I recently experienced a personal magic moment which summarized my four decades of working in the community for the improvement of race relations. I was invited to a preview showing of the film “42,” which is a retelling of the story of Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the dramatic breaking of the whites-only heritage of Major League Baseball. Purely by chance, I was sitting between two local veterans of the struggles toward the positive progress we’ve made here in Pasadena. On my right was Ralph Hurtado, a Latino leader who started in Pasadena, then became active in YMCA leadership throughout Southern California, later extending his influence Statewide as a legislative assistant in Sacramento. Now he’s back and working hard to bring local ethnic groups together. On my left sat Phlunte Riddle, who retired a year ago from the Pasadena Police Department, at the rank of Lieutenant, with the assignment of being the department’s chief spokesperson. She is very respected for the solid style in which she has risen to be a pace-setter, as a black woman in local law enforcement leadership. And there I was between them, feeling a bit small, and very honored.
We watched the excellent portrayal of how, in 1947, Dodger general manager Branch Rickey reached out to a gifted young ballplayer who had grown up in the streets and in the schools of Pasadena. Rickey knew that the man to break the color barrier had to have just the right temperament to be the first Black player in the Major Leagues. All rookies have to endure hazing from the veteran players whose jobs they’re threatening, but this was more than simple hazing; the racial name-calling and insults were blatant and continuous. Jackie handled it without either submitting in an Uncle Tom way or losing his temper. He performed well under pressure and was an important factor in the Dodger’s winning the pennant. As I watched, I found myself thinking that part of what prepared him for this critical role was his growing up in Pasadena. He grew up on the same streets and attended the same schools that later prepared my friends Phlunte and Ralph for their emergence as key leaders in uniting our community.
I felt good that I have spent much of my adult life partnering with Jackie, Phlunte and Ralph in the very important work of tearing down walls. Some might think, “Yes, that’s been your community service, outside your ministry as a pastor.” I don’t see it that way. My efforts at barrier breaking have been part of my ministry, because even more than I feel a oneness with Jackie, Ralph and Phlunte, I believe that in these efforts I have been partnering with the Lord Jesus, human history’s number one wall-demolisher. Paul reflected on how the seemingly impenetrable barrier between Jews and Gentiles came tumbling down when the influence of Jesus was fully realized:
Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” -a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands- remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace [the peace between us]; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then we are no longer strangers and aliens, but we are fellow citizens and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (From Ephesians 2:1-13)
Early in the film, Branch Rickey explains to his staff why Jackie Robinson is the right man to break the color barrier: “He’s a Methodist; I’m a Methodist; God’s a Methodist! We can’t go wrong.” I like his reasoning.
Jackie grew up attending Scott United Methodist Church in Pasadena. There is nothing wrong with a Methodist that a little water wouldn’t fix. Whoops, I’m building a Baptist wall.
— Pastor George Van Alstine