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Sundays Down South: A Pastor’s Stories

By James O. Chatham
University Press of Mississippi.1999. 248 pp. $25. ISBN 1-57806-175-X

Reviewed by Louis Weeks, Richmond, Va.


"Exegete the biblical text, exegete the congregation, and exegete the community in which you serve." This profound advice for pastors and others who would lead the church I have heard constantly from seminary professors and from wise old hands in presbytery.

Seminaries have long taught biblical exegesis, and now courses on contextual ministry and supervised ministry experience try to teach the rest. But where can you find examples of good exegesis of congregations and communities?

Here! Through more than 30 years of ministry, Jim Chatham has collected stories of the members of his congregations, and people in the communities in which the churches were located. He doubtless gathered stories in Columbus, Ohio, where he served for four years; but the ones he tells come from congregations and localities in the South — in Virginia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Kentucky.

Here are stories about saints and sinners such as Frank and Moses, salt-and-pepper friends in segregated Fayette, Miss., in 1965. After months in town, Chatham was invited to share knowledge of their intense and prolonged friendship. They ate together, joked together, worried together. “But we prefer, Reverend, that other people not know,” Moses told him. “It would make things hard for both Frank and me.”

Their story, or rather the story of how they at last disclosed their counter-cultural, Christian inclusivity, Chatham tells and then evaluates. Was it a waste that they never spoke out, as one analyst later judged? “No,” says Chatham. “Here were friends who painted a small region of beauty against a background of ugliness.” He muses on the separation of private and public among people, suggesting that good may be hidden as well as evil — grace as well as sin.

Fayette also provided the story of Miss Susie Grafton, daughter of Presbyterian Church (U.S.) Moderator C.W. Grafton and great-aunt of novelist Sue Grafton. “A storehouse of information on the past,” Miss Susie told her pastor church gossip and much more — of the mores and worldviews of the people — their deeply held lessons from the ministry of other pastors and their racial fears in a changing world.

In another story in black and white, from his current church and location in Louisville, Ky., Chatham tells of a lawyer and judge on the one hand, and a corrections officer on the other, of their relationship born in the civil rights era and enduring through the years. The white learned, through the witness of the black and others in the movement, deeper implications of the Christian faith.

Stories in the book tell of commitment and cowardice, trust and love among people, threat and tragedy. From some, the writer seeks to draw lessons. From others, the simple narrative suffices. Much as the work of Will Campbell conveys the rich textures of the human condition and the grace of God, these stories make me more eager to listen to others and more empathetic in relating to those whose perspectives differ from — indeed conflict with — my own.

Mainly, though, this is the work of a pastor who practices the craft and practices the faith as well. It provides a beautiful and heuristic model of a church leader listening, analyzing, diagnosing, learning, growing, theologizing. How do the preaching, teaching, pastoral care and prophetic witness of a faithful servant of God become more profound over time? Through hearing and appropriating stories such as these from the congregation and contexts of ministry.

Jim Chatham couches the work in terms of Southern life — its special struggles with race and gender, money and religion, education and direction, much more. Southern survival, Southern love of narrative, and the special poignancy of Southern life may contribute to the hearing and the telling of these stories. But as in the case of many other writers from the South, Chatham’s stories instruct and inspire much more broadly.

“Pastors have a unique view into life,” Chatham asserts. “We are present with people literally from birth to death. We baptize them, confirm them, marry them, counsel them, and finally bury them. We are confidants. People trust us with a great deal of less-than-public information. . . . Part of our task is to reflect with people on the meaning of their lives, to try to interpret what happens, and to find a good way into the future.” AMEN.