Nov 25, 2010

Big Debts

I wanted to run this story on my blog this week because it addresses debts we owe others — often debts to persons we do not even know. I have a debt to Tom Butts as he has given me a good deal of guidance down through the years. What I have done with his solid counsel others should not hold against him. He is a peach. Tom is now pastor emeritus at FUMC, Monroeville, AL and visits Harper Lee in a nursing home at least once every week.

Big Debts

By: Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts,
Minister Emeritus, First United Methodist Church, Monroeville, Alabama

Having lived through the Great Depression, I have always been afraid of debt. For most of our 59 years of marriage, my wife and I have been able to avoid buying anything we could not pay for. This is not always possible, but it is an important goal. Our country’s credit card culture has led many into unmanageable debt.

Today is Thanksgiving Day, which is a proper time to think of a kind of indebtedness not measured by the dollar sign. If you live long enough, life will generate circumstances that will cause you to incur debts of a kind and magnitude that they can never be repaid. These are the debts we owe people who helped us when there was nothing we could do for ourselves. These intangible debts are sometimes owed to people we do not even know. It is like what we owe to God; it is so much and of such a kind that it can never be repaid.

Such debts can be repaid only in the currency of gratitude, which, in some ways, is very difficult to express. No matter what you say, there is so much more that needs to be said. Unfortunately, gratitude tends to be a short-lived emotion. People forget to give thanks for those intangible gifts.

Several times in my own life, I have found myself in need. I have been at the mercy of circumstances over which I had no control and somebody helped me. I have been, and am now, indebted to people who have done things for me, things for which there is no way to repay them. It is a unique feeling to realize you can never repay the people who reached out and literally saved you. Let me give you just one example of how I have become indebted. Just one example of someone who helped me in ways I can never repay.

Rev. Butts 1957
When I came home from graduate school in 1957, the South was embroiled in the civil rights struggle. I had planned to avoid any controversy so I could established myself in my new assignment to the Michigan Avenue Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. I quickly learned one of the realities of life; you do not pick the time and place for important battles, the time and place pick you. The fifth stanza of James Russell Lowell's 1844 poem, "The Present Crisis" comes to mind.
"Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side; some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right, and the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light."
Three months after my arrival at Michigan Avenue, I was visited by three men who identified themselves as members of the Klu Klux Klan, as well as members of my church. They informed me that it was custom for the Klan to visit the church on the third Sunday night in September. They would come in the front door during the singing of the first hymn, dressed in full Klan regalia, and march down the center aisle. They would then place money on the altar, go out the side door, remove their robes and come back in to worship. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I was only 27 years old! I had no time to think about how to handle the situation, so I addressed it head-on. I said that though I had no police force with which to stop them, and was not sure I would stop them if I could, they had to understand what I would be forced to do in response. I told them that if they put money on the altar in the name of the Klan, I would sweep it up in an offering plate and throw it out behind them. The third Sunday night in September came and went and the Klan did not come. I thought I had dispatched the problem. Big mistake.

Three months later the black ministers of the city petitioned the City Council to desegregate the city bus system. Two white clergy prepared a petition in support, which I signed. I was young and idealistic. I imagined that as soon as the city fathers, and the citizens of Mobile, became aware of what the clergy felt should be done, they would respond positively and appreciatively. Another big mistake.

The lessons and realities of this situation came quickly and painfully. Among the signs that I had misjudged the local climate in general, and my church in particular, was to find a burning cross in front of the parsonage and a second burning in front of the church. Names of the white clergy who signed the petition were on the front page of the newspaper with a scathing editorial taking us to task for meddling. A sizeable group of my church members met to fire me. (I had to meet with them and explain that you cannot fire a Methodist minister.) Tithes and pledges were withheld from the church, and some members suggested the parsonage be sold and the pastor’s salary cut to just a dollar per year.

The attendance at my church reached an all-time high, and the offering fell to an all-time low. It appeared that my church not only could not pay its apportionments and mission askings, but we were dangerously close to being unable to pay utility bills. Obviously there was no money for the pastor's salary--the pastor who signed the petition to desegregate the city bus system.

One Friday afternoon, as I sat in my office anguishing over the whole situation and contemplating leaving the ministry, a very fashionably-dressed woman walked across the church lawn. I had never seen her before. She came in and asked to see the minister. As I introduced myself, she handed me an envelope and said she wanted to make a donation to my church. She said it was an anonymous gift.

When she left I opened the envelope. It contained two bills with more zeros than I was accustomed to seeing on money. It was two $100 bills. I had never seen a hundred dollar bill! I had heard they existed, but had never actually seen one. (I haven’t seen many since.)

Two hundred dollars was a lot of money in 1958! The total annual budget of my church was only $9,000. I was elated, until my wife asked how I planned to get the money into the system. My church’s officials were suspicious of outside money and would want to know the source of such large bills. I resolved the problem by driving to a bank in Brewton, Alabama, 75 miles north of Mobile, and getting the bills broken down into twenty dollar bills. When the offering was taken each Sunday, I would face the altar and, with every head bowed and every eye closed, I would drop two or three twenties in each plate. That raised the offerings to almost normal levels.

The mysterious woman came every Friday bringing $200 - $500 in hundred dollar bills. I kept the road to Brewton hot getting the money changed into smaller bills - my first experience laundering money. I never found out who the woman was or why she came. My church stayed solvent, and nobody ever knew where the money came from.

This woman literally saved my ministry. I was most grateful, but all attempts to thank her were brushed aside. Gratitude had to move beyond words for any effective expression. For the last 50 years, I have never missed a chance to help ministers in distress. Every time I am privileged to help someone, I whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for the mysterious woman who helped me so many years ago. I wonder if she realized what she did. I wonder if she even remembers. Sometimes I wish I knew who she was so I could thank her for a gift that goes on giving.
Rev. Mosser and Rev. Butts

Most of us, at some time in our lives, have been on the receiving end of gifts which have saved us. Sometimes it was money; sometimes it was an intangible act of kindness and encouragement at a critical time in our lives. Name the people you owe, if you know who they are. Write or call them and tell them how much they meant to you. If they are dead, or you do not know who they are, pass it on to others. Life has a way of giving us opportunities to repay those who have helped us.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts is minister emeritus of First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, AL, and has served United Methodist Churches in Florida and Alabama. Rev. Butts has been an active leader in the Civil Rights movement since the mid-fifties. He says that one of the most inspirational events in his experience was a day spent with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly after Dr. King came to Montgomery, Alabama. Visit Rev. Butts page on day1.org to find out more about him.

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