I decided that serving the community was one of my core values.
Strangely, I felt that there was hope for healing the divisions in my city when I saw what didn't happen after Annie Ray Dixon was killed in the summer of 1992.
Mrs. Dixon was an eighty-four-year-old grandmother, a double amputee, and African-American. A botched drug raid went to the wrong house, and a white deputy busted through Annie's bedroom door. Tragically, his gun went off and killed Mrs. Dixon as she lay in bed. The African-American community in Tyler, Texas, was outraged; the incident had the potential of blowing up the city.
I was about two hundred miles away in Houston when Mrs. Dixon was killed. Some fellow members of a citizens' action group, Tyler Together, phoned me and asked if I could intervene and keep the peace.
Our first stop was the sheriff's office; he was considering limiting the investigation to his internal affairs department. But we convinced him that such a limited approach would only increase the outrage and fuel the rumors of cover-up. He wisely decided to forgo an internal investigation and called in federal investigators instead. Adding to the frustration of the black community, though, the deputy was not indicted for misconduct, and he returned to the streets on active duty.
Then the NAACP called for a march and rally in Tyler to dramatize the racial situation there. Responding, the Ku Klux Klan announced a simultaneous counterdemonstration and filed for a parade permit around the courthouse square. Fans of writer John Grisham will see remarkable similarities in A Time to Kill, which chronicled a fictitious confrontation between the NAACP and the KKK in a Southern town.
But this wasn't fiction. My fear of racial violence was heightened by the anger I heard as I visited both sides. The national news media descended on Tyler, with satellite trucks ready to broadcast any violence that might ensue. City fathers were up in arms about the image being projected of Tyler, a town known as the "rose capital of the world." That August weekend was so tense it felt as if the city would explode.
Miraculously, the city kept its composure; both demonstrations took place peacefully. Through the whole affair, there was not one incident of violence.
Part of the reason, I believe, was the prayer of committed Christians. Another was the work done before the crisis erupted. Several leaders in the community had worked together to address the racial tension, which allowed a space for negotiation in the squeeze of confrontation.
My role in this crisis comes out of my philosophy of ministry. In the Episcopal tradition, the community is an extension of my parish. It's not enough to have a happy church if it's insulated from the community. Part of my pastoral role, I've determined, is leading our church to serve our community. Helping to heal the surrounding community is what I call "city therapy." It's a challenging vocation but ultimately rewarding. Here are five principles I have learned about making a difference where you live.
Loving the community
The first and most important principle in pastoring your community is to love it. When I came to Tyler in 1990, I wasn't sure I even liked the town. East Texas is the antithesis of everything in my hometown of Atlanta. I grew up in a family with a long history of civil rights involvement in a city where race was constantly on the public agenda. Tyler, by contrast, was virtually in denial about the issue of racism.
A colleague, Ray Bakke, author of The Urban Christian, put my call to Tyler in perspective. The most important element in changing a community, he told me, is to love it. I began to pray every morning that God would give me a heart for Tyler. "I don't think you can make me like it," I told God, "but maybe you can help me love it."