This is Not Your “Grandmothers” Church, by Pr. Walt Otten

(Pr. Otten writes the “Steadfast Lessons from the Past” column found on the “Regular Columns” page.)


We have heard that it is no longer your grandfather’s church, but it is also no longer your grandmother’s church.


This grandmother, sister in Christ, was born on May 14th, 1890 at ROSEBUD, Wilcox county, Alabama. In his book, ROSES AND THORNS, written for the centennial of black ministry in the LCMS, Dr. Richard Richardson writes of this grandmother, Rosa Young, “She will always be remembered as the Mother of Lutheranism in the Alabama field.”   Rosa Young has written her life’s story in LIGHT IN THE DARK BELT. It was first published in 1930, and reprinted in 1950 by CPH. CPH gave permission to the Black Lutheran Centenial committee to reprint the book in 1976.


In LIGHT IN THE DARK BELT Rosa Young describes life in rural Alabama for the “colored” children. She writes, “A bath was not even a weekly experience for many colored children. Often a baby was not given a bath until after its weaning time. As the child grew older, its kinky, dirty hair became matted with cockleburs, cotton lint, and pine needles. Banks of dirt accumulated on the back of the neck, elbows, wrists, hands, and feet. Fingernails were long and dirty. Yet they must eat with their fingers…Children came to school wearing the same clothes they wore at home, dirty, greasy, stiff with sorghum, full of holes, buttons off, trousers ripped to the knee, hems out of girls dresses. Faces and hands were dirty, hair was uncombed. Ventilation was a necessity alone from this angle.”


 Of the religious training of these children she writes, “Far below anything else was their religious training. The little colored children did not know any prayers. They did not know that God had made them…They did not know how to sing. They did not know what was right and what was wrong.”


Of the preachers in rural Alabama she writes, “The so-called preachers often were worse than those to whom they preached. Some were both ignorant and immoral…These so-called preachers were the downfall of many poor, ignorant young girls…After they stripped the people of all the money they could get, these scoundrels would escape and no more be heard from them.”


What her people needed was a good school. She wanted it to be a truly Christian school. In LIGHT IN THE DARK BELT one reads of her successful effort in 1912 to not only start, but to build a school. But 1914 brought the first World War, the Mexican boll weevil and economic hardship. The school that she had built and started faced difficult financial struggles. Every attempt by mail and personal contact to secure help failed, she would write one more letter before she closed her school, it would go to Booker T. Washington. He replied that he could not help her, but he did advise her to write to the Board of Colored Missions of the Lutheran Church. She writes, “He said they were doing more for the colored race than any other denomination he knew of.” The Board of Colored Missions was an arm of the former Synodical Conference.   She wrote to the Board of Colored Missions. She told them of her plight. And so it was that the Lutheran Church came to Alabama. Of the Lutheran Church she says, “God knew the Lutheran Church from of old. He knew her works, the preaching of the pure Gospel, the true administration of the holy sacraments, the Christian day schools, where His lambs are fed daily, the hymns of praise and adoration sung by millions of Lutherans throughout the world.”      


Of those hymns she would further write, “Those words of praise to Jesus and the sweet German melodies made a lasting impression upon my heart. I thought then, and still think to this day, that the Lutheran melodies are the sweetest in the world. Give me my Lutheran melodies.” She goes on to say of Pastor Bakke, who confirmed her, “In his audience there were always many who could not read. He would take time and teach them to sing the Lutheran hymns, one line at a time. He continued this method until even the little children and ex-slaves could sing well a few stanzas of certain Lutheran hymns and recite the Lord’s Prayer and Apostle’s Creed…In meeting after meeting the bold and fearless preacher preached Christ and him crucified; he defended the Cross; he proclaimed ‘Luther’s doctrine pure’ without fear or favor.”


Of her own “colored” people she writes, as she could well write of many who today are not “colored,” but perhaps with slightly different words, “they praise noise; they applaud and approve noise. If one wishes to succeed…he must be noisy. The more noise he makes, the more quickly he will succeed. One has to be a real novelist, keeping something new before them all the time.” In contrast to that kind of worship, she says of those who became Lutheran, “Those who knew the colored people in their unconverted state can hardly imagine them in a church that holds a quiet, decent, orderly service. But the Lutheran Church has changed them, and now they rejoice that the Word of God has been sown in their hearts.”


But the Lutheran churches, their pastors and Rosa Young were not without a cross. Of the leaders of the sectarian churches she writes, “The leaders in the sectarian churches pledged themselves to overthrow the Lutheran Church. One preacher announced that he would be a wasp in my garments as long as I lived…They held meetings and councils one after another against me. They never held a service or an annual meeting but that there was something mean said about me…Preachers stood up and proclaimed from their pulpits, ‘Rosa Young hath devil.'”      


On the day of her confirmation, with his hand upon her head, Pastor Bakke spoke the words, “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the Day of Jesus Christ.”


God did perform His good work in this grandmother and sister in the faith till the day she, in her death, stood in His presence. Rosa Young was a true example of STEADFASTNESS IN THE PAST. But “noise” mimicking the sectarians with something new all the time has now entered our grandmother’s church. It is no longer her church.

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