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I’m trying to digest the fact that this month marks half a century since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. How far we’ve come, I think to myself. Or not.
My family was living in an upscale neighborhood in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., on the Kansas side, called Mission Hills. We weren’t rich, but these were probably the best days of my dad’s career as a dress salesman and sales manager.
I was 20 years old, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, where I lived in the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house. The University of Kansas was so inexpensive in those days that I didn’t have to take out student loans to attend, and I only worked as a lifeguard in the summer to earn extra spending money.
Yes, I was privileged. And my world, for the most part, was lily white. So I was rather surprised when I drove home from Lawrence the day after the assassination of King and my mother told me about her plan.
“I told Norbert [my dad],” she said. “We should stand together with the Negroes after this terrible tragedy. So we decided to invite House and his wife to come to church with us this Sunday.” House had cut our grass for a few months after Mom had surgery when I was a senior at Shawnee Mission North High School. He had always told us to call him House, so we never knew his first name.
“Yes,” she continued. “And then I’ve invited them to come to our house for brunch. And later in the day, we’ll go to their church with them.”
“Wow. That’s a first,” I said.
“It will be a show of solidarity,” Mom concluded. “I expect you to go with us, by the way.”
“Sure,” I said. “Count me in.”
Mom told me that Dad was going to call the pastor of our church to fill him in on the plan. We adored Dr. Lawrence Bash, the well-educated pastor at Country Club Christian Church, so named because it was in the Country Club District of Kansas City, Mo. The rolling green hills are peppered with large, magnificent homes on large, well-tended properties. The large limestone church is one of the dominant features on Ward Parkway, a broad green boulevard decorated with fountains and statues that runs through the area.
Dr. Bash delivered long, thought-provoking sermons that we found thrilling and inspiring. The church was part of the Disciples of Christ Protestant Church, whose website today notes: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”
A few minutes later, Dad showed up. He didn’t look like my usually bright-faced, happy-go-lucky dad, generous with smiles and corny jokes at the ready.
“Dr. Bash was lukewarm to your idea, Betty,” he told my mom. “But I think we should go ahead with it.”
When Sunday arrived, House and his wife drove into the circle driveway in front of the house rather than up the back driveway, where he arrived as a worker. Dad drove us all in his car to the church, about 10 minutes away, and parked. We walked up to the majestic limestone building with its sizeable wing and went our separate ways. My parents and the Houses entered the sanctuary, and I went to Sunday School that day, a decision I regret now.
When I spotted Mom and Dad and the Houses after the service, I didn’t have to ask how it went. All four faces were drawn and long, sad and disappointed. My dad told me later, “Not one person in the church greeted or welcomed House and his wife. Everyone ignored us. I was ashamed of those people.”
We drove back to the house and ate brunch at the round oak table that Mom had painted black and covered with a white ironed table cloth. The conversation was polite and subdued. Mom suggested that they cancel the visit to the Houses’ church, and no one disagreed.
Mom and Dad never went to that church again. They tried several others and settled on Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., where the Rev. Robert H. Meneilly was the pastor. He was already well known as an open-hearted, forward-looking leader. He had been quoted in Time magazine when he called for open housing across the nation. He argued that any person of any color should be able to buy a home in any neighborhood. My parents agreed that that was an urgent and important goal of the civil rights movement.
I was and still am proud of my parents for acting on their principles. Even though the gesture wasn’t appreciated by people in that church, my parents made a statement that calls to me today. Reach across the aisle, walk across the street, invite like-minded folks to talk and to organize. We can do better.
To honor King’s legacy, we should renew efforts to implement equal justice for all Americans and even out the terribly disparate economic conditions as well.
OK. Now I’m pondering what I can do to help. What first step might I take? I can see the eyes of Betty and Norbert Begel looking into mine. “It’s your turn, Deb. Step up.”
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