Malcolm Boyd looks back at his experience of the underground church that existed on the front lines of the civil rights movement and wonders if the underground church can still exist today.
My most intimate experience with the underground church came in the summer of 1965. Four young black men of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and I were volunteers to assist local African Americans in Mississippi defeat a campaign to deny their legal rights in voter registration.
As a white Episcopal priest working for racial justice in a highly charged racist environment, I could not attend a church service in either a local white or black congregation. I’d have endangered lives by publicly seeking to break the racial barrier in a formal religious setting. Opposition and retaliation could have been both instant and deadly. Yet I wanted to receive Holy Communion in a setting of honesty and authentic community.
My companions were willing to participate with me in worship. We were staying with a poor family in their rural shack. On a shelf I found a loaf of musty, stale bread covered with mold. An open bottle of warm beer was also there. They could replace the wine and communion wafer or bread ofa formal mass or eucharist. As a matter of fact they did. That is when I most directly experienced the meaning and reality of the underground church. I wonder, what would you have done under the same circumstances and conditions…?
Let’s take a look at a couple of real situations. If a church seems to worship male leadership and makes women feel like second class citizens, I think justice and truth require an entirely new look at the role of women in the church. Pope Benedict and the Vatican recently offered extremely ungenerous criticism of faithful and highly dedicated nuns. One might say: Enough!
Or, if a church has long shone signs of racism, the moment has come (maybe a couple of centuries ago) to get over it. Or, if a church continues to pillory gay people, denying dignity and equal treatmnt, refusing hospitality and expression of God’s love, well, don’t preach love until you show a little.
People can change. When people do — honestly, deeply — the rest of us can change too. Anger can give way to mutuality and openness. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Then the question becomes: do we want to tango?
I do. Neither the established church nor the underground church is dead for me. I live and move and have my being in both. I cherish the yearning and truth and possibility of both.