As I entered the chapel, I heard the most extraordinary music coming from the piano that sits near the chapel’s stage. But what compelled my attention as much as the music was the pianist’s face — the sheer joy and delight that his face expressed with every note he played.
The musician was Charles Wayne Baxter, a Black pastor who supplemented a small income from his church by serving as a security guard at Sci-Tech High School where he also directed the Sci-Tech Gospel Choir.
Baxter’s choir had been scheduled to perform that night, but the snow was so deep that only the pastor and a couple of his students had managed to travel to Messiah College.
I introduced myself to him when the program was over and told him how much I had enjoyed his music, but that I had especially enjoyed watching the joy that radiated from his face as he played those great gospel songs.
And then, for some reason — I can’t explain why — I asked, “Would you be willing to have breakfast with me one of these days?”
“Why, sure,” he said, and when we met on the appointed morning, a marvelous friendship was born.
He often claims that I have been his teacher. From my perspective, just the reverse is true. For every time we meet, he teaches me fresh and vibrant lessons about the meaning of the Christian faith, especially about forgiveness and compassion.
When I first met Baxter, I was serving as Senior Fellow in the Ernest L. Boyer Center at Messiah College and was hard at work planning an initiative we called, “Community Conversations on Race, Education, and Faith.” With that project, we hoped to bring Blacks and Whites and churches and schools from both sides of the river into a larger partnership for the sake of Harrisburg’s children.
We knew from the start that our success would depend to a great degree on the involvement of people of color who lived in the city.
Now, sitting across from the reverend as we broke bread together, I told him how much I hoped that many Blacks would participate in this project.
And that’s when he looked me in the eye and quietly asked, “Richard, may I speak candidly with you?”
“I hope you will,” I responded.
“All right,” he said. “Then get out a pen and a piece of paper and write what I tell you.”
Once I was ready to write, he doled out a simple message, one word at a time.
“First,” he said, “write the word, ‘it’s.’” And I did.
“Now write the word, ‘all,’” he continued. And I wrote down that word, too.
“Now write the word, ‘about.’” And I scribbled “about” on my note pad.
“Now write the word, ‘relationships.’”
And once I had written that word, he made his point. “Relationships!” he said. “That’s what you don’t have.”
He paused a moment, as if reflecting on what he was about to say. And then he said those five magical words that launched our friendship: “But I will help you.”
For why should he have helped me — a White man who was essentially a stranger both to him and to his world? After all, I am a White professor who has led a life of privilege for a very long time, while he — like virtually all African-Americans — is no stranger to the rotten fruit of our society’s systemic racism.
Some years ago, for example, when preaching in eastern Ohio, he came home from his church late one afternoon to rest. He sat on his living room couch to watch the evening news when suddenly he heard a loud thud. Something had hit his house.
In the time it took to get up from the couch and walk to the front door, the flames from the Molotov cocktail that someone had hurled at his home were raging out of control. He and his wife lost not only their house but every possession they owned. Only their garage still stood, but on the garage, someone had scrawled, “N—–, go home!”
And yet, here he was, a Black man, saying to a White man he barely knew, “I will help you.”
The truth about the reverend is this — that in the face of brutal hatred and systemic racism, he extends only love in return.
That perspective is remarkable enough, but I have found in Reverend Baxter yet another remarkable trait. As poor as he is, he has every right to focus on his own very pressing needs. Instead, he carries the burden of what he calls “America’s disposable children” — the children of the hood.
“Listen, Richard,” he told me one day, “in this country we throw away everything. We throw away razor blades, clothes, cell phones, television sets, even cars. But the greatest tragedy is the way we throw away our kids.”
“When most people see these kids,” he said, “they only see hoodlums. But the truth is that kids in the hood are as talented and smart as anyone else, and they have the potential to achieve in remarkable ways.
“But most people never grasp the way the cards are stacked against them.” And he spoke of the poverty that haunts them. He told how they often sleep in cars, or in ramshackle houses with no heat, or even on the street. And he spoke of the debilitating hunger that makes it virtually impossible for these kids to learn.
“As a result,” he said, “some teacher along the way decides that Johnny can’t learn and recommends Johnny for an alternative school. And, of course, in that school of low expectations, the chances that Johnny will learn to read and write and do basic math are slim to none. Johnny may well graduate, but with no marketable skills, so he turns to peddling crack, gets busted and lands in prison.”
“That we could dispose in this way of even one child is troubling enough,” he said, “but the pile of disposable children in this country is growing so high that already it has crippled the nation. In fact,” he said, “many of the answers to the challenging issues of our time lie cold and still … in our graveyards and prisons.”
But that, for Baxter, is not the end of the story, for he continues to believe that Christians who take the gospel seriously can make a very big difference in the lives of these kids.
On the morning we first met for breakfast, he explained to me what the gospel means to him — that just as God has extended his love and grace to us, so we must reflect that same love and grace to our neighbors, and especially to “the least of these.”
“And who,” he asked, “more fully fits the label, ‘the least of these,’ than these children in the hood?”
Over the years, he and I have worked — and continue to work — on various projects, all designed to make a difference in the lives of the children of the hood. And progress has been slow and hard.
But Baxter never quits. Now retired from Sci-Tech High, he hopes to find some way to teach math through the medium that he and the kids love most: the medium of music.
And through his commitment to help these kids, he has done what he said he would do: he has helped me — and taught me — more than he can know.
Richard T. Hughes directs the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College, and is the author of Myths America Lives By.