Activists with Tar Sands Blockade lock themselves to equipment used to build the Keystone XL pipeline, near Nacogdoches, Texas, November 19, 2012. (Elizabeth Brossa)
One morning in mid-July, I drove north out of Houston at the crack of dawn, three hours up Highway 59 into the cleaner air and dense, piney woods of deep East Texas. It was Sunday, and I was on my way to church.
I’d been up that way before: my father was born and raised in northeast Texas—in fact, my whole family is from Texas—and I’m no stranger to Bible Belt Christianity. But I’d never been to a church like the one where I was headed that morning: the small, progressive Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, which meets in an unassuming building on the edge of town.
Austin Heights was formed as a breakaway congregation in the charged atmosphere of 1968, when its founders could no longer accept the dominant Southern Baptist line on issues of race and war, and it established a lasting fellowship with the leading African-American church in Nacogdoches, Zion Hill First Baptist. The first morning I was there, the Rev. Kyle Childress, Austin Heights’ pastor since 1989 (and the only white member of the local black ministers’ alliance), preached on the Old Testament prophet Amos, who, he noted, was among the favorites of Martin Luther King Jr. Childress began his sermon by reminding us that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the protests in Bull Connor’s Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and the March on Washington later that summer, and that one of King’s most-used lines (found, for example, in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech) was a verse from that morning’s Scripture reading in Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The prophet Amos, Childress told us, was called to be a fierce advocate—among the Bible’s fiercest—on behalf of justice for the poor and oppressed. “Amos’s strong preaching was hard then, and it’s hard today,” Childress said. Just as in Amos’s day, when the wealthy trampled on the poor while worshiping piously in the temples, so today our “programs of care for the poor and needy” are dismantled “with a religious zeal.” Meanwhile, “giant corporations get a free ride. They can diminish people, destroy the earth, pour out climate-changing carbon, all in the interest of short-term profit, and no one can do anything about it.” But Amos knew, Childress assured us, that God is the spring of justice—and that without God, “we are unable to keep up the struggle for justice and goodness and love over the long haul.”
“God calls us to justice, to be a people who embody justice,” said Childress, himself a longtime activist on issues of race, poverty and peace. And yet, as King and all those who fought for civil rights knew, “serving and battling for justice is a long-haul kind of calling.”
Childress—deeply influenced by the likes of Wendell Berry, the late Will D. Campbell and, of course, King—is not a Bible-thumper. He doesn’t shout. Heavyset and ruddy-faced, with a whitening, close-cropped beard, he speaks with a soft, flat West Texas accent. But his voice carries real power and conviction. I would have been impressed with his sermon even if I didn’t know that his words that Sunday morning held a heightened significance for his congregation—not just because of the civil rights history, but because this little East Texas church, which can count perhaps 100 souls in its pews on a typical Sunday, is involved in a new battle. I wasn’t there just to hear the preaching.