Gil Caldwell, a retired United Methodist minister, at the age of 81 continues to be an untiring civil rights activist and a living embodiment of Martin Luther King’s “drum major for justice.” Gil and I have been colleagues in ministry for many years, going back to the years when we both served Methodist churches in Massachusetts. Gil moved out of New England to pastor churches in other parts of the country and I lost track of him. I knew that he suffered a serious health issue when he was living in Colorado, but it wasn’t until he contacted my wife, Pam, and me about 5 years ago that I discovered he was living in Asbury Park, NJ.One day he called us “out of the blue” because he had heard that Pam, an artist, had created a series of paintings entitled “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement.” He hoped that the Icons would be exhibited at his alma mater, Boston University School of Theology. Through his encouragement, the Icons did get displayed at BUST in 2011. He also learned that Pam and I had produced an art/history book using her Icons and my text describing the person or event depicted. Last year Gil started asking us to send him copies of the book to take them with him when he went to speak at colleges and churches about the Civil Rights Movement.
Most recently, Gil had traveled to Shenandoah University and St. Olaf College as part of a speaking tour and he insisted on having our book available for sale. He saw the book as a way of educating college students as well as church people about the Civil Rights Movement and the power of transformative love. At St Olaf’s he spent time with the family of the Rev. James Reeb, a UU minister from Boston and a 1950 graduate of the College, who had answered Dr. King’s call for clergy to come to Selma in the spring of 1965 to join in the March to Montgomery. One of Pam’s icons is of Reeb who was murdered in Selma just before the March began. It was in part due to his death that President Lyndon Johnson gave his famous “we shall overcome” speech and pushed the Voting Rights bill through Congress. Gil was invited to speak at the dedication ceremony of a room in Reeb’s honor as he was among a contingent of Boston pastors who shared the plane ride to Selma with Reeb. Gil was kind enough to give a copies of the Icons book to Reeb’s daughter and granddaughter who were part of the ceremony celebrating his courage.
Gil and I had not seen each other in many years. But only a few days after he returned from Minnesota, Gil and his wife, Grace, were on a train to Boston where he was to speak at two churches in the area on March 15. I had served as pastor of one of the churches, Sudbury UMC, in a largely white and affluent suburb. The committee organizing the event asked me to attend. Gil, of course, also wanted Pam and me to be present and to make sure that we would have copies of our Icons book with us.
Of course, we recognized one another right away. But for all of our communication by email and phone over the last few years, I had to get re-acquainted with Gil’s style of presentation. He has a gentle and dialogical manner which invites the audience into his experience and reflection. In his sermon on Sunday morning at Sudbury he began by calling attention to the church’s “Reconciling and Welcoming Statement.” In more recent years, the rights and integrity of the LGBT community within The UMC and society at large has become an outgrowth of his passion for the civil rights of all people. Gil read aloud the first line of the statement: “The United Methodist Church is a community of believers and seekers, with differences in age, class, nationality, race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, abilities and limitations.” Then he invited the congregation to read aloud the next line: “We at Sudbury UMC recognize that there are attitudes concerning these diverse characteristics which violate the integrity of individuals and deny the richness of God’s creation.” He went on to decry the “isms” which indeed deny the integrity of individuals and the richness of God’s creation. He focused on what he called “the ism of economic inequality” which is turning out to be one of the great civil and human rights issues.
Following the worship service, there was a Talk Back Forum in the chapel down the hall where about 35 people gathered to continue the conversation. And it was a conversation, because Gil invited people to speak out about anything he had said that struck a chord or a nerve. The comments ranged from individual experiences with racial insensitivity to questions about the relationship of the situation in Ferguson to the civil rights movement. In a classic Gil Caldwell reply, he attempted to humanize, not demonize, the police and not make police “the enemy…the other” for that only increases division and doesn’t contribute to cooperation and community. Another asked how she should speak to those co-workers and friends who make comments that hint of racial bias without being explicitly racist. Gil noticed some younger people in the group and invited their interests, and wondered aloud whether they saw themselves living in a post-racial world.
In all of these interactions, Gil listened attentively and responded not as one with the answers but as one who spoke out of his own experience as a black man who had grown up in North Carolina during the days of segregation and Jim Crow and asked others to speak from their experience as well.
Pam and I drove Gil and Grace to his afternoon presentation at a Methodist church in Stoughton, a working class town and a much smaller and clearly less affluent church. Gil had been a seminary intern 50+ years ago in this Church. Many remembered him. He clearly had a love for these people and this place as they had welcomed him, a black man, when other churches he had interviewed had turned him down because of race. This feeling of affection and appreciation was a dominant factor in the way in which he and they interacted. We met in the sanctuary at 3:00 with about 40 in attendance. There was a welcoming statement by the pastor and Gil suggested we sing an old Gospel/Civil Rights song, “Woke Up this Morning with my mind stayed on freedom.” The pastor happened to have a version of the music on her computer and we sang together. Gil spoke a bit about his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, as much to re-acquaint the people and himself with each other after all these years, as to provide a context for dialogue. Again, Gil spoke of the issue of economic inequality, which the people of this community could really identify with. He invited others to share. Pam briefly told about our involvement in the movement and the experiences which had prompted her to create her Civil Rights Icons. Later in the conversation he asked me to share what thoughts I might have about the role of the church in dealing with economic inequality. Towards the end of the afternoon, he invited younger people in this racially diverse group to talk about the music that they like and what it said about race and identity. Hearing that one of the young men loved to sing, he invited him forward and his father joined him singing, “Just a closer walk with thee.” The audience joined in the refrain. With their leadership, we all sang “Amazing Grace” as a closing hymn. Gil invited the pastor’s husband, a UMC minister in another town and of Korean background to offer the benediction. We then went downstairs for refreshments. As Pam and I stood near our books for sale, we engaged in several fascinating conversations, one with a woman whose husband was trans and an ordained minister; another with an older woman who, because of her light skin color could pass as white, shared with us some of her experiences living in largely white suburban towns. A young woman bought a book and talked about her experience as a model and beauty pageant contestant.
Because a Brazilian congregation which used the Methodist Church for worship in the afternoon was soon to arrive, our group was encouraged to disperse. But it was clear from the interest of the people and the interaction that they were having with Gil and each other, that they all wished to stay longer. Saying our good-byes, we left Gil and Grace in the hands of a parishioner who had known Gil since his internship at the church and we headed out into a snow flurry which was about to intensify. As Pam and I drove the 75 miles home, lines from Dr. King’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord,” helped to carry us “through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.”