My biological family is white, and my church family is black. The union commenced twenty-seven years ago, thanks to Sister Annabelle Wilson. She was sixty years old when she first met my dad and one year old when a black man was lynched in our town. While working as a janitor at the college where my dad taught theology, she would strike up conversations with him that always ended with “Steve, before you die, you have to come and hear my pastor preach.” For a while, he responded with the kind of polite deferral you’d expect from a well-meaning white man raised in an upper-class Presbyterian household. Eventually, though, he and Sister Annabelle set a date. After my parents first visited Greater New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Sherman, Texas, they drove home in silence and, once there, burst into tears. God had called them.
I was not yet one at the time. For the next eighteen years, this congregation raised me as its lone white son—from “Little Willy” to “Brother Willy” to “Brother Stell.” I faithfully attended church, performed in holiday pageants (often as Jesus), learned to play basketball, made a best friend, got bullied, got loved, grew up.
While the church immediately welcomed my family with the warmth that is characteristic of their tradition, the process of actually becoming a part of the church was both more gradual and more complicated. Under the surface, here and there, the welcome was tepid—and for good reason: we were the only white people in the church at the time, and our presence inadvertently disrupted a black community’s safe space. Sensing this, my parents did not settle in at first; they were mindful of the possibility that our family might wear out our welcome. So far as we can tell, though, we haven’t yet. In fact, several years ago, when the church needed a new pastor, the elders asked my dad to apply. He did, and he is now, incredibly, the pastor of this 115-year-old black church.