Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bishop William Henderson

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The door to the Michigan Street Baptist Church was closed, but it wasn’t locked. As I stepped inside I heard a voice from downstairs call, “hello?”

The voice belonged to a middle aged black man who introduced himself as Bishop Montgomery. I chuckled a little and introduced myself the same way. “Well aren’t we something? That over there is Bishop Henderson,” Bishop Montgomery said, pointing to a grey bearded man seated at the table.

Bishop Montgomery showed me around the small chapel. The pulpit is original. It is where Montgomery speaks on Sundays, and where Dubois spoke long ago. He showed me the progress of current renovations to the stained glass windows, and directed my attention to a small door leading to the attic. “That up there used to hide runaway slaves.” I was told about how hiding runaways was risky, even in a free state. If caught, the church would be shut down. But the church hid them still the same. We talked for a bit as we, walked back downstairs.

“This old guy here is the one to answer your history questions,” Montgomery said as Bishop Henderson slowly pulled himself up to his feet.

I haven’t met anyone quite like Bishop Henderson.

He took me to the back of the basement and into the bathroom. Here he pulled aside a curtain to show a small compartment, smaller than coat closet. He told me that people being ushered along the Underground Railroad would crouch here, hiding from slave catchers. He told me the place was special and he wouldn’t let the workers patch up the hole in the wall when they modernized the building. He told me how no one ever liked slave catchers, even people who didn’t like black people still didn’t like slave catchers. These holders of negative opinion included the city judge, the one the slave catchers would have to go to get warrants. This judge would start proceedings, excuse himself to use the restroom, and never come back, abandoning the court while in session. He told of how those running away had to rely completely on the goodness of others, others meaning white people, to usher them to freedom. Black people could only conduct at night. It was up to whites to open houses, drive wagons, row boats, as black people would all be targets of capture themselves. He told the stories with energy, conviction, and surprising detail.

I let him talk, he likes to talk, but one question started to distract me from all the rest. Finally I asked, “You are a Baptist Bishop, you were the pastor of this very church, why do you wear a star of David?”

He smiled as his hand moved up to the pendant around his neck. You see, my mother was African-American, but my Dad was a Jew. I used to hate my Dad, but as time has gone along, I have grown to appreciate him and the culture he came from. “So it’s an ethnic rather than religious symbol for you?” I continued. “Yes.”

Now I had a whole new set of questions.
“You are, shall we say from a generation before my own,” I began; “More like two,” he interrupted. “Was it difficult being raised the product of mixed parentage?”

He told me the following story:
“I wasn’t raised mixed. I wasn’t raised by my parents. A black family adopted me when I was very little and black was all I ever knew. My family was black, everyone at school was black, and everyone in church was black. I never knew of anything like prejudice till high school when I became best friends with a boy, six foot three and dark skinned… looked just like me. Wherever we went, people would say, there go salt n’ pepper. As I got older I would occasionally guest pastor at some other churches, black churches. I would stand up in front of them and watch as they started whispering around to each other, who is this guy and what does he have to say to US? I would just smile and say, my mom was black and my dad was a Jew. I’m not black or white, I’m a whole new creature created by God to preach of Christ! He said this always went over well.

I knew my Dad growing up; I just didn’t know he was my Dad. Our neighborhood was mixed back then, we had some of everybody. We used to watch the Jewish people walk to church on Saturdays. They wouldn’t drive, that was work, and they observed the Sabbath.
I had a dog, I loved that dog like little boys do; he was my best friend. One day the dog was hit in the road and I remember sitting there in the street holding my dog as it died, tears flowing as I cried. People were all gathered round, just watching, not doing anything. Then, through the crowd, came this man. He bent down and put his arms around me and held me, comforted me. No one else moved, just this white, Jewish man, and I felt a special bond with him from that day on. We all used to play in the streets and I would see him from time to time, watching from a distance. I didn’t know till much later that he was my Dad, just as I didn’t appreciate till much later that my father had no choice.
I was a child born out of wedlock and as such had to be cast out. It didn’t matter my race, I wasn’t allowed.”

He showed me a picture of his mother, who died while he was a child. He showed me a picture of his wife and grown daughter. I told him about my daughters. I told him about how my six year old was confused when told about segregation, with special places for white and black. She wanted to know where the tan kids sat. He smiled; he does that easily.

“Talk to your kids. You don’t have to tell them more than they are ready for, they learn bit by bit, but answer the questions as they come.”
“I warned you he liked to talk,” Bishop Montgomery interjected as he walked through the room. It was time for me to go.

I think Bishop Henderson would have sat and talked with me all day had I kept asking questions. I would have liked that. But the parking meter was still running, I had a schedule to keep, and wisdom does no good if we never step back into the real world.
I shook his hand, took his card, and he showed me to the door.