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Of Jerry Falwell, Jack Spong, and Me

Personal reflection submitted by Valerie Mitchell

Member of All Saints, Mobile and co-chair of the Commission on Racial Justice & Reconciliation


I have served on the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast's Commission on Racial Justice and Reconciliation and am currently serving as co-chair of the commission. Every person’s experience is different, but this is a small personal story about one of my steps on the journey that we are all responsible for making toward respecting the dignity of every person.

 

I have been an Episcopalian for more than forty years, but, like many of you, I wasn’t always one. I grew up in the small city of Lynchburg, Virginia, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Our church was in the heart of the well-heeled part of town where the old Lynchburgians lived. This was the 1960s, and Lynchburg, like many towns in the South, was experiencing the turmoil that came with racial desegregation. I went to a racially segregated public school, as did virtually every child in town.

 

There were two other clergymen in town, about the same age as my father, who came to play an interesting role in the life I knew growing up. One was John Shelby Spong, the rector of nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church who later became bishop of New Jersey. The other was a young, unknown but rising Baptist pastor by the name of Jerry Falwell.

 

My father was supportive of integration and civil rights but had not been politically active. That was, however, until a black family attended our church one Sunday. There were members of our parish who wanted to ask the family to leave, but my father welcomed them without hesitation and let it be known that no one would be excluded from worship in our parish. Although a few people grumbled, the service went forward without overt incident.

 

A few days later, a letter to the editor appeared in the local newspaper, lambasting what the writer saw as my father’s reckless and radical action. The author was Jerry Falwell. Although Mr. Falwell ultimately changed his position and admitted persons of color to his church, that would be many years in the future. At this time, he was as vehement a segregationist as George Wallace. My father responded to the letter, explaining that the Gospel required nothing less than what he had done. There were several more rounds of letters to the newspaper, and then Jack Spong stepped in with his opinions in support of my father. The back-and-forth moved from the letters page to the front page of the newspaper, and my non-political father found himself in the middle of a firestorm in our town. He and Father Spong formed a partnership to take a public stance on integration, something that no member of the clergy had done in Lynchburg up to that point.

 

Although I did not personally receive any explicit backlash from friends or schoolmates, I have very clear memories of other children – and their parents – talking about “meddling clergymen” and “minding his own business.” For my part, I simply couldn’t understand what the big deal was all about. Why was there a problem with sitting next to people with different skin colors in church? This was not a standing-in-the-schoolhouse-door incident, but I knew enough to be able to discern right from wrong.

 

Years later, when I began reading Bishop Spong’s books, it took me a while to realize that this was the Episcopal priest who had befriended and supported my father and worked with him to bring about change in Lynchburg. My father was no longer living, but my mother confirmed my memories. Later still, following the death of Jerry Falwell, I wrote an email to Bishop Spong explaining who I was, what I remembered, and that I was now an Episcopalian. He responded in the most gracious way possible, with a three-page explanation of details about the politics in Lynchburg at the time, memories of the work that he and my father had done, and some personal recollections. He enabled me to look back and understand some things I could not understand at the time, but, even more, to appreciate what a huge effect these events had on me.

 

As an adult, I have simply always known that racial justice was something that I care deeply about. Both in practicing law and in my personal life, I have worked hard to bring change in our society. For a while, I could not have told you where this passion comes from, but in recent years I have been able to look back with gratitude and see that those few years in the 1960s made a profound impact on me. I am thankful for the example that I was able to see in my father’s work, reluctant though it initially was on his part. Change has been easier for me to accept than it has been for some people, and appreciating the importance of it has come naturally.

 

It has never occurred to me to be grateful for Jerry Falwell, but perhaps I am.

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