, whether I am aware of it or not. I try earnestly to listen to, understand, and learn from my friends and colleagues whose skin is different than mine and, I confess, I often fail miserably. Generations of tangled hatred and violence towards others whom God created, and decades of living within the knotted realities of racial inequality, are not easily unraveled for anyone, including me.  However, just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean I should avoid doing the hard work of learning and relearning in order to live into a new reality that is equitable, just and fair for all, no matter one’s skin color or background.

Like the Israelites, it is easy to hang with the crowds who are seeking to place blame for the realities of a situation or further justifying inequities, or worse yet, eagerly voicing a desire to “go back to what we knew before this” (i.e. back to “normal,”) while ignoring the deep pain of others. It is more difficult – at least for some – to believe God’s very real promise to not be consumed in the midst of fear, to stand firm, and witness what God is doing, and will do, to transform our reality. But the most difficult of all? To be like Nahshon, remembering the purpose to which God has called us AND taking the necessary courageous steps – plunging into the promise – even when a sea of fear and uncertainty threatens to drown us.

To live into God’s Abundant Journey means, in part, that we recognize our differences, and cherish each one as an equal partner in God’s magnificent design and creation. We will fail, but we must try. Over and over, for as long as it takes. Will you join me? Only then can we truly be Together on God’s Abundant Journey.