On this All Saints Day, I am remembering Norm Ellington. Norm changed the trajectory of my faith and spiritual journey. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about him for a seminary class seven years ago.
In the summer of 1967 my family moved two thousand miles from the white, middle class neighborhood, school, and church in Salem I had known for four-years. I recall asking my parents as we approached our new home, “Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?” I was about to have some of my first experiences with race during a turbulent time in this country in a city with deep racial rifts. I walked to a predominantly African American public school during the week and on Sundays attended a new Disciples of Christ church within walking distance of my family’s new home. It was at this church that I met Norm.
“Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”
Norman Ellington was an African-American man to whom my younger brother and I gravitated before church and between Sunday School and worship. Norm put up with our silly jokes, our brotherly rivalry, and our incessant questions and comments. Without becoming pedantic, Norm took advantage of teachable moments to mentor our understanding of Christianity in a broken world in which racial hostility and violence was never far from our doorstep. Living in an urban renewal, intentionally mixed-race, mixed-income rental community near some of the most dilapidated slums in St. Louis, I was faced at eight-years old with processing what was happening around me. Fortunately, I had Norm to help me do that processing.
I recall his patient explanations about what it meant to be black in late 1960s St. Louis and what it meant to be a Christian during those violent times. When I was being bullied daily by an African American classmate, being called “honky” and other epithets for whites, it was Norm who helped me perceive what was happening through a Christian lens. When my best friend’s African American father was shot and killed on the job by a mentally ill man, it was Norm who helped me to understand that Jay’s father had been doing God’s work striving to help poor blacks and whites find employment despite the risks to his personal safety which was created by society-wide racial tensions.
“I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty.”
[Norm] reminded me that Jesus was never afraid to go where those who were in need lived and struggled. When my mother was the victim of harsh language and hateful words from the Black Panthers, I listened as Norm counseled her with love and compassion while helping her to understand the deep pain that was a part of the black experience in the late 1960s. In my interactions with Norm as well as those I overheard him have with family and other church members, I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty. I learned that as someone born with light skin, I benefit from systemic racism.
As our church heeded the call of Christ to go where the “least of these” live Norm also helped me to see the Holy Spirit manifest in our work. For example, he helped me to understand the power of Christian love when the suspiciousness turned to joy on the face of the African American children I played with prior to our church’s movie night on a vacant lot. Norm explained to me that when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, that the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings. He helped me understand the importance of blacks and whites getting to know one another.
“…when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, …the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings.”
Norm was never my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, or my youth leader. He was my friend who, using Jesus as our reference point, helped me to interpret both my positive and negative experiences in such a way that racism spared me its harshest sting—internalized hatred of the other.