Luther Little was a pastor any modern preacher could admire and look up to. I became pastor of the church he served early in the 20th century, some 40 years after he was off the scene. The more I learned about him, the more I admired him.
In the 1920’s, he became the first pastor in America, we’re told, to broadcast his church services over radio. For a time, millions of people up and down the East Coast considered him their radio pastor.
One of the most fascinating aspects to this preacher, the one that stood out and made me realize there was far more to the man than first appeared, is that he was a novelist. I have no idea how many books he wrote, but somewhere along the way–in a used bookstore, I think–I ran across “Manse Dwellers,” his novel about a pastor and his family. Clearly, he was following the number one dictum for novelists: write about what you know.
This is not a review of that book.
Rather, it’s a little story about the realization that the pastor-author was strictly a man of his day with a glaring problem he did not even know about.
Luther Little had a blind spot.
In his novel, the pastor of the Church at Tarrytown is Dr. West. He’s clearly a good guy and effective in his work. I’m only halfway through the book, but can tell this is not going to be a tragedy.
Here’s a quote, the incident that slapped me hard when I read it:
“…he walked out in the back yard where the old faithful janitor, Black Jerry, was pruning the hedge. Addressing the janitor, he said, ‘Jerry, I am leaving this afternoon…and I hope you will do everything just right in my absence.’ Jerry placed his clippers on top of the hedge and looked up at the tall, handsome pastor and said, ‘Yessa, boss, I’se gwine to do dat. I’se been drawn close to you dis year, for youse tooken holt with a master’s hand. All our pastors is been good, but dare is some’ten strong about you,–depend on me, boss.'”
And that was it. Nothing more about “Black Jerry.” This little conversation is reported as naturally as though it were the pastor and his wife. Another day at the manse. (A manse, incidentally, is the same as the parsonage or pastorium. It’s the pastor’s home.)
The book–I haven’t said this yet–was published in 1927.
Does that explain it? In a way it does. The post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws and customs in the South were firmly set by that time. In fact, I seem to recall that in the previous year, there were 26 lynchings of Black men in this country. It’s a figure easily remembered: 26 lynchings in 1926.
But this is a preacher, a man of God. And a fine one too, if I’m any judge. I’m speaking now of the writer and not the fictional pastor, Dr. West.
Can we agree that Dr. Luther Little had a blind spot? And from all we know of those years, he wasn’t the only one with this racial blindness. It was as common as blue eyes.
We can explain it but we should not excuse it.
There is no justification for the way African-Americans were treated in this country for decade after decade. As a child of 1940, I grew up seeing the “Colored” drinking fountains in bus stations and public buildings, and the signs in cafes instructing “Coloreds” to come around to the back to order.
If I thought anything about it, I don’t recall. I was blind.
Can we also agree that everyone has blind spots of one kind or another? By definition, I simply mean there are needs and problems which we do not see. Our vision is 20/20 in other ways, but in that one area, we are sightless.
For some, it’s the poor in their town. They are civic minded, church-attending, people loving. But they drive right past the poor of their town without a thought to what they are undergoing and how they might be of help to them.
For another, it’s the plight of the schools.
Another gives no thought to the crime problem in his city.
For another, it’s the elderly. Or the illiterate. The handicapped citizens, the abused wives, hurting children, housing problems, stray animals, you name it.
Needs are all around us; perhaps no one sees them all.
In his novel, Dr. Little has Pastor West carry a burden for one group which others may indeed be blind to: the superannuated pastors and their families.
(I’ve been looking for a place to use that word. “Superannuated” means “someone who is on a pension.” He’s concerned about retired preachers who need financial help to survive.)
Pastor West has no blind spot for that group, but a compassionate heart. Why? Because it’s his group. He’s a preacher. He knows them and sees their plight. He wants to do something about the problem.
That’s admirable. And it’s how these things get done.
My daughter and her husband were struggling to make ends meet, so she had taken a job as a waitress at Shoney’s in the town where they lived. One night, she called me in tears. The bedside clock read “2:30 a.m.”
“Dad, I worked a busload of people tonight. It took nearly 2 hours. The manager is supposed to add a 15 percent tip for groups over 8 people, but he forgot. They left two dollars on the table.”
Until that moment, I had probably given little thought to the plight of waitresses in restaurants I visit. But from that moment on, I have tipped for my daughter. It’s been many years since she waited tables in restaurants, but I see young struggling women (yes, it’s mostly women) just like her everywhere I go.
I no longer have that blind spot. My daughter opened my eyes.
“Elisha prayed and said, ‘O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.'” (II Kings 6:17)
There are needs all about us.
Can you see them?