Rev. J. Wesley Shipp, Sr, turned 89 today, March 2. He and my mother taught me and my brothers everything we know about braving holy discomfort.
A farm boy, born and raised in Princess Anne County, VA, who played football for Kempsville High, he remembers that, at age 12 or so, he would stand in the field and wonder what non-being would feel like. He imagined that he would take over the farm from Granddaddy some day, but was swept off his feet into an illness the doctors never could explain, a crisis in his soul and body that well-nigh killed him. For eighteen months he resisted the call to the ministry, for eighteen months he grew thinner and thinner, his stocky frame becoming gaunt, until the night that he and my mother knelt and held hands across the bed and prayed, “God, Thy will be done,” surrendering to that call. The illness left him and never returned.
My mother dreamed of tending her own home, raising a family. She always joked that she honestly had wanted the picket fence! And yet she married a man whose immense moral integrity matched her own and practically guaranteed they would get into trouble. She and my father made every decision together, walked alongside and encouraged each other, for 64 years of marriage. Her courage, while quieter than my father’s, was nevertheless a powerful force in his life and ours, one I never truly honored at the time.
When in 1957 Dad was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister of the gospel, their lives were set to change. He told me years later that he decided he wanted to be an educated pastor, so he went to the University of Richmond, a Baptist college, and over the course of 10 years earned his Bachelors with a double major in religion and philosophy. Why did it take him 10 years? Because he was working the whole time, pumping gas, flipping hamburgers, selling cars, supporting our family so that my mother could work at building a home and caring for two children, then three. After Dad graduated from U of R, we moved to Wake Forest, NC, and he began his studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
While working on his formal education, Dad was also troubled and challenged by a preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr, and the non-violent protests that provoked such violence from segregationists. He said many years later, “I was trying to find any reason I could to criticize and discredit King in my own mind, but I finally had to admit that he was just a better Christian than I was.” Still, Dad bought into the white liberals’ old rationalization, “These things take time. We don’t want to move too fast.” The assassination of Dr. King changed his mind. “If a man like that,” he concluded, “can be killed for teaching what he taught and living the love of God for all people the way he did, we’re not moving too fast. We’re moving too slow!”
A little more than a year later, a shotgun blast shattered the front window of our home. The reason? Black and white teenagers were having a party in the parsonage. It was not the party that was the problem. It was that Black and white teenagers were socializing together. Twelve days before Christmas in 1969, someone pointed a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun at our home and pulled the trigger. Buckshot sprayed the living room wall, 18 holes, and 8 of the pellets came through the wall into the family room where we were gathered. Because my 9-year-old brother wanted popcorn, we were all moving toward the kitchen; the pellets passed between us, and no one, thank God, was hit. As we lay on the floor waiting for the sheriff to show up, my mother sat on the hearth of the fireplace; my friends urged her, “Mrs. Shipp, you should get down. You should get down here with us. They could come back.” She said bitterly, “Well, at least we didn’t get blood on their precious parsonage.”
I will never forget my father sitting on a folding chair, as we all tried to get some sleep on make-shift pallets on the floor. We were all in the family room, the only room on the back of the house–Mom and Dad were afraid that whoever had fired the shotgun would circle back and fire-bomb our bedrooms in the front. My father was rewriting his sermon for the next morning, shaking his head, muttering softly to himself, “I thought they would come for me. I never thought they would try to kill children. I thought they would come for me.”
Dad was pastoring an all-white Southern Baptist church 6 miles outside Wake Forest, in the Stony Hill district. The church voted to fire him the next morning, a Sunday, and urged us to move out of the parsonage as soon as possible. The vote was 27-11.
The next 5-6 months were a learning experience I would not trade for anything in this world. We traveled as a family from one Black congregation to another, usually two services each Sunday, and my father preached. Were it not for these churches, we would have had no income. And we were almost always invited to stay after and share a meal.
A white man came to our door one night to inform us (though whether his true purpose was to “inform” or threaten us, we never knew) that we were on the Klan’s “hit list,” that our photos were on the walls of every Klan meeting place in the state. Nevertheless, men of color went from door to door, collecting funds to support us, in communities where the white elected officials were strongly believed to be Klan members. And they did this more than once. And so we lived five months in that small town north of Raleigh, while my father completed his coursework and prepared to graduate from seminary, not knowing whether there was a Southern Baptist church anywhere that would hire him.
The story did not end there. A church in the West End of Louisville, KY, read about what had happened to us and decided that Wesley Shipp was just the man they should call to be their pastor. In Louisville, Dad led the church in building a fellowship, a beloved community, that was interracial. Later he would go on to pastor a church in Elizabeth, NJ, an all-white American Baptist congregation which became a mosaic of colors and nationalities during his 13 years as pastor. Now the church is pastored by a woman who is Black; she said to him, “If you had not led this church the way you did, they never would have called me to be their pastor.”
As my father gets older, I see names, dates slip away from him. He says that he never planned to get this old, or to outlive my mother. He says that, if he had his way, he would slip out the back door of this life and join Mom. Then he laughs and says, “Well, everybody else has to go through getting older. I guess I’m here till it’s time for me to go.” Dad faces aging the way he has faced every growing edge in his long life, with humor and determined grace, modeling for us a way to navigate holy discomfort.