What’s past is prologue, William Shakespeare once wrote, a sentiment shared by The Rev. Johnie Dollarhide during the March 6 Legacy of East Cleburne Dialogue Series, which focused on religion.
“We have to know what happened or we tend to repeat it again,” Dollarhide said. “History has a way of doing that.”
Organized by Dollarhide, Cleburne Councilman John Warren and others, the monthly Legacy series recounts the history, people and culture of East Cleburne in attempt both to celebrate events either forgotten or formerly not widely known and to highlight East Cleburne’s role in the overall story of Cleburne and Johnson County.
Religion, while it has history, also provides stability, The Rev. Bill Wright of Emmanuel Seventh day Adventist Church said.
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,” Wright said. “He does not change.”
That said, the March 12 program, provided an overview of religion as it pertains to black Americans — Cleburne residents in particular — from a sense both historic and current.
Putting the larger picture into perspective via historical context as he has during each Legacy installment, Wright spoke on “African American’s struggle for the right to worship.”
For many black individuals and families the church was and remains a foundation of community,” Wright said.
“But the right to worship was not always there for us as black Americans,” Wright said. “The black churches formed out of blood, sweat and tears. It wasn’t something that was easily given.”
In fact, it wasn’t a given at all during the time of slavery, Wright said.
Many slaves of the time, having heard about and accepted Jesus Christ, snuck off when able at great personal risk to worship.
To do so, blacks created their own secret institutions as well as coded speech and signals and in the process blended African rhythms with songs of Christianity to create their own style of praise and worship.
Many whites split as well over the question of blacks and Christianity, Wright said.
“There were those who protested against the slave trade, abolitionists,” Wright said. “They said it was wrong and asked how one could be a Christian and own slaves at the same time. But there were another group of Christians who believed that, according to the Bible, slavery was all right. They wanted to keep them enslaved, not teach them anything about religion but just let them be workers. Because if you let blacks become converted and educated that would inspire them into insubordination and revolt. Eventually most of the major Protestant denominations divided over the issue and this led to the Civil War.”
Wright said that President Abraham Lincoln, during his second inaugural address, intimated that God judged the U.S. for “indulging in the wicked institution of slavery.”
“Lincoln saw the light and shared it with the nation,” Wright said. “That was a bold man. That’s why he died.”
In spite of such hardships, Christianity provided hope to black Americans.
“God did not turn a blind eye to the sufferings of slaves nor did he wink at those who oppressed them,” Wright said. “For [black Americans] religion had the double meaning of salvation and freedom from slavery. It was one of the few ways they had to stay encouraged and express hope for the future and as such it became a deeply held faith and means of salvation.”
Religion post emancipation posed challenges as well.
“The task of organizing religious communities,” Wright said. “Free at last. But what are you going to do? You’ve been a slave all your life. What do you own? Nothing. They had to figure out how to live in the U.S. as citizens rather than property.”
Yet establish churches they did, Wright said, though the process did not lack for internal tensions, which at times resulted in denominational splits or new denominations altogether.
From emancipation through the Civil Rights Era to today religion remains important, Wright said.
“Thank God for religion,” Wright said. “They went through everything and made it because of that faith in Jesus Christ ladies and gentlemen.”
Dollarhide discussed the major African American denominations.
“They’re not all the same,” Dollarhide said. “In some they shout, jump, run and holler,” Dollarhide said. “In others you sit, hold your hands, say Amen and are very dignified.”
Dollarhide and Warren discussed the churches of East Cleburne, several of which date to the 1800s.
Warren played video of a partial sermon by The Rev. Jerome McNeil, former pastor of Christian Chapel CME Temple of Faith Church in Dallas.
Born and raised in Cleburne, McNeil attended Booker T. Washington High School — Cleburne’s segregated school for black students, which closed in 1965 — and graduated from Cleburne High School in 1967.
McNeil died at the age of 63 in 2012 after finishing a sermon at his church.
Warren couldn’t help but laugh as he recalled McNeil as a young boy, one who apparently frequently got in Dutch with his father.
“He’d come running out, run all the way around his house screaming and hollering then go right back in to get his whipping,” Warren said.
McNeil’s father served as senior pastor of Cleburne’s St. Paul C.M.E. Church, Warren said.
“He and my father sang in a gospel quartet, the Gospelaires,” Warren said. “They sang every Sunday at 3 p.m.”
Jerome McNeil went on to receive degrees in psychology and theology from several universities and seminaries and to achieve several firsts for an African American in Dallas County primarily for his work in juvenile justice, as a member of numerous state and national boards and as a founding member of the African American Pastors Coalition.
Dallas officials on Jan. 28, 2013 dedicated the Dr. Jerome McNeil Jr. Juvenile Detention Center in his honor.
Switching gears to the present, St. Paul C.M.E. Pastor Patricia McWilliams and Ascension Lutheran Church Pastor Eddie Scheler discussed Cleburne’s Interracial Church Coalition.
“We’re better together,” Scheler said.
Through the Coalition, St. Paul and Ascension, which is in Cleburne’s west side, alternate locations monthly to hold service and fellowship at each other’s church.
“We come together, hug one another,” McWilliams said. “We’re so happy to see one another and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We believe God is smiling down on us because he sees that we’re a fellowship of one.”
Both pastors said they’re encouraging other area churches to get involved.
The Coalition is, in some respects, the continuation of an earlier friendship, Cleburne resident Lyndon Overton said. Overton’s father, a former pastor of an East Cleburne church, and the former pastor of Ascension Lutheran were close friends during Overton’s youth.
The next, and final, installment of the Legacy series will focus on the military men and women of East Cleburne.
That installment is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. April 16 at the Booker T. Washington Community & Recreation Center, 100 Mansfield Road.