Saturday, July 20, 2013

An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I would like to tell you about what I learned from Dr. Carey T. Vinzant.

I first met Dr. Vinzant on a spring morning in 1975. Rev. William L. Key, a retired Baptist minister who was also my high school Creative Writing teacher’s father-in-law, picked me up that morning to take me the forty or so miles from my home in Barnesville, Georgia to visit Mercer University, the college to which his daughter-in-law and he were convinced I should go, even though I was not so convinced. When I got in the car, Preacher Key told me that we were going to pick someone up in Forsyth; that someone else turned out to be Dr. Vinzant, a man of whom I had never heard but who I that morning discovered had retired some six years earlier from the presidency of Tift College, the now defunct, sadly, Baptist college for women located in Forsyth.

We had an appointment with Mercer’s Director of Admissions Johnny Mitchell. We walked into his office, sat down, and chit-chatted a bit. Finally Mr. Mitchell looked at me, then at Preacher Key, then at Dr. Vinzant for a long time, then at me again. He said to me, “So, when do you want to start?” I was a sixteen-year-old high school junior; I entered Mercer that fall.

I have been loosely connected with Dr. Vinzant in other ways since then; he and I both served as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia and of the First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia where I presently serve.

I remember exactly one thing that Dr. Vinzant said to me. It was during my meeting with my ordination council, a group of ministers and deacons who quizzed me to determine if I was fit to be ordained, which, frankly, my seventeen-year-old college freshman self was not, although they voted unanimously to proceed with the ordination that was already scheduled for the next day.

During that meeting, Dr. Vinzant asked me the only question that I can still remember from that interrogation: “Mike, I wonder if you think that the Apostle Paul could have done the work he did for the Lord had he not had the education that he had?”

I stammered out an answer that I thought was pretty good; it had something to do with my conviction that I reckoned that the Lord could use anyone the Lord wanted to in whatever way the Lord wanted to, including overcoming whatever deficiencies, educational or otherwise, they had. Or maybe I just said, “Yes.”

Dr. Vinzant gave a little smile and said, “Well, you may be right. But it seems to me that Paul was uniquely qualified to accomplish God’s purpose of bridging the gap between Jews and Gentiles precisely because of his background and education in both the Jewish and the Greek worlds.”

I’ve thought a lot over the last four decades about Dr. Vinzant’s observation; he was right to say that Paul’s ability to articulate his faith in both the Jewish and Gentile worlds was vital to the spread of the Christian faith. One could make a similar observation about Moses, who as a Hebrew raised in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s household was well positioned to speak both to the Hebrew people and to the Egyptian leadership and thus to lead the Hebrews out of bondage.

I say all of this, Mr. President, to say that I believe that you should say much more about race in America than you have to this point said and that you should say much more about race in America than you said in your recent remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. You are, after all, uniquely qualified to do so and, being so qualified, you should take advantage of the bully pulpit of the presidency to try to help us make further progress in understanding each other and in working together for the benefit of all people.

The reasons that you are uniquely qualified to help us to think and to talk about race in America are two-fold and are, I suppose, obvious, but I beg your indulgence as I state them anyway. First, you are the President of the United States, which will be a fact of your life for only forty-two more months, and so you should take advantage of every second to deal with truly vital matters and issues. Second, you are both black and white, which has been a fact of your life for your entire life and will be for the rest of your life and so you will be in a position to help us to keep thinking and talking about race for a long time.

It is likely that we will never have another President who is as qualified as you are to help us in coming to terms with the realities of race in this nation. I know that you cannot do so on your own, but you—and only you—can be our prompter-in-chief and moderator-in-chief. You and only you can set the terms of the debate at an open, honest, and dignified level.

I realize there are risks for you if you continue to talk about race; some people will say that you are stoking the fires of racism if you continue to talk about what it is like to be black in America, but you nevertheless need to talk about it, especially since you also know more than most black people do about what it is to be white in America.

When you were elected, we celebrated the fact that you were our first African-American President. But we need for you to embrace, even more than you already have, the fact that you are our first bi-racial President.

In the First Testament of our Bible, at a time of great crisis, Mordecai suggested to Queen Esther, who was a Jewish woman serving as queen alongside the king of Persia, that perhaps she had risen to leadership “for just such a time as this.”

Perhaps, Mr. President, you have, too.

Please lead us in speaking with truth and grace about the fact of race; lead us in making progress in understanding each other so that we can better live up to our ideals of equality and justice.


Michael L. Ruffin
Fitzgerald, Georgia

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