(Photo Caption: Jim Ray (Photo provided by Joyce Rothermel)
By Jim Ray
Several years after graduating from McCormick Theological Seminary I began a career in Campus Ministry at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. This was in January 1963. Three weeks later I received a phone call that was to change my life and put me on the way to being a radical peacemaker.
That call from a local pastor invited me to go to the August 1963 March On Washington. I had never done anything like that before but agreed to go. That experience, of being there with over 200,000 people of all colors and backgrounds from across the nation, listening to Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and hearing Bob Dylan sing “the Times they Are A’ Changin’ ” moved me to understand that I was meant to follow in the way of the radical Jesus.
That is, I was to confront the “way things were” which were holding down far too many of God’s people, especially African-Americans, with whom I had little experience until that day. Thus, several weeks later I joined a picket line in front of the home of the Chancellor of The University of Illinois to protest the fact that few African-Americans were being hired to work at any level at the university. That protest resulted in a proper change in the hiring practices.
In 1964, as a result of another of those calls that continued to change my life and approach to ministry, I received a call from the National Office of the General Assembly of my Presbyterian denomination, asking me to go to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to join a picket line with African-Americans who were there so their people could go up the outside stairs to register to vote without getting assaulted. It was Holy Week, only several weeks before the three young Civil Rights workers were found buried in an earthen dam 30 miles away.
That experience of being with only 3 or 4 whites on a picket line of 25-30 black persons, and living for the week in the rear of a black-owned TV repair shop, going each night to an African-American church where I had never heard such great preaching and singing about resisting the “powers that be,” did change my understanding of ministry. What a change to only feel safe with black persons and fearful of whites who would “give us the finger” as they walked by our our 8am-5pm, slowly moving, picket line.
The local Presbyterian church was just down the street from where we were picketing. and one day my Presbyterian pastor colleague, who had gone with me from Champaign-Urbana, decided to walk down there after the day was over. But we could not muster the energy to go inside for fear of causing a ruckus.
I began to realize once more what the “street preacher Jesus” was about when he threw the money changers out of the Temple, and continued to challenge the overbearing Roman authorities as he demonstrated to his people how they should live their lives. For in his perspective God’s kingdom was in the here and now in their midst.
Several years later, in 1968, I moved with my family to Pittsburgh, where I was in ministry at the University of Pittsburgh. I was on the staff of University and City Ministries, where I became involved with a multi-racial congregation, the Community of Reconciliation. Shortly after arriving I learned that no African-Americans were being hired to build the new U.S. Steel Headquarters and the Three Rivers Stadium. The Black Construction Coalition was formed and began protest marches seeking needed employment. I joined another of the many marches that by now had become a normal, non-violent way to call attention to the plight of marginalized people.
To my surprise I discovered a number of the members of the Community of Reconciliation participating in the March. I thought, “YES”, this is what it means to live out your faith. The marches resulted in jobs for African-Americans! On those marches in 1968 I met some folk from the Thomas Merton Center, which began friendships, and I became involved with the Merton Center, finally joining the Board sometime in the late 1970’s. There I found companions who understood what being a person of faith really means. It means resisting those “powers that be.” It means “putting boots on the ground.”
My years of relationships with so many of those Merton Center faithful also meant that when I left Pittsburgh in July 1983 to move to Youngstown, OH to be the Protestant campus minister at Youngstown State University, I would continue my financial support for the Center. Thus I have been contributing over all those 35 years, making a monthly donation. AND I KNOW IT IS MONEY WELL SPENT!
Please consider doing likewise as we continue to tell the world, in Bob Dylan’s words,
“The Times They Are A’ Changin’ “.
Jim Ray has been formally retired for over 20 years but keeps at the justice work which is still important. He started a Dialogue on Racism in greater Youngstown, which has gone through two cycles with over 80 persons and several churches involved.