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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: Lessons from 40 years ago

Another Angle. Lessons from forty years ago that we are learning still was first published 20 August 2006 in the Hart County News-Herald.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier Another Angle: Stars, dogs, and a bit of Gershwin

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

The summer of 2006 marks the anniversary of an important season of prophetic courage in American church history. Few people know the story - especially around these parts - but the narrative is worth preserving and passing along. The time was forty years ago, 1966, and the setting was Bells Methodist Church in Camp Springs, MD, near Washington, D. C. That congregation began in the first decade of the 19th century. By 1966 Bells had grown to a membership of 1600. The area around the church in Prince Georges County had changed over the years from rural to suburban, and the historic church grounds and cemetery were hard by Andrews Air Force Base.

Sixties a time of change for Methodists

The 1960's were a time of transition for Methodists. The Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations were heading toward the 1968 merger that would give rise to a new name - The United Methodist Church - and a new denominational symbol, a cross with a two-tongued flame, the tongues standing for the predecessor churches. At the same time Methodists were changing church law to jettison their own peculiar system of racial segregation.

In 1939 the Methodist Protestant Church and the northern and southern branches of Methodism (split since before the Civil War) had united to become the Methodist Church. The denomination had mollified white southerners back then by adopting a structure whereby predominately white congregations were organized into districts and conferences with other like churches, and they were served by white clergy. African-American congregations and clergy were in their own separate parallel structures. This system of ecclesiastical separation was scheduled to become history, and congregations of any ethnic heritage would be organized by region and no longer by race.

Methodist pastors are assigned to congregations by bishop

In the Methodist system churches in a particular conference (regional area) received their pastors by appointment (assignment) from the local bishop. Churches agreed to accept who was sent, and clergy agreed to go where sent by the bishop. This system historically had seemed autocratic to some who chose to look down at Methodists, but over the years it had allowed churches to be led by pastors who fulfilled strategic or missional goals rather than clergy who were merely comfortable choices requested by congregations. In 1966 the Methodist Bishop in the Washington area was John Wesley Lord, a man whose name resounded as though he had been destined to become a bishop at the moment of birth, if not earlier.

Bishop Lord set about to do something that was at once prophetic and historic, and it involved the Rev. Harold Greene Johnson. Rev. Johnson was a gifted pastor with a deep reservoir of interpersonal and intellectual abilities. Born in New York City in 1919, he had graduated there from St. John's University. (Over the years he pursued further education at the School of Law at St. John's and also at NYU, Columbia University, Georgetown University, and Lancaster Theological Seminary.) He completed seminary while in New York and was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church.

Bishop Lord appoints African-American to a white congregation

Johnson, an African-American, prominent in AMEZ circles, had come to Washington, D. C. where he served congregations and also worked as a computer programmer at the Pentagon for 14 years. In 1962 he had transferred into the Methodist Church with full clergy credentials. In 1966 Bishop Lord did something extraordinary and unprecedented. He sent Harold Johnson to Bells Methodist Church as senior pastor, an African-American pastor for a prominent white congregation.

Harold Johnson was to be a paladin of racial progress and cooperation, a witness to the world of the values that Methodists would, at long last, be proclaiming by living deed. Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, but this appointment made by Bishop John Wesley Lord was a very, very new thing for Methodists in 1966.

New pastor moves into parsonage in the middle of the night

Members of the press were on the scene when the Johnson family came with their belongings to move into the parsonage a few days before Rev. Johnson was to preach his first Sunday sermon. The Washington Post described the family's moving day (actually it was moving night; they straggled in late at about 1:00 a. m.) with an article headlined, "White Methodists Get 1st Negro Pastor." Despite the lateness of the hour, a welcoming party from the congregation was there. There was a hot meal ready for the Johnsons, and breakfast food for next morning was at the ready.

This is not to say that all was quiet at Bells. Some congregation members were unhappy and unafraid to express their displeasure. There was open talk of some members boycotting worship and withholding financial pledges. There were probably moments when the Johnsons must have identified with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego at the threshold of the fiery furnace. Like the steadfast biblical figures, Harold Johnson and his family persevered.

Personnel chair says Johnson is "a truly sincere and devoted minister"

June 19, 1966 was Harold Johnson and (white) associate pastor John Hoffman's first Sunday at Bells. At the beginning of worship Paul T. Stine, the church's personnel chair, addressed the congregation. "At first I thought Bishop Lord made a mistake," Stine said as he spoke candidly, then continued, "It didn't take long for me to see that a truly sincere and devoted minister has been assigned to us." He went on to welcome Johnson and Hoffman to Bells, concluding, "I wish at this time to welcome them and to pledge my full support to their ministry here. I beseech each of you to do the same."

For his sermon on that historic day, the Rev. Johnson preached from Exodus and its narrative of the Hebrew children standing at the brink of the Red Sea as the forces of Pharaoh threatened, bearing down upon them. He preached, "All of us stand at the Red Sea many times in our lives... we discover whether we are quitters or of the substance of which men and women are made... a Red Sea experience provides an opportunity for growth," he said, allowing spiritual transformation and a fresh commitment to share "...the good news of the salvation of God." These were noble words for a grand occasion.

New pastor greets departing worshipers at side door

Normal practice was for most worshipers to enter and exit by way of the main, front door of the sanctuary, but on that day Johnson and Hoffman did not want to be confrontive. At the end of the service they stood at the side door exit. That would allow any parishioners who felt the need for avoidance to go out the regular way without shaking hands with the new, integrated pastoral staff. On that day, though, parishioners left by the side door. In a newspaper article headlined "Smiles and Handclasps -- Congregation Cordial To Its Negro Pastor," Johnson recounted, "Everyone who went through shook hands and was most gracious in every way."

In truth, there were some uncordial folks in the church and in the region. The church received a visit one Sunday from the local leader of the Ku Klux Klan, though he couldn't bear the thought of staying for a worship service led by an African-American pastor, so he skulked away early. Yet through it all both Harold Johnson and Bells Church continued their ministries. Johnson went on to Baltimore in 1972, where he was appointed as District Superintendent. He later served as pastor of churches in Rockville and then Bethesda, MD. He died in 1985. A few years later retired Bishop John Wesley Lord died. And Harold's widow, the gracious and delightful Dorothy (Dottie) Johnson, died in 1997.

Writer serves Bells congregation during 25th anniversary celebration

It was my great honor to serve the Bells congregation during 1991 when we observed and celebrated the 25th anniversary of that historic time. It was a wonderful day of gratitude and thanksgiving with the congregation surrounding Dottie and the Johnson family in loving appreciation. I'll never forget it. But rather than merely remember an anniversary, I think it is a far, far better thing to learn about the original event and its context of courageous hope.

In the summer of 1966 Christians learned a lot of lessons about faith and relationships and reconciliation, about vision and valor, about the essential unity of all of us as God's children created in the image of God. The teachers of those lessons included Bishop John Wesley Lord, the Rev. Harold Greene Johnson, Sr., his family and also a lot of the folk at Bells Church in Camp Springs, MD. We do well to carry on the teaching of those lessons from 1966, because they reveal truths we are learning yet in this troubled, fractured world of 2006. I am grateful to God for all that we have learned and all that we are learning still from the people and events of the historic summer of 1966. May God grant that the lessons we learn we shall believe, and that what we believe we shall live.

My thanks go to the Rev. Edwin Schell, Executive Secretary of The United Methodist Historical Society of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and to Wanda Hall, Assistant Archivist of the Society's Lovely Lane Museum in Baltimore. They were most gracious in retrieving the archival materials for this column that gave me access to original sources and direct quotes from 1966.


This story was posted on 2010-08-08 10:15:40
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