Insistent Advocate for the Gospel: An Unwelcome Witness in the Diocese of Alabama
A review of the Rev. Francis X. Walter’s memoir, “From Preaching to Meddling: A White Minister in the Civil Rights Movement”
Offered by Melanie Merkle Atha
Executive Director of Episcopal Peace Fellowship
“For us there is only trying. The rest is not our business.” T.S. Eliot
I’m writing this book review on Maundy Thursday, as the Gospel of St. John rings in my heart: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
The Rev. Francis X. Walter loves us. He loves us so much that he wrote the story of his early life, ministry and activism so that those of us engaged in the struggle can find the courage and inspiration to carry on. After reading this humble and honest account, you may find it a shade shy of a miracle that Father Francis ever had a flock to pastor in the Diocese of Alabama. That it was St. Andrew’s-Birmingham, where I had the fine fortune to be among his parishioners for a dozen or more years, is evidence of God’s good grace. Francis’ example led me to justice work.
I’m part of a book club reading Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha B. Blain. Among the action items we, a group of about ten middle-aged white women who comprise the group, thought we could commit to in order to advance the cause of racial equality was to try to raise our children to live lives of inclusion and love. Let Fr. Francis’ story be Exhibit A in the trial of the righteous truth of this commitment. Francis’ mother, Martha, lived by example the Golden Rule, which was the only color line she observed, particularly after her ongoing conversion following a hideous diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Discovering that a black Episcopal clergyman was not welcome to vest and sit with the white clergy during a Lenten preaching series at Christ Church in Mobile in 1958, Martha Walter declared, “I will never be a part of it again” (‘it’ being exclusion of Blacks from the Body of Christ). Young Tenderfoot Francis adopted this mantra and ingrained it deep within after observing a white Judge and white lawyers mocking and abusing black men in open court. The inhumanity Francis observed gave him fresh insight, causing him to wonder if he was the only person in Mobile, Alabama who felt as he did: that all God’s children were equally worthy of love.
Years after winning an oratory contest on the theme “Why I Will Never be an Episcopal Priest,” Francis attended seminary at The University of the South (Sewanee). Francis wryly observed that during these years, racial reconciliation meant, “Let’s you all calm down.” After a Fellowship at General Seminary in New York City which put Francis in the position of mentoring postulants, Francis was eager to come home to Alabama. Living “I will never be part of it again” was about to prove to be a challenge.
The Right Rev. Charles C. J. Carpenter, a “defender of the dying embers of Dixie” was Bishop of Alabama when Francis came home. As fate would have it, Good Shepherd, the black congregation in Mobile which had played such a role in his mother’s epiphany, needed a priest. Francis asked Bishop Carpenter to send him to Good Shepherd, but Bishop Carpenter, a “moderate segregationist,” was loath to put a white man under the control of a black vestry. Francis convinced Bishop Carpenter to allow him to accept the call, only to have the relationship severed by the threats of Francis’ father’s business partner.
Not exactly unflinching in the face of the attitudes of white supremacy, Father Francis candidly recounts his struggles in the face of the evil which would threaten to ruin his father’s business, send the family into bankruptcy, and cause them to lose their home, if Francis accepted this much desired call to serve as rector of a black church. Francis made the painful decision to decline the call, but not without full disclosure of the reasons to the good people of Good Shepherd.
When the call to Good Shepherd fell through, Bishop Carpenter sent Francis to serve as rector at St. James in Eufaula, Alabama, ostensibly to teach Francis how to live in Alabama, as if Francis had not been born and reared in Mobile. It would not take long before Francis’ refusal to observe the Color Line would result in his termination by St. James, but the details of his path to rejection are almost banal: Francis telling young confirmands that it might be hurtful to call black people “niggers”; Francis speaking of his admiration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message of nonviolence during a meeting in a black church; Francis acknowledging to his parishioners that “we live in fearsome tension as the White Southerner in us tangles with the Christian in us” in defense of the “kneel-ins” then happening in Atlanta.
After being dismissed as rector at St. James, Francis took a job as the first director of the Selma Inter-Religious Project (SIP), the purpose of which was to support blacks in freeing themselves from the control and domination of white people in the Black Belt counties of Alabama. It was in the process of discerning the call to SIP that Francis met with Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels while Jon was in jail in Hayneville, days before Jon’s murder by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, for nothing more than registering black voters in Lowndes County. Jon Daniels’ life and death were profound influences; Francis is responsible for The Episcopal Church honoring Daniels as a martyr of the Church.
Irritated by Francis’ demands for justice through his work with SIP, Bishop Carpenter suggested Francis leave Alabama to take a curate position in another Diocese to get himself “established,” and declared that he could not in good conscience recommend that Francis be allowed to raise a child, refusing Francis’ request that Bishop Carpenter affirm him as a fit parent to the adoption agency. Despite all this, Francis attributed Bishop Carpenter’s licensing him to serve as clergy in the Diocese to Carpenter’s love for him, and in part to the influence of northern bishops. Francis charitably noted that, in clinging to the past, Bishop Carpenter seemed unaware that God lives in the present. We should all give those who oppose us such grace.
The charm of Father Francis’ book also includes: a recipe for fixin’ coot (served over rice with collards and corn bread, naturally); directions for how to engineer a flying phantom flash; discovery of an antique Creole baby spoon that stands as a sign of racial peace and harmony; a flaming rain of eastern tent caterpillars; an illicit oyster and champagne picnic with a nursing home escapee (his great aunt); adventures pastoring the nominally insane at Bryce (yes, the mental hospital in Tuscaloosa); an intoxicated Tallulah Bankhead; and a book review of the Southern classic Diddie, Dumps and Tot; among much else.
I read Fr. Francis’ memoir and I hear his stories in my mind’s ear in his soft Southern voice. It is as if I am enjoying a glass of iced tea with him on his screened porch there in Sewanee. His muse, Memoria, seems more reliable to me than he gives her credit for.
Francis’ stories hum with love, even the hard ones for which we lesser Christians might forgive him if he offered a bitter edge. If you are looking for hope in these dangerous and devastating times, read Father Walter’s remarkable memoir. Better yet, read it aloud to your children and grandchildren. Let them hear and learn this: “We can’t all be Albert Schweitzer or Oscar Romero, but with their witness some of us will get off our butts to serve our resplendent planet and the people, other than ourselves, who are suffering.”