A Sermon Preached at Northaven United Methodist Church, Dallas Texas
November 17, 2013
Audio Version of this Sermon: Here
“History Does Not Repeat Itself, but It Does Rhyme.” — Mark Twain
Today, we take a special look back at one of the events that most changed our world, our city, and our church: The assassination of John F Kennedy, fifty years ago.
In that pre-September 11th time, the Kennedy assassination was arguably the most scarring domestic event in our nation. But unlike most churches in America, the Kennedy assassination was written into the DNA of Northaven Church itself. This most horrific event in our nation’s history also became a part of Northaven’s story too.
Everyone alive at the time looks back at the Kennedy assassination as one of the single most traumatic events they can remember.
Well, everybody but me.
We late generation Baby Boomers have lived an odd life, in that we remember very few of the seminal events “our generation” talks about. We have few conscious memories of most of the world events and trends that shaped the lives of most Boomers. This was never more true than with the Kennedy assassination.
Yes, I lived in Dallas at the time (ten minutes from the scene, just down the road from here). But at fourteen-months-and-one-day-old; there’s no conscious memory of that day for me.
So, I didn’t grow up with the event. Like the three or four generations of children that have grown up since, I grew up with the aftermath.
Anyone who has lived in Dallas these five decades knows the truth of what I’m about to say: While the Kennedy assassination no doubt changed the nation, it specially changed our whole city. It stayed with us in ways that it did not stay with them.
Many of you had the same experience I had when traveling around America as a kid. We’d go to Massachusetts, or Colorado, or Washington DC….and everywhere we’d go, people would say to me,
“Oh…you’re from Dallas….that’s where Kennedy was killed…”
And whether they meant it or not, there was a patina of shame woven into their words.
“Oh…you’re from that place…”
Even when I went to Russia in the early 1990s, the people there knew Dallas for two things:
1) The Dallas Cowboys.
New Russian friends –with whom we shared no language– mouthed the word “Kennedy” to us, and then stood before us in awkward silence no words could have ever vanquished.
Everywhere I went as I grew up, I felt that shame from an event I didn’t remember.
But here’s the other odd thing about growing up in Dallas in Kennedy’s aftermath: As a kid growing up in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas, in the shadows of both the physical buildings and the historical time, nobody ever talked about the Kennedy assassination.
Like I said, we heard about it on vacation. (“Oh…you’re from that place…”)
But here? If adults ever did mention it, it was in hushed tones. Hushed, pained, perhaps even humiliated, tones. It was unmentionable. It was a heavy pall, a weight in the shoulders of every adult I knew. And the message I learned and intuited was that I was not to talk about it either.
So it was that that it wasn’t until I could drive in high school that I knew for sure which of those downtown buildings was the “School Book Depository.”
The biggest, most momentous thing ever to happen in my hometown…
Something in our backyard debated, discussed, and lamented the world over…
But not here. Nobody ever spoke in words about it here.
But everybody FELT it
And it was horrible.
About twenty years ago, I wrote a song about all of this. I tend to do that, as some of you know. They say you’re supposed to write songs about things you know, and it dawned on me while I was in seminary that I could, and maybe should, write a song about these events.
It’s not a song about the assassination. In fact, I have little interest in conspiracy theories and the like. It’s song about us…the people of Dallas at the time.
It’s about some of you –some of you who have told me of your experience of being at the Trade Mart, or along the motorcade route. It’s about my parent’s friends and my friend’s parents.
I was going to play it on guitar for you today, but this week, I made a video for it. And I think it would be better to play that.
So, I invite you to this video, my own telling of this story we all know…
Our story of that day…
(“Sitting In the Trade Hall”: Downloadable Single)
The song tries to capture
That sense of real pride that was surely here that day…
That sense of wariness over a “liberal” coming to Dallas…
hat horrible sense of guilt that descended like a 50-year pall.
Although everybody knew it wasn’t really Dallas’ fault, what I learned growing up is that many adults here secretly prayed the last line of the song:
“O dear God, don’t let ’em say it was our fault…”
What became surreal to me was that I wrote this song back in 1989, some twelve years before being appointed here to Northaven….a place well acquainted with the historical events the song mentions. A place that was a part of these same stories.
Some of you long-term members know the story well. Today, we’ll review it a bit for all our sakes…
First, the history. And I am deeply indebted to a new book called “Dallas, 1963” Which I cannot recommend highly enough to anyone who has ever lived, or lives now, in Dallas. (Or anybody who wants to know more about us…)
In 1960, then Vice-Presidential candidate, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Lady Bird, made a last minute campaign stop here in Dallas. They found themselves tossled about the downtown Dallas streets by a crowd dubbed the “Mink Coat Mob,” a group of Dallas socialites, whipped into a frenzy by Dallas Congressman Bruce Alger.
It was a terrifying scene in which this sitting Senator was literally pushed around the streets of downtown. And hard to fathom, even now, how a sitting US Congressman could organize this kind of thing, against a sitting US Senator.
|LBJ and Lady Bird pushing the crowd in 1960|
In 1963, just before Kennedy’s visit, Adlai Stevenson, the Ambassador to the United Nations, was spat upon and heckled at a downtown meeting.
|Adlai Stevenson Being Pushed Around|
Dallas 1963” outlines the growth of ultra-Right Wing extremists here in Dallas…led by the John Birch Society….by Congressman Alger, and by unelected leaders like General Edwin Walker. There were other strange groups that I read about along the way, such as the, and I quote, “National Indignation Society.”
There WAS a dangerous and angry stew brewing in Dallas, Texas in the early 1960s. Yes, Oswald was most definitely on the left politically. But he was also a crazy loner. And if we’ve learned anything in the past five decades it’s that crazed loners can do a lot of harm, especially when they swim in a sea of conflict and dissension. It’s known that Oswald had already tried to kill General Walker.
It’s clear now that he was looking for attention, and was apparently deeply disappointed when his attempt on Walker’s life did not get him more publicity. So, why not Kennedy instead? Especially with posters like THIS around:
|Poster on the Streets of Dallas|
Two days after the assassination, Rev. Bill Holmes, who was Northaven’s minister at the time, preached a sermon that is arguably one of the most famous, or infamous, of the 20th Century.
Bill called the sermon “The One Thing Worse Than This.”
In the sermon, Bill recounted some of the history I’ve just shared with you. Some of the festering, angry mood of Dallas at the time.
Here’s a quote from the sermon:
“We, the majority of (Dallas) citizens, have gone quietly about our work and leisure, forfeiting the city’s image to the hate mongers and reactionaries in our midst. …We cannot, month after month, year after year, sow the seeds of intolerance and hate, and then upon learning of the President’s visit – just throw a switch and hope all rancor will disappear. The vocal, organized and unorganized extremists have captured us – while we were sleeping in the night…”
You see, Bill was drawing a line between all these very real things that had been cooking and simmering in Dallas, and what happened to the President.
Reporters found out about the sermon, and Walter Cronkite sent a film crew to film Holmes re-preaching the sermon to an empty sanctuary a few days later. Cronkite then ran a lengthy excerpt from the sermon on the CBS Evening News.
We’re pleased to announce that I believe we have found that video! After quite a bit of sleuthing this week, I have uncovered the following clip. This, we believe, is the clip of Bill Holmes’ 1963 sermon, “The One Thing Worse Than This” that ran on national television.
By the way, I sent this clip to Bill and Nancy Holmes the other night, and Bill sent back an excited email. He claimed to have never seen before! What a thrill to have been able to send it to him.
What happened after that clip ran was that the Dallas Police reported death threats against them. Bill, Nancy, and their children were forced into hiding for week
It became one of the seminal events, if not the seminal event, in the history of Northaven Church. Some folks left Northaven. Others who stayed were shocked. They wondered, “Why the outcry?”
Holmes had done nothing but speak the truth, after all.
The biggest controversy was apparently one part of the above video clip, where Bill Holmes passed on a story told to him: that school children had applauded when they heard Kennedy had been killed.
Dallas School Officials, and even local journalists, denied for years that it ever happened. In some folks minds, even today, Holmes must have been mistaken.
But, as some of you know, Bill Holmes spoke in 2008 at an event a the Sixth Floor Museum, where he revealed the name of the teacher who had told him about the children laughing, and demonstrates beyond all doubt that those who denied it happened where clearly mistaken in their facts and recall.
Even more than this, there is a woman here today in our Northaven sanctuary, who was also a teacher at the time, and reports the same phenomenon at her school.
But here’s something else I discovered. Holmes was not the only preacher to take a prophetic stand that Sunday. Bill McElvaney has reminded me that many of the so-called “Dirty Dozen,” other preachers who were prophetic and socially progressive, also preached similar sermons to Bill’s.
And I have discovered something else fascinating. That at Highland Park Methodist, on that same Sunday after the assassination, their preacher, Bill Dickinson, also preached quite an edgy and prophetic sermon.
Here’s some of what he had to say:
“There are among us today too many purveyors of hate, people who speak of intelligent, sincere holders of public office as traitors – people who fill our cars with leaflets bearing printed lies and calling our public officials “disloyal” – people who fill our mail with emotional, bitter, harangue and accusations, who make harassing telephone calls to honest and sincere citizens at all hours of the night…..
Hate, not only in our city but throughout the nation, has become big business and is supported by large contributions and exceedingly competent leadership. And we in Dallas, it seems to me, have more than our share of extremists. It is not a pretty picture into which an assassin found his place.”
Isn’t that a fascinating quote?
It’s really not much different at all from the prophetic tone Holmes took that day.
So, given that others were being equally prophetic, it seems to me it was the national press attention, and the story of children laughing, that caused Holmes to get so much hate and vitriol.
But, look, don’t miss an important point…
If you choose to deny Dallas was as ultra-conservative as we’ve said today…
If you you choose to disbelieve that the children laughed…
Just look at the facts of what happened to Bill Holmes:
A) Holmes preaches prophetically that Dallas is a place seething with hate and anger.
B) Holmes is forced into hiding for a week by people seething with hate and anger
The reaction to the sermon proved the point of the sermon.
Prophetic preaching has always been a part of Northaven’s tradition, and this sermon by Bill Holmes was the first time it got serious notice from the world at large. It’s a humbling thing to me, even in some small way, to hope we here continue that great tradition of Bill’s sermon, the preaching of Bill McElvaney, and so many other who have been here in this great church.
I believe it to be a “God-thing” that in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks specifically about the cost of speaking a prophetic word to a people who may well unwilling to hear it:
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”
“But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
It was faith in God, the One who tell us faith overcomes our fears, that allowed Rev. Holmes the courage to preach that sermon. Our faith in Christ calls us to reach out in love to those who spread hate.
I talked to Nancy Holmes the other night. As I expected, she said they’ve done several interviews lately. She said that the journalists always ask them, “So, what’s happen in Dallas now…what is Dallas like now?”
The truth is, they haven’t lived here in 45 years, so they generally demure on the subject.
But we can answer it.
How are we different?
Well, politically, things are much different in Dallas today. Dallas has moved from a place where one party dominated the city for years, to a place where elections are close, with Democrats winning many today.
I’m not trying to score a partisan political point here. Just objectively stating that elections are a lot closer today than they were in 1960, or for much of the past 50 years.
Dallas is also a genuinely multi-ethnic, international city. Hundreds of thousands of people have moved into the area from elsewhere, bringing with them values that have gradually nudged out the old provincialisms many of us were raised with. And this, really, is a good thing. (this got an “Amen” from the Northaven crowd this morning…EF)
This means that Northaven –deeply scarred by the reaction the Holmes’ sermon– is no longer a tiny minority in an ultra-conservative sea.
In Methodist circles alone, there are easily a half-dozen genuinely “progressive” congregations popping up around the city today.
Northaven haven’t changed all that much.
But Dallas has, around us.
Having said this, I sometimes look around the nation, and I wonder how much, if any we actually have changed. Dallas is no longer a hotbed of extremists, but we see extremists voices all around us in the culture.Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
A lot of verses being sung today, sound a lot like 1963.
What it seems to me is: the hard core, ultra-conservatism that infected Dallas in 1963, now moves freely in our national politics.
Here you see a picture of Congressman Bruce Alger in 1960 in downtown Dallas…Dallas’ ultra-conservative Congressman…holding up a sign claiming that LBJ had given in to socialism.
Today, we see things like this:
Dallas is no longer home to the John Birch Society. Or the “National Indignation Convention” where angry delegates gathered by the thousands to rail against the elected government.
But Tea Party rallies around the nation continue to draw news coverage, whether or not they draw big crowds. And sometimes their signs look like this:
Friends, extremism has again infected our politics. Not at a Dallas level, but at the national one.
We know now that Tea Party leaders in Congress managed to shut down the government several weeks ago, despite pleas from those in their own party not to do so!
We know now that a majority of Democrats and Republicans never wanted the government shut down! We know now that they had the votes to keep it open!
But this minority of voices –much like the situation in Dallas in 1963– shouted down more moderate voices and forced the government closed; costing the economy thousand of jobs, and putting fear and insecurity into the hearts of decent government workers.
I have many Republican friend. Good, kind, decent human beings. And I hear almost all of them say, “Eric, everybody I know is afraid of the Tea Party.”
And here again, the situation is much like 1963. Because it was a fear of the extremists in 1963 that led ordinary average Dallasites to not stand up against them.
Our situation, then, is much like the situation in Holmes’ time, when he said:
“When the extremist across the street, or down the block, starts spewing his epithets and hate, he must soon discover that he has a contest on his hands as we confront him with sanity and love.”
That is a line that God’s Holy Spirit speaks down through the years to us today. Until people stand up to to those considered to be extremists, nothing will change.
The “sanity and love” Bill preached of –the sanity and love we need today– comes from our faith in God. It comes from our trust in the God who is love, who seeks justice, and who calms our fears.
Christians far too often equate being “Christian” with being “nice.” But sometimes, as Holmes knew, the loving move is to speak the truth in love…to speak the truth of Power. We have done this at Northaven.
And with God’s grace and help, we’ll continue to do it in the future.
Even though it’s scary, even when the Gospel lesson reminds that standing against extremism can have a costs, the word of hope Bill Holmes offered still speaks to our souls today:
“It is not too late for us to learn that men can agree to disagree in love and still hold partisan persuasions.”
And even if you are never forced into hiding for your beliefs, hear and be reminded of Jesus’ words of hope:
“…not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Thanks be to God for Bill Holmes, and for a legacy of 50-years of prophetic preaching.