race

From baseball to decades in a pulpit, with lots of courage along the way

From baseball to decades in a pulpit, with lots of courage along the way

When the Rev. William Greason tells his own story, he stresses that God gave him the ability to throw a baseball, but that gift wasn't what mattered the most -- because his true home was a pulpit.

Of course, that's exactly what a 92-year-old preacher is going to say hours before entering the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame for his trailblazing efforts as -- in the words of sports scribes -- "Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson," pitching for the Oklahoma City Indians in 1952.

"The Lord laid this on my heart. He said, 'You're going somewhere where you were not wanted. … You gotta go and you gotta represent me,' " said Greason, in a guest sermon at the St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, just before the Aug. 14 hall of fame rites.

"I've been careful about asserting myself, wanting to be in positions where I didn't have any business being. … But it's been a blessing, though, to know you have a God who is able to do all things."

Greason's road to the pulpit was long and, at times, dangerous. Case in point: When the American flag was raised high on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi, Greason was among the young Marines who saluted it from the beach. Watching his buddies die in combat was tougher than facing jeers and sprays of beer from racist fans.

His former Birmingham Black Barons teammate Willie Mays put it this way, in a tribute to Greason: "He was a groundbreaker in Oklahoma City, a World War II veteran honored for his service, a man of God and a good friend to many."

Greason's sermon was a revelatory moment after seven years of work building the case to honor him, said amateur sports historian Mark House. Everyone knew Greason still preaches almost every Sunday at Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church, where he has served since 1969. But seeing him in action was a shock.

Thundering new voice for Southern Baptists

A New Orleans preacher, preaching to a New Orleans crowd, can expect a few "Amens!" if he quotes lyrics from Billie Holiday's bluesy "God Bless the Child" while talking about God's love for sinners who get saved. But what if he's preaching at the pastors' conference before the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention?

All the people said, "Amen!"

What really mattered was that the preacher was the Rev. Fred Luter and his turbo-charged call for salvation and social change was one of the dramatic scenes that preceded his election, by acclamation, as the first African-American president of America's largest non-Catholic flock.

But there was more to this event than its symbolism, coming 167 years after the convention was formed to defend the rights of slaveholders to be missionaries. Also, his election came on "Juneteenth" -- June 19th -- when many African Americans celebrate the emancipation of the slaves.

In his only sermon during the gathering in New Orleans, Luter challenged Southern Baptists to face the blunt realities of life in a diverse and urban society. For starters, Southern Baptists in pulpits and pews must face their own sins, so they can truly identify with the lost.

After all, everyone is "an ex-SOMETHING," he said. Sin is sin and forgiveness is forgiveness.

"The Gospel can save a gang banger. The Gospel can save a crack addict. The Gospel can save a child abuser. The Gospel can save a street runner. The Gospel can change a rebellious teen-ager. The Gospel can change an unfaithful spouse," he shouted.

"The Gospel can change you and the Gospel can change me. How do I know it? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I haven't always been preaching in a pulpit. I haven't always been preaching at the pastors' conference. At one time I was too mean to live and not fit to die, going to hell and enjoying the ride. But one day I heard the Gospel and the Gospel changed my life."

The young Luter's life in New Orleans was shaped by a broken home and his rebellion ended with a bloody motorcycle wreck. This dance with death inspired his move into part-time street preaching in the Lower Ninth Ward and eventually into the ministry. Under his leadership, the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church grew from 50 members in 1986 to 7,000 two decades later.

Then Hurricane Katrina demolished the church and its community. Luter stayed to rebuild, with the remnants of his flock sharing space for a time with the predominantly white First Baptist Church of New Orleans. That partnership grew and it was First Baptist's pastor, the Rev. David Crosby, who nominated Luter for the SBC presidency, which traditionally consists of two one-year terms.

Today, Franklin Avenue Baptist has about 5,000 members and is rebuilding again, because of its rapid growth. Meanwhile, 36 of the 110 churches in the New Orleans Baptist Association are majority African American.

Nationwide, the SBC's membership totals are down 2 percent in recent years -- a slide that have been much worse without rising numbers in predominantly black, Latino and Asian congregations. Today, whites make up 81 percent of the national convention's nearly 16 million members, with African Americans at 6.5 percent and other ethnicities combining for 12.5 percent.

Looking at the bigger picture, Luter stressed that all Americans -- regardless of race -- are wrestling with a blitz of social changes that are shattering many families and communities. Thus, his sermon addressed a litany of hot issues, from sitcoms to politics, from racism to gang violence, from adultery to pornography, from homosexuality to abortion.

"Oh my brothers and my sisters," asked Luter, "what is it going to take to change our lives? What is it going to take to change our morals? What is it going to take to change our culture, our community and our world? ...

"Only the Word of God -- not the Republican Party. Only the Word of God -- not the Democratic Party. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Congress. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Senate. ... Only the Word of God can change the mind of a murderer. Only the Word of God can change the heart of a racist. Only the Word of God can change the desire of a child molester. Only the Word of God can change a gang member. Yes it can! Yes it can!"

Faith on the Blind Side

In the beginning there was "Big Tony" Henderson, whose dying mother urged him to pull his son Steven from a public school on the bad side of Memphis and take him somewhere to get a Christian education. But there was one big complication. Steven didn't want to abandon his buddy Michael Oher (pronounced "Oar"), a street kid who slept on their floor most nights. "Big Mike" was afraid to return to the bleak foster homes he knew after police tore him away from his mother, her crack pipe and her 13 children.

So Henderson took both boys to Briarcrest Christian School on the rich side of town, hoping for scholarships that would make a grandmother's dream come true. School officials were impressed by Steven's grades. Coaches were impressed that Oher was 6-foot-4, weighed 340 pounds, could dunk a basketball and looked like God's gift to quarterbacks who needed a left tackle to guard their "blind side."

The rest is a long story, one that weaves together themes of race, sports, money and education. But a key player in the real-life version of "The Blind Side" stressed that this is also a story about faith.

"We're convinced that faith guided and controlled this whole thing," said Leigh Anne Tuohy, the steel-magnolia matriarch of the rich, white, evangelical family that finally embraced Oher as a son, after providing food, shelter and clothing. "We absolutely believe that none of this was a fluke. ... This was God-driven from the start."

Author Michael Lewis didn't hide that faith element while writing "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," a bestseller that mixed Oher's story with information about how the left-tackle position evolved into a crucial, and lucrative, slot in any National Football League offense. Then writer-director John Lee Hancock included religious details about the family in the new movie, while avoiding heavy-handed sermons. "The Blind Side" grossed $34 million at the box office on its opening weekend, while scoring a rare A-plus CinemaScore audience rating.

On screen, the Tuohys attend plenty of sporting events. After all, Sean was a University of Mississippi hoops star and Leigh Ann was an Ole Miss cheerleader. Their daughter Collins is both a cheerleader and volleyball star, again at Ole Miss, and their young son, Sean Jr., seems to have inherited his father's gifts as a tireless sports entrepreneur.

The movie does skip the ritual when everyone heads to Grace Evangelical Church, a growing congregation the family helped start. Oher began attending soon after the wet winter night when the family first spotted the shivering giant in shorts and a floppy shirt, walking back to the shelter of the warm Briarcrest gymnasium.

Leigh Anne Tuohy said that "from day one," Oher was the first person ready to go on Sunday mornings. Church was part of everyday life, like homework, piano lessons and trips to sports events and practices.

The key is that expressions of faith were a natural part of this true story, said actress Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne. No one was faking anything.

"This family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return," she told reporters, after a press screening of "The Blind Side." Bullock said that, while making the movie, she regained a little "faith in those who say they represent a faith. ... I've finally met people that walk the walk."

While Tuohy stressed that she can now see God's work in the events that changed Oher's life, and their family, that doesn't mean the details were clear at the time.

The family had reached out to others before, but not to the same degree. Now, it's impossible not to think about how many other talented, gifted children are, literally, on the run in America's cities, she said. What is the family supposed to do now? What should Oher do, now that he plays for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens?

After one of her Southern chuckles that Bullock had to master to play her on screen, Tuohy said that it's hard to talk about the future when she is still trying to understand the wild changes that have changed her family forever.

"A miracle is what this is," she said. "Childbirth is easier to explain than all of this."

That other Notre Dame speech

It was hard to ignore the papal bull condemning the slave trade, which was read to American Catholic leaders gathered in Baltimore in 1839. Pope Gregory XVI proclaimed that "no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor."

Nevertheless, the first bishop of Charleston, S.C., attempted to soften the blow. Quoting scripture and Catholic doctrine, Bishop John England wrote a series of letters arguing that the pope didn't mean to attack those -- including Catholics -- who already owned slaves.

"Bishop England was not a bad man. He was not personally in favor of slavery, nor was he a racist," noted Father John Raphael of New Orleans, at a rally organized as an alternative to the University of Notre Dame's graduation rites.

"In fact, Bishop England exercised a cherished and personal ministry to black Catholics," he added. "But in the face of strong, anti-Catholic sentiment and prejudice, he simply wanted to show his fellow antebellum Southerners that Catholics could be just as American as everybody else and that tolerance of their cherished institution -- slavery -- was not in any way opposed by the Catholic church."

It was wrong for Catholics of that era to seek any compromise on slavery, stressed Raphael, who serves as principal of St. Augustine High School, one of Louisiana's most prominent African-American institutions. It is just as wrong, today, for Catholic leaders to compromise on abortion. At least the slaves were allowed to live, to be baptized and to receive the sacraments, he said.

The symbolism was obvious, since the priest is a prominent African-American graduate of Notre Dame.

The symbolism was more than obvious, since he was speaking at a rally protesting Notre Dame's decision to grant President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree, clashing with a U.S. Catholic bishops policy that states: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

The Mass and rally on Notre Dame's south quad followed hours of prayers in the university's Alumni Hall and famous Marian grotto. These solemn, peaceful events received little media attention, even though they drew several hundred or several thousand participants, depending on who did the counting, as well as 25 Notre Dame faculty members, 26 graduating seniors and Bishop John D’Arcy of the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend. A louder standoff between police and 100 off-campus activists -- led by anti-abortion leader Randall Terry -- received most of the news coverage.

During the actual commencement address, a few protesters yelled, "Stop killing our children." Most of the graduates booed the protesters, then chanted, "Yes we can," Obama's campaign slogan, and "We are ND" as they were removed.

Notre Dame President John Jenkins stressed that Obama accepted Notre Dame's invitation knowing that "we are fully supportive of church teaching on the sanctity of human life and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research."

"President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him," stressed Father Jenkins. Then he added, "Mr. President, this is a principle we share."

Meanwhile, many of the speakers at the "Notre Dame Rally for Life" openly criticized Obama's policies, but consistently focused their harshest words on the actions of the current Notre Dame administration.

"Faith without works is dead, words without actions are meaningless," said Father Raphael. "If, as we have been told, a dialogue is actually taking place … between the presidents of Notre Dame and the United States, between the university and the nation, then, for the university at least, that dialogue must be shaped by truth and charity, and protecting the sanctity of all human life, as the church understands life, must be its goal. …

Actively building a culture of life at Notre Dame must become central to the university's witness and mission to the nation and to the world."