Andy Meiser is an old friend, a rural Brethren in Christ pastor, and the former principal of Juniata (PA) Mennonite School. After college, Andy did urban ministry in Philadelphia. This is a tribute to one of his mentors. –JF
Our friendship has spanned three decades and, as it enters a fourth, we both know that it will end soon. My old friend is old now. Aside from a few heart attacks, a few strokes, thrice weekly dialysis and diabetes, he is in pretty good shape. We have worked together in ministry, prayed together, argued together, hurt together, and lived together. Somehow we are still friends in spite of it all. My wife and I made arrangements, against reason, to bring him into our home. Didn’t work out. Some things don’t. But there are greater things working.
“I would give you my heart,” he said during one of our visits.
And we both agree that we wouldn’t be friends were it not for a few special people.
“Daddy why do they hate us?”
“Son, don’t you label white folks until you’ve met all of’m.”
My friend received those words from his Father while growing up in the Jim Crow south. From childhood he saw and experienced some hard things; many that I wouldn’t share in this forum. But even as the anger grew, words such as those remained.
And then there was Jesus. It was something we shared, and it allowed us to share life together. I am well aware that slave owners grabbed a few out of context verses to justify slavery, and that the church hasn’t always been the best example of racial reconciliation, but those people weren’t paying attention to the genuine article.
My friend learned love over hate from amazing preachers you’ve never heard of; men who had seen many hard things themselves, but chose to look harder at the love of Jesus as the ultimate deliverance. “Some of the folks I grew up with vowed they would get revenge, and some of’m got it,” my friend said once. “But what does that do? You just become like the people that mistreated you.”
From a far different land of upper middle class life, where I scarcely new a person of color, I found in Jesus a boundary breaker, a friend of sinners, and man who often made the most despised and disenfranchised of the day the heroes of his stories. But I also found Him available to anyone who knew they needed Him. And I as I reluctantly picked up my cross to follow Jesus, I found that staying in my own lane wasn’t option.
And we so we met in Bible College, so much different, but a few things the same. A few years later we were partnering in a gritty inner-city drug rehab. The partnership lasted seven years.
I never met Martin Luther King. My friend did. He would often arrange and present the chapel program on Martin Luther King’s Birthday at Philadelphia College of Bible. Truthfully, many of us white folks squirmed through it at times. Why dig up the past? What could WE do about it?
Actually I learned the answer to both questions.
He followed Dr. King around during those charged days of the 60s, as an angry young man hoping for a new day. He marched, he listened, and he felt his spirit rise with the words of Dr. King’s soaring oratory.
And then that same spirit exploded on the day of MLK’s assassination.
“I was never so angry in my life,” he told me. I wanted to kill as many people as I could+-.”
But in the midst of the chaos and confusion of that day, just at the height of his anger, he happened upon a woman who was weeping openly.
“Son,” she said to him, “they just killed peace.”
She was my shade of skin. They embraced. And my friend was taken back to the words of his Father, and the truth of a message that was meant to expose our worst, in hopes of bringing about the best.
“Andy, I would give you my heart.”
People may say that Dr. King had his flaws (he did). People may say that his message gets convoluted by time (it does). People may say that we are a long way from living the ideals that sound good in words (we are).
But here is what I will say: True reconciliation is worth it. True reconciliation is hard. There were months in these thirty years when we didn’t speak. There were blow-ups, misunderstandings, missteps. But something always drew us back.
And I will say that anyone who has the courage to reach beyond borders with a message of love and truth is someone I have time to listen to.
I will say that I fall short in so many ways.
And I will say that words and actions of people who saw past their tunnels to the costly expanse of God’s love continue to inspire me.
And I will say that this heart gets tired sometimes, but I pray for the strength to continue giving it. Others already have, and I truly believe my friend would.
Such friendships become a startling grace of the past, present, and future.
“Brothers let us love one another, for love comes from God.”