JOHN BRUMMETT: With scars as trophies

Posted: November 7, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

It's a little church nestled among fallen leaves and fine older homes on a quiet street corner in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock.

It's a modest structure, built, it would seem, for the limited space needed for brave and unpopular truth.

The sanctuary is adorned with nine understated stained-glass windows, given in 1959 by the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, anonymously at the time. Rockefeller wanted to show his appreciation for the brave and unpopular truth that had been preached and lived at the church in 1957--just as it had been preached and lived there in the 1940s, and just as it would be preached and lived again in the 1990s, and again in early November 2017.


Pulaski Heights Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation, celebrated its 90th birthday Sunday, generating an attendance about triple the usual 25. It celebrated its noble history in what I'd dare to describe as real Christianity.

I don't seek a monument to the church on the state Capitol grounds. I seek only to let the church's near-century example stand for itself.

The church's founding minister, Dr. Joseph Hunter, a pacifist, settled there when funding ran out for his missionary work in Japan.

The Methodist missionary he'd married along the way was accepted by Pulaski Heights Christian as a member although she hadn't been baptized by immersion, a doctrinal prerequisite that Pulaski Heights Christian was the first to relax in the known history of the Disciples of Christ in the South.

More notably, Hunter ministered in the 1940s to Japanese Americans interned in South Arkansas during World War II. Amid the war hysteria, these Japanese Americans, forcibly relocated West Coast citizens, were denied medical treatment and birth certificates, at least by the recommendation of the Arkansas Medical Society.

Hunter became "human services director" for one of the camps and coordinated its medical and educational programs.

Then, in the fall of 1957, a succeeding pastor, the Rev. Bert Cartwright, took to the pulpit to deplore the indignities hurled by racial hatred and ignorance toward a young black girl, Elizabeth Eckford, as she had tried a few days before to walk into Little Rock Central High School. Cartwright ridiculed then-Gov. Orval Faubus and helped organize a rally in support of the Little Rock Nine.

The congregation lost 10 percent of its membership immediately, and more later. When the church undertook to buy adjoining property decades later, one member voted against it, because, he said, he believed the church owed it to the memory of 1957 to remain small.

Then, a quarter-century ago, it was Pulaski Heights Christian, of course, that became the first Disciples of Christ congregation in Arkansas to declare itself welcoming to all without regard for sexual orientation or gender identity.

After a lovely service punctuated by dramatic trumpet, everyone gathered in the adjoining Hunter Hall for barbecue and a message from surely the ideal choice to speak on such an occasion.

"Call yourselves little if you will," said Wendell Griffen, the judge and pastor who makes no effort to separate those roles.

He quoted his maternal grandmother as saying, "God is up to something," and said the Pulaski Heights Christian Church had always been part of the larger whole of God's design that his followers should "speak openly against the noise of empire, the noise of power."

He spoke of a need to speak openly against our "addiction" to the death penalty and unjust police tactics.

It's Griffen's outspokenness about those kinds of issues that gets him in trouble with the legal establishment. The Bar Association generally holds that judges ought to keep their personal views at best implied, thus serving the goal of a judiciary producing decisions that can be trusted as fair.

Griffen believes a moral man must remain that moral man both when issuing a ruling from the bench in a death penalty case and while supine on a makeshift gurney a few hours later to protest the death penalty at the gate of the Governor's Mansion.

My view, as expressed in this column, is that Griffen ought to pick between community activism and judging--and choose activism because a truly brave and moral man is harder to find than a competent jurist.

Perhaps that was Griffen's context when he told the gathering that my columns sometimes make him go "hmmm," and that only small minds can't tolerate disagreement.

What fertile minds can never abide, Griffen said, is the age-old misappropriation of religion as a supposed basis for hate because "it's convenient, or it's popular, or it gets us votes or it makes us money."

He told the Pulaski Heights Christian congregants they were right to stand for more than the "ABCs" of religion, meaning "attendance, buildings and cash."

"Your scars are your trophies," he said.

They stood to applaud him, or themselves, or both, with the strength of their dozens.

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John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 11/07/2017