So let us begin anew—
remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness. …
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
John F. Kennedy
EDITOR’S NOTE—In conversations with men and women coast to coast this summer, the question always comes up: “Did you see the latest outrage?” We can’t believe that our nation’s discourse has turned so violent and obscene. Since its founding, ReadTheSpirit has focused on the power of great books and films to celebrate our religious and cultural diversity. This week, one of our most popular authors shared a story from the 1960s about civility and diversity that involves a unique figure in the news this summer: Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr., whom President Trump has asked the U.S. Senate to confirm as a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia—only the second African-American judicial nominee by Trump. What makes Alston unique, according to The Washington Post, is that he also was endorsed by Virginia’s two U.S. Senators—both Democrats.
Here is Ben Pratt’s story, written in collaboration with Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr.
By BENJAMIN PRATT
Civility requires courage.
In fact, that kind of courage may be the missing ingredient in our anger-drenched era of daily conflict. I was reminded of this truth by an old friend as we compared the conflicts we faced in the 1960s with the conflicts we face today. My friend is 61 now. I’m a good deal older. We first met in the mid 1960s when I was a young pastor trying to organize a new United Methodist church.
At the time, he was just 9 years old.
I thought that I was courageous as a white pastor inviting families of all races to join our new church—in an era when that was considered daring, if not foolhardy, by many church leaders.
But, there was a lot of wisdom in what we collectively accomplished in that small town. In fact, the lesson about courage and civility came from Judge Alston’s father.
Here is how we met:
The 1960s were a tumultuous time for all of us, including my wife Judith and I who were married in August 1963 just before I started my studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. I began that first year at Wesley shortly before President Kennedy was assassinated. I was still in seminary when the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law and the Voting Rights Act followed—along with all of the turbulence, tragedies and successes of the Civil Rights movement.
Upon graduation in 1966, I was assigned to found a new church in a planned housing community 30 miles south of the U.S. Capitol called Dale City. Seminary taught me church history, theology, a love of classical literature and absolutely nothing about how to start or administer a congregation. My guiding prayer was: “May I show God’s love, respect and care for each person I encounter.” And, to this day, members of that congregation consider it a miracle that we received more than 1,200 members in eight years—more than a quarter of whom were African Americans.
Judge Rossie Alston Jr. was 9 years old when I was pounding the pavement, visiting families door to door. As he has told this story over the years:
My mother looked out the window one day and saw this tall, skinny red-head knocking on doors. She kept going back to the window. She wondered if he was going to knock on our door. Then he did. He said he was starting a new church with people from the neighborhood and wanted us to join him for worship.
He wasn’t there long—half an hour or so. And, when he left, my mother asked my father, “What are we going to do?”
My father said, “If he had the courage to ask us—we got the courage to go.”
Claiming the Courage
As the visiting pastor, that afternoon, I never got to hear what was said behind closed doors, but when my friend Rossie told that story years later—well, I’ve thought about the wisdom of his father ever since.
I wrote extensively about moral courage and cowardice in my book Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins—and described the complex push and pull of these values as I helped to establish that new church in the 1960s. Fleming believed that moral cowardice was one of the most powerful deadly sins of the modern world. He explored the deadly dangers of such cowardice in three of his novels. As I lead readers through these challenges, and describe Fleming’s thoughts on the matter, I finally boil this all down into two questions.
Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves on an almost daily basis:
So, what am I going to do?
And then I suggest a second question:
And, with whom am I going to travel?
Ultimately, that’s what happened on that fateful afternoon in Rossie’s home. All of us were summoning our courage and asking ourselves those two questions.
Because we did, the Alston family came to the church. They stayed. They were active members—and Rossie is still a member to this day.
‘There Is a Generous World Out There’
Talking to Rossie again, I was astonished by all that unfolded from that brief turning-point in the Alston home half a century ago.
Then, as we talked, Rossie fell silent. Clearly, he was remembering something more.
At length he said, “Ben, I just realized that you are the first white man I ever had a personal relationship with.”
In many ways, as a brand-new town carved out of the countryside with a significant number of federal employees, Dale City was a tabula rasa. Rossie’s parents both worked for federal agencies. As surprising as everything else about this story is the fact that Dale City has remained diverse to this day. The 71,000 people who live there now are a stable mix of families and individuals, races and cultures: 35 percent white, 30 percent black, 27 percent Hispanic and 8 percent Asian. That’s why Rossie is happy to follow in his parents’ footsteps and remain an active part of the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church we started.
“Dale City was a very small community when we first moved in,” Rossie said. “The closest grocery store was seven miles away in Woodbridge. There were no real amenities—so the Dale City Civic Association, the local volunteer fire department and Good Shepherd United Methodist Church were the social and spiritual foundations of the community. Most families were first-time homeowners, many were in their 30s or early 40s and there was a significant military representation. All of these things contributed to a rather cohesive community with little institutional discrimination.”
In fact, Rossie recalls his parents as not dwelling on racial or cultural distinctions at home. “Interestingly, Mom and Dad never spoke to us about living in a mixed-race community,” he said. “My brother and I were taught to achieve, to not use our circumstances as a basis for not achieving, and to experience and learn from all people—both good and bad. My parents taught us that there was a generous world out there for us if we were willing to work hard and treat all people appropriately.”
And what was the basis of that optimism?
Rossie said that his family’s foundation lay in their faith and church. Even today, he said, “My abiding faith remains in a loving God who has allowed me the grace of achieving things almost unimagined for a little Black boy growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s. As I grew up, I fully committed myself as a Christian in 1977. My whole life’s accomplishments have been the result of the love of a gracious God and the lessons taught and reinforced to me by my mother and father. Although Mom and Dad had endured the scars from growing up during Jim Crowe, they would not allow my brother or me to allow their pain to injure our view of this world. In their own way, they suffered silently so that we would not have to. I miss them, so. Thanks be to God for them!”