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Stories #2: Who calls us to the table?

Stories #2: Who calls us to the table?

by Donald Schell

Part 2 of 3

My Uncle Ted was a Presbyterian lay missionary in Cameroon. He wasn’t actually my uncle. He’d been married to my great aunt and she died in Cameroon. He was one of those “uncles” who redefine family, an old, old friend of my living grandmother and the grandfather I never knew, an avuncular teacher and inspiration to all of us. I was proud to claim him for a relative.

Ted was not one of the scary independent missionaries our church preferred sponsoring. He was an actual, no-apologies-Presbyterian. In the years we didn’t see Ted in California, I felt his presence in my grandmother’s living room from all the treasures of carved ivory and ebony that Ted had brought back on his visits home. I think my love of African art and music began afternoons at my grandmother’s, handling the treasures and wondering at the hands and eyes that had carved them. Remembering Ted so long after his death, I recall feeling his living absence in that room in those objects and in the slow, steady tick tock of my grandmother’s big clock. Being there always made me eager to see Ted again and hear new stories from him.

Like my parents and another great aunt, Ted was a Stanford University graduate. His degree was in Engineering. As a Presbyterian missionary/fraternal worker he founded and ran a technical school in Cameroon. It’s there today as the Université Protestante Edwin Cozzens d’Elat. Ted spoke the Bulu language of the area of Cameroon where he worked and was fond of quoting Bulu proverbs and sayings to us. And because of shifts in colonial powers through both World Wars, Ted was also fluent in French, Spanish, and German. His field recordings of traditional Cameroon song are still available in the Smithsonian/Ethnic Folkways recording “Bulu Songs from the Cameroons.”

One of Ted’s stories taught me how sophisticated an aural music culture could be. On one of his return trips “home” as he called the station in Elat, he’d brought back a wind-up phonograph and his big stack of 78 rpm recordings of the whole of Handel’s Messiah. One of his students played the recordings over and over and then gathered a chorus of students and taught them the Messiah’s many choruses, all parts, by ear. When I first heard how fourteen-year-old Mozart had heard the Allegri Miserere sung in the Sistine Chapel and transcribed the whole piece note for note that afternoon, I thought, “Mozart was hearing Allegri like Ted’s student heard Handel.”

As an engineer Ted adapted the Bulu grass and pole building method to build a vaulted grass church big enough for a revival meeting for 5000 people. Ted was a lay preacher and teacher. My generally soft-spoken, wry uncle harbored a voice big enough to preach to those 5000 people without amplification. I hadn’t heard the grass church voice, but Ted’s voice and the power of his passionate preaching resonate in my memory. There were other preachers in the family, but none whose voices my body still carries.

Thinking of that huge grass church, I remember wishing I could have heard the singing. Why didn’t I ask him more about that? Did he record church song too? Did they sing Bulu melodies? Was there drumming? Was there dancing?

I can hear him and feel the resonance of Ted’s voice in my chest as I write. Though I heard him only every couple of years when he was back in California, it was Ted’s voice and presence and words that sowed and watered my own vocation as preacher (and yes, that fueled my impatience with any preaching I heard that lacked his intelligence and Spirit).

When our heroic builder-preacher uncle retired to California after fifty years in Cameroon, my brother apprenticed himself to Ted for building projects on his cabin in the mountains near us. Ted guided his hands and mind to build in wood. My brother became a master carpenter and a contractor. Ted gave Peter skills and tools that began his professional toolbox, a kind of ordination or anointing. And when Ted was in a nursing home, restless with pain and dying, he gave me his Bible concordance. “You’re a preacher,” he said. “Use this.” And I have used it.

I felt Ted’s two blessings come together when my brother built St. Gregory’s Church, San Francisco and our building won an American Institute of Architects Best Religious Building of the Year Award.

Ted was a teacher-storyteller. Though he was often a character in his stories, they felt a little like parables. Sometimes he judged wrongly and hurt someone and had to seek forgiveness, to make amends and reconcile. Sometimes he’d tell how he faced a dilemma and learned something. Sometimes he told of making a dreadful mistake that couldn’t be corrected. Sometimes he offered a decisive action.

I hold two of his stories among my treasures and though in both of these stories Ted appears as the hero, he’d likelier say he was an instrument of the Spirit. These were stories Ted told with an unspoken message like, “If you have a moment like this, see what the moment offers, and do what’s there for you to do.”

The quieter story is about a Bulu widow who had been sold to forced labor on the tea plantations in the North. Ted bought her freedom before she was taken away (which startled everyone) and then bought and gave her a small piece of cleared land. She knew the traditions and ways of pre-colonial Cameroon where the women were the farmers and the builders, so she readily built herself a house, planted and tended her crops, and settled securely into a solid place in her village. The year Ted retired back to California, he got a letter from her, a brief note written in the hand he’d first helped shape long before –

“My crops are good. I am doing well. Thank you for the land and for my life where my heart sits down.”

Ted said, “It makes me wish I was back home to see it.” Cameroon was where his heart had sat down too.

My other treasured Ted story was about a dining table. Ted was returning to the U.S. for one his furlough visits, a U.S. mission tour to Presbyterian churches and a visit to us in California. Over the fifty years Ted served in Cameroon, ships were the usual means of global travel, but from Cameroon your ship would be a freighter not a passenger liner. So for Ted’s voyage to New York, he and half a dozen others were guests at the captain’s mess, the dinner table for ship’s officers and passengers. On this trip back Ted was bringing a graduate of the technical school with him to enroll in Princeton Seminary. The student was going to study for ordination. He’d be one of the first seminary-trained Cameroonian pastors. Their first night at sea Ted and his student were finding their sea legs as they talked with the captain walking to the table. Some of the passengers were already seated.

When the student pulled his chair out to sit down, a Baptist missionary whom Ted knew shouted in horror, “I have NEVER sat at the table with a black man and I do not intend to now.” I picture the rock of the boat and the sway of the Baptist as he pushed himself back from the table. Ted said, “I used my preaching voice, and told him, ‘YOU SIT DOWN.’ And he sat.”

Telling these stories matters to me. I treasure them. Seeing one and hearing the other taught me possibilities that shaped me as they were meant to. I’ve heard others in my family tell them and I’ve told and retold them myself.

I notice common threads in these two Presbyterian family stories that connect them to an old 1532 Anglican family story that I want to remind us of.

— both my stories are still carry the charge of my adolescent and young adult discovery in hearing them, and both have a lay person unexpectedly transforming something traditional, official, and structured –

Thanksgiving dinner and dinner at the captain’s table –

into a moment of Gospel reconciliation, because in both a lay voice speaks decisively from the inherent authority of conscience. Neither my grandmother nor Ted prefaced or justified their decisive words “by what authority” they spoke.

and

— neither story does more than convene a reluctant, conflicted gathering. Strong words that brought divided minds to a single table (reconciling in a literal, physical way) didn’t make a consensus. The grace I felt in each story was simply in a voice gathering and holding conflicted people into one conversation at one table.

Part 2/3 watch for Part 3

Part 1

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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Troy Haliwell

Thank you so much for this series! Very inspirational and very much educational at the same time.

Nitpicker

Donald,

I am grateful that my brief personal anecdote brought forth your additional background and comments. Thanks!

Nigel

Donald Schell

Nigel,

An additional thought – in effect you’ve asked us to hear the Baptist missionary’s ungracious response in the human context of what he knew from home and his upbringing. You’ve asked whether Ted saw the value of inviting his fellow missionary to what we often call “a change of heart.” Mark Twain said he wrote Huckleberry Finn in part to address this issue. He said he wrote the book to show a good heart triumphing over a bad conscience. Twain used “conscience” to mean that part of our thinking and acting that’s formed by our context, and he used “heart” to describe what some scholastic thinkers called “conscience.” It’s a term switch, but Twain believed people’s good hearts (like Huck’s love for Jim the runaway slave) where they heard the truth. In scholastic terms, conscience is where we hear the Holy Spirit (so something like Twain’s “heart”). In Twain’s terms, the Baptist missionary in Ted’s story had a mind formed by the South he knew just fifty years after Emancipation ended slavery and barely more than a generation from the institution of the Jim Crow laws that overthrew Reconstruction. So, in Twain’s terms, your great question or hope was that Ted found some way to speak to the Baptist missionary’s heart, the place in him that knew better, the brave place in us that compels us to change for the good.

Donald Schell

Nigel, your question and experience of your aunt and uncle in South Africa correct a rhetorical shortcut I may have fallen into –

First of all, my two words -“Baptist missionary” – left off the Southerner that the man was, and yes, I figured we’d supply it. So, full correction –

a Baptist from the South –

– but that could be Will Campbell, Martin Luther King, or Jimmy Carter. And my of the most remarkable clergymen I’ve met in Malawi, Fletcher Kaiya, was the president of the national Baptist convention in Malawi and one of the first prominent clergy to address the AIDS crisis openly and say the church had to begin talking about sexual practices. So, “Baptist” as code is a bit of a trap.

Second piece – when Ted told the story, his ‘knowing’ this particular missionary included that his colleague was in Cameroon as a “faith missionary” which meant his sponsoring church or churches came up with enough money to get him to Africa and so he went, counting on them to keep money coming as he wrote appeals home. Ted’s experience was that the “faith missionaries” discounted the work of more established churches (like Presbyterians) as “not really preaching the Gospel,” and that within a year or two of their arrival in Cameroon, they were counting on the Presbyterian and other more established churches to tide them over with food and supplies when the donations from back home were slow coming. So, just a little more context.

But the powerful place your question takes us is the pain of conversion, of learning, or discovery, part of what I meant to leave us with in describing the gathering at that table as reluctant and conflicted. I imagine that Ted and this other missionary had more conversation – not just at that table. My hope is that both of them learned from the work they were doing and their common (and in both instances, as always) imperfect commitment to the work of the Spirit.

Nitpicker

Donald,

When we hear about the Baptist who didn’t want to sit down at the table with a “black man”, it reminds me of my own uncle by marriage, who operated a general store in South Africa during the 30s. When I first visited South Africa in 1934, he and my aunt would refer to “kaffirs”. This term now considered as offensive as our own “n word”, was not spoken derisively but in a casual, gentle way of referring to their customers. I picked up usage of this word, and I did not realize it was racist for several years.

It helps me realize that the Baptist had presumably been raised in an environment, probably in the Jim Crow south, where his attitude was the norm. I hope your Uncle Ted was able to help him understand the need for a change in his attitude.

Nigel Renton

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