Jackie Robinson’s lesson for the church

It’s hurtful when people hate you just because of who you are.

By Amy Butler

Last weekend I saw “42,” the new film about the life of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. This fact is notable, as I don’t often get to the movies in general and also I am not a big baseball fan.

As the movie started, I was surprised to feel myself tearing up. By about 15 minutes, a steady stream of tears coursed down my face. Halfway through, my 14-year old son leaned over and whispered, “Mom, no offense, but I’m going to go sit in another row.”

Tears were understandable, since the film tells the story of overcoming hatred with courage and conviction. It’s intended to pull at your heartstrings.

But I’m generally more cynical and definitely not that gullible. After merciless teasing from my children, I later wondered to myself what it was about the story that brought up such an emotional reaction.

42The hateful words and hurtful actions repeatedly directed at Robinson on screen were hard to watch, it’s true. But I think my tears came more from the shared human experience unfolding on screen. It’s hurtful when people hate you just because of who you are.

While being one of many female Baptist ministers in the world today is very incidental when compared to one black man breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, I watched the film with some personal recognition of the feelings Robinson’s character seemed to have.

Most any female Baptist minister could probably tell stories about being excluded and marginalized because of her gender. It has happened to me many times over the years.

There was the time I stood at the sanctuary door shaking hands after preaching my very first sermon, and someone said to me on the way out: “Well, that was interesting -- kind of like watching a dog walk on its hind legs.”

Then there was the time I officiated a funeral in a church where the pastor did not believe women should be ministers. He showed his disapproval before the service by removing the altar and pulpit from the sanctuary and replacing them with a music stand.

Or once, my first month as pastor, when another minister in the area invited me to breakfast and told me he gave me a year, tops, before I failed. “Women just can’t handle this kind of work,” he said.

I could tell stories like these for hours.

These days we wouldn’t think twice about African-Americans excelling at Major League baseball. Even being a woman in ministry is getting to be fairly common. Because times and perspectives have changed, I could feel the universal sense of chagrin of the story on screen: What were we thinking to behave like that toward someone just because of his race? How very, very wrong we were.

Inevitably, this led me to wonder: Who are we hating and excluding these days? When we look back 50 years from now, why will we feel chagrin?

It seems the church would be the natural place to begin asking those questions. We Christ-followers certainly aren’t perfect. We can’t always see the ways in which we hate and exclude others, but surely the church can be the place where we begin.

We can start by acknowledging that we are individually and corporately works-in-progress, people who want to allow God’s Spirit to shape us and change us, to widen our view of the world and form us to be true reflections of God’s expansive love.

Then, perhaps, we might even start to step out with courage and conviction and throw open the doors and welcome the world, to love God’s precious children expansively and inclusively.

If only we had the courage, the Church of Jesus Christ could lead the way so that nobody ever again will have to sit in a movie theater crying with pain and regretful about their own ignorance and sin.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.