Thursday, July 27, 2006

Memories of doing the right thing

Some of the best times of my mis-spent youth were spent in a youth group called the Order of DeMolay - a youth fraternity sponsored by the Masonic lodge.
(A side-note: please don't write in to tell me that I'm going to hell for having been a member of a Masonic organization. I've read all the debates about how the Masons are a cult, and how Masonic membership is incompatible with Christian teaching. We can have that debate later - but after 20 years of involvement with Masonry, I'm really not buyin' it. My experience with Masonry was entirely non-toxic - unlike my experience with the Church, and much of the rest of my youth.)
After turning 21, I was honored to be an advisor for DeMolay in northwest Ohio. And after a number of years, I found myself as the advisor for a chapter in Bowling Green, OH, and one of my best friends, Ted Korn was the governor (the advisor's advisor) for northwest Ohio.

Though DeMolay (and Masonry) filled a powerful role in my teens and twenties, one of the things that pained me about Masonic organizations in Ohio was their long-standing history of racial segregation. There were separate Masonic Lodges for black and white - each with their own youth organization. And that's the way it had been ever since DeMolay was founded in 1919. While I understood the history of it, and the long-standing prejudices that fed it, I still didn't like it, nor did many of my fellow Masons.

But in the late 80's (I don't even remember the year rightly) a group of young men from the Bowling Green chapter cornered Ted and me after a meeting. As I remember it, a couple of the real smooth-talkers among them started telling us about this guy they wanted to initiate - good looking, athletic, smart, concerned for others (wanted to be a nurse after high school) ... in fact, everything our Order said it represented...

"Yes....And?..." Ted and I said almost in chorus.

"And we really want to have him in the Chapter, and he's ready to join, and he's a great guy and you'll really like him..."

"....and he's black."

And then they looked at us...and waited to see how we would respond.

Ted and I both knew what we had to do; Ted's old enough to have participated in civil-rights marches, and I'd been half-expecting this ever since I joined the group. But we also knew the kinds of opposition we would receive from some of the men in the Lodge that sponsored our chapter. And so we took a deep breath, and moved forward.

In going through some boxes yesterday, I came across the picture - Ted and I flanking the chapter leader, who is shaking the hand of a handsome young black man named Ben. Behind us are twenty or thirty of Ben's new DeMolay brothers...every one of them with a beaming smile on their face. It's a snapshot of a magical, marvelous moment - one of the few times I can say that I was part of something that made a difference.

Don't get me wrong - there were all kinds of repercussions. One former leader of our sponsoring lodge confronted me later that week, and said, "So - I hear your boys desecrated the Masonic Temple the other night!" There were lots of discussions, a goodly amount of shouting, and isolated incidents of private ugliness. But in the end, brotherhood won out - and Ben became the "first small step" in Ohio Masonry.

Sadly, there has not been a huge revolution in the racial makeup of Masonic organizations in the last 20 years, at least not in Ohio. But this weekend, as the Ohio State DeMolay organization gathers for their statewide conference, among the DeMolays' honored guests will be a group of their black brothers from the Knights of Pythagoras. And as the black Knights are escorted into the conference by their white DeMolay brothers, another bridge across the chasm of racism will be built. The cause of reconciliation between black and white will, hopefully, take another step. And I have to believe that there will be at least a few smiles in heaven.

To my brother Ted, to all those men of integrity who supported us as we took those baby steps toward justice all those years ago, and to all who labor to guide and shape the hearts and lives of young people - you have my unending admiration and respect.

I have to admit that when I finally got around to meeting Jesus, it seemed he looked a lot like you folks.


Brother said...

It's amazing (although no longer surprising) how Jesus' face changes from day to day ... one day, an old woman who needs a little help crossing the street ... the next, a young black boy with a kind word ... the day after that, who knows?

He's always Him, but -- pardon the pun -- thank God that He speaks and acts variously through others we encounter every day. Keeps Him close to us, and us to Him. Right where we need to be.

Tom Scharbach said...

"A side-note: please don't write in to tell me that I'm going to hell for having been a member of a Masonic organization. "

Okay, so I won't write you about it.

Steve F. said...

As you well know, br'er Tom, my Masonic membership is about 127th on the list of things that much of The Church says I would go to Hell for. But then, of course, there's that niggling little detail about believing in the saving power of Jesus Christ - so I guess I'm not going There after all...