A wise shepherd's tales

Sundays Down South: A Pastor's Stories By James Chatham University Press of Mississippi 224 pp., $25

A pastor's life can be a perilous thing, a tightrope walk over dangerous waters.

The idealism of seminary sets the stage. You have two jobs to do as a minister: bring comfort to the distressed, and bring distress to the comfortable. Bind up the brokenhearted. Reach out with tender compassion to those in need. By all means, console those in pain with words of kindness and peace. But, at the same time, be ever vigilant and ready to assail injustice with every fiber of your being. Aggressively challenge those who are content with their self-centered and self-serving ways.

It is this tension between what is known as the "priestly" and "prophetic" roles of the ministry that makes the pastor's life so difficult. In a high-contrast world where villains and victims are clearly defined, ministers may assert themselves with confidence.

In the parish of the real world, however, one rarely, if ever, encounters a situation of black-and-white clarity. The idealism of the classroom shatters quickly against the reality of lives colored only in shades of gray. The forcefulness with which one defends or promotes a principle must often be tempered by compassion for the people involved.

The Rev. James Chatham, together with his wife, Nancy, arrived to serve the Presbyterian congregations in Fayette and Union Church, Miss., on June 28, 1964. This was a world of black and white, but of another kind altogether.

Racial tensions, particularly in the deep South, had reached unparalleled levels. Only seven days earlier, the same day as the Chathams were being married, three young civil rights workers had been murdered on a rural Mississippi road. Several Ku Klux Klansmen, including a sheriff's deputy, would later be charged. It was only the latest violent manifestation of the bigotry and hatred that Chatham knew, as a matter of faith and professional integrity, he must oppose.

Chatham's new book, "Sundays Down South: A Pastor's Stories," is a compilation of tales through which he describes four decades of struggling with the tension between principle and people. Most of the stories are about individuals he's known well, everyday people living lives solidly in the gray area between good and evil, with an undeniable capacity for both.

What's most clear in many of these tales is Chatham's abiding hope and confidence that love can conquer all. While Klansmen gather to rally at City Hall, a white appliance salesman speaks of the deep, enduring friendship with his black employee. When an enraged, drunken man is gunned down by his frightened neighbor, the new widow is surrounded by friends, relatives, and an outpouring of food that borders on the sacramental, a foretaste of the feast to come. When two men are seriously injured during a snowstorm so powerful that ambulances cannot be dispatched, they receive care of Samaritan proportions from an exotic dancer and a male stripper, fellow travelers through snow, and life. Two women - one black, one white - after colliding their cars at an intersection in Louisville, Ky., rush at each other and embrace in an outpouring of mutual concern. One comforts the other, "Don't worry, sweetheart, everything's going to be all right." Chatham writes, "Somehow, I believed it was."

Chatham is at his strongest when he trusts these powerful, tender stories to speak for themselves. The best

storytellers know when to let the tale do the work and allow the listeners to draw their own conclusions. The job of the preacher, however, is ever to interpret; it's a temptation Chatham occasionally can't resist.

Jesus knew what he was talking about when he warned his disciples that they must be "wise as serpents, and innocent as doves." To condemn sin while embracing the sinner is an extraordinary feat for a minister, or anyone. Yet, Chatham understands well the hearts of the people he's served, and he is remarkably gifted at urging them - and us - to see an old world in new ways.

*Richard Wehrs is the senior pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster Groves, Mo.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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