A Time for Burning: The Missional Church and Race

John ArmstrongRace and Racism

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A Time for Burning
was called by The New York Times, “A glowing beauty.” It is a genuinely gripping film, produced at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1966. It poignantly captures the mood of those times in ways that would still open the eyes of many who either did not live in the 1960s or who have too easily, and far too quickly, forgotten that era.

The award-winning director of A Time for Burning is San Francisco filmmaker Bill Jersey, who earned his B. A. at Wheaton College and his M.A. in film at USC. This controversial film, which was actually rejected by the three major networks, examines the issue of race through the lens of two primary characters, one of whom is the Rev. William Youngdahl, the pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska. The other is a local black barber who tells Youngdahl, in a moving scene that should shout at any Christian who cares about the mission of Jesus deeply, that “Jesus is contaminated.” The pastor encouraged his white, middle-class congregation to reach out to local black Lutherans, from nearby Hope Lutheran Church, in a show of support and friendship. He proposes than ten families from each congregation visit the respective churches and seek to establish a relationship. (A scene where the youth from both churches converse is also included, showing how hard it was even for young people to break down the walls of that time.) Tensions within the Augustana community run very high as members of both races grapple with long-held prejudices.

The film is shot in “cinéma vérite” style, which means it has no script and no narrator. It primarily chronicles the difficult relationship between Youngdahl and his parishioners. 511bp4gqf3l_sl500_aa240_
Rev. Youngdahl was the son of a former Minnesota governor and federal judge and worked with great patience to help his folk understand what the real issues were for them as a church. At one point an Omaha Lutheran minister from Luther Memorial Church tells Youngdahl that “This one lady said to me, pastor, she said, I want them to have everything I have, I want God to bless them as much as he blesses me, but she says, pastor, I just can’t be in the same room with them, it just bothers me.” A major concern expressed by white parishioners is that blacks will move into the church’s neighborhood and thus property values will decline, a common objection during the Civil Rights era. The attempt to reach out to black Lutherans eventually cost Youngdahl his job.

The film was produced and distributed by the Lutheran Film Associates (LFA), which was begin in 1952. It is a project of both the ELCA and the LCMS. Its first motion picture is the now well-known film, Martin Luther, released in 1953. The success of that movie, still seen by thousands of people each year, led to subsequent films, besides A Time for Burning, including Question 7 and The Joy of Bach. LFA continues to produce and distribute films for U. S. Lutherans. Information is available at: www.lutheranfilm.org.

The newer version of this 1966 film includes an interview that Bill Jersey did with Ernie Chambers, the black barber in the original story. Forty years later the viewer is given a powerful portrait of how the issue of race impacted Ernie’s life from the 1960s on.  Chambers completed law school and ended up being elected to the Nebraska legislature in 1970. By 2005 Ernie became the longest serving state Senator in the history of Nebraska. Ernie represents the kind of anger we have recently witnessed in our wider culture, an anger that resulted from the Civil Rights era and an anger that still abides with us to this day, whether we recognize it or not. Ernie’s very modern, and current, story stands as a sad warning to the Church that a gospel not lived within costly relationships is no gospel and in the end it becomes a gospel that does serious damage to people. 

This black and white film runs for only 58 minutes. I got my copy from NetFlix. I am quite sure that it is available through many library systems. This new (2006) version is available on DVD and includes several important features besides the powerful interview with Ernie Chambers mentioned above. This interview alone will allow many white Christians to better understand how and why a black man can react so strongly against Christianity.

I was encouraged to see this film by a career missionary leader who told me how powerfully it would impact my own missional paradigm. He was right. I thus urge you to see it and to interact with it. Its utter simplicity takes you back to an era that is still very hard to comprehend. The tendency for many of us will be to either not believe this story happened unless we hear it or to conclude that since we have made some real progress since the 1960s we have finished the task the Church still faces in dealing with race and racism. Both conclusions are seriously flawed and deadly to missional Christian theology and practice.