Going into the ministry was nowhere in my father’s plans for his life when he was a boy. It was Grandma Reid who named him. “Why don’t you call him John Wesley?” she proposed. “Maybe he’ll be a preacher.”
Of course, there was that one time that young Wesley abruptly announced that he was going to be a preacher. When they asked him why, he blurted out, “‘Cause preachers get fried chicken for Sunday dinner.”
As the second of two children born to Ruth and Andrew Shipp, and the only son, Wesley was pretty much expected to take over the running of the family farm when Granddaddy retired. When he and my mother married, they settled into a little house built for them on the lot right next to the farm. Two of their three children were born. Dad and Granddaddy were truck farmers, growing fields of cucumbers to be trucked to commercial markets. They raised and sold and hauled hogs. Both of them worked part-time as deputy sheriffs in the Princess Anne County sheriff’s office, and Granddaddy served for a time as voting registrar and manager of the local farmers’ market.
Sometime in the mid-1950s, my father was asked to be the preacher for Youth Sunday at the church he and my mother attended. His responsibilities included a Sunday night sermon, a Wednesday night midweek prayer service, and a second sermon on the following Sunday morning. As he stood in the pulpit to preach for the second time in a week, he thought, This is where I’m supposed to be.
No sooner had the thought occurred to him than he brushed it off, Oh, you just like being the center of attention. The feeling, however, was not so easy to dismiss. The certainty that had welled up inside him kept nagging at him.
At night, lying in bed, he and my mother would talk. It was their favorite time to talk things over, with the day coming to an end, the children asleep, the house quiet. Many nights he and my mother mulled it over, this feeling–almost a conviction–that God was calling him to the ministry. Each night he made plans to call the pastor the next morning and set up a time to meet with him. And every morning he shook his head at his foolishness; said to himself, Wesley, that is the dumbest idea you’ve ever had! After which he dressed, went over to the main house to plan the work day with Granddaddy over breakfast, and headed out into the fields.
It was about that same time that my young father began to suffer intense attacks of pain in his abdomen at regular intervals. He got so he couldn’t eat, and couldn’t keep anything down when he ate. The doctors were puzzled, “It looks like a gallbladder attack, it acts like a gallbladder attack, but there is nothing wrong with your gallbladder.” They ran repeated tests, with still no answers. Nothing appeared to be wrong. And still the attacks continued.
Things went on like this for about a year and a half. Dad grew thinner and thinner. In the photos he looks gaunt, haggard, haunted. He did not smile; his cheeks were sunken. And since the doctors could not pinpoint the problem, they could offer no solution.
The family began to worry that he might die.
One night, as they lay in bed in the dark, my father turned to my mother and said, “You know, I have this feeling that, if we just pray about it, everything is going to be all right.” They knelt on opposite sides of the bed and held hands across the full mattress. They prayed for knowledge of God’s will and surrendered their lives to God’s direction.
The next day Dad made an appointment to meet with the pastor. He told Rev. Joiner everything that had happened over the last 18 months. He asked, “What do you think I should do?”
Joiner paused. “Well, here’s what I think. If you can do anything else and be happy—anything at all—then go and do that, and forget about becoming a minister.”
Dad shook his head and chuckled. “I already did that, and it’s damn near killed me.”
“Well, then,” Joiner responded, looking him in the eye. “You have your answer.” He added, “I want you to know for sure in this moment that God is calling you. Because the day will come when you will doubt everything–you will doubt that you were even called to begin with. And I want you to be able to look back and remember this moment.”
And so the farmer became the preacher. He was licensed and ordained. He left the farm, with his parents’ blessing, and went to college. A third child was born. After 10 grueling years of going to classes and studying, while working full- and part-time jobs to support his young family, Dad graduated with his B.A. and went on to seminary in North Carolina.
All through his undergraduate years, the non-violent resistance movement for civil rights had challenged his prejudices and troubled his mind. He tried for years to “find something wrong” with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., until his efforts brought him to a dead end, and he had to confess, Wes, you’re just upset because Martin Luther King is a better Christian than you are. And either you listen seriously to what he has to say, or get out of the ministry altogether. Right now.
In 1969 Dad pastored a small church outside the seminary town of Wake Forest, NC. It was there that he had to make the difficult decision that changed the course of his ministry and his life. He and his wife Shirley had taught their three children that the color of a person’s skin had nothing to do with the quality of their character or their value as a beloved child of God. After the schools began to integrate, two of their children wanted to throw a party for their friends at the parsonage, and some of those friends were Black. Calling a special meeting, the deacons lay a stark choice before him: either to cancel the party and tell his children they could not host a party that included their Black friends, or to stand firm for what he had taught his daughter and sons about racial equity, and risk not only being fired from his pastorate, but also never being hired by a Southern Baptist church again.
He chose to stand firm. About an hour into the party, buckshot ripped through the center of their home, and the next day the church voted to fire him.
The seminary placement office asked him not to talk to reporters. They were concerned that, with all the news coverage, they would never be able to place him in a church. However, it was precisely because of a newspaper article about the shooting that 23rd and Broadway Baptist Church, in the West End of Louisville, KY, called him as pastor. The church stood in the middle of a community that had shifted in color, as Black people moved in and White people moved out. The predominantly White church decided to stay put—to stand firm—and work to build an integrated fellowship, a “beloved community,” there in the heart of the West End. They wanted a pastor who would challenge them in that direction. Over the course of six years, Dad led them to become a welcoming space for the people of the community, to call their first Black associate pastor, and to confront their prejudices, challenging themselves to love as God loves, across the color line.
In 1980 my father became the pastor of another urban church, this one affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA, in Elizabeth, NJ. There he oversaw one of the most successful church mergers in the history of ABC-USA, and led that previously all-White congregation to become a mosaic of colors and nationalities during his 13 years as pastor.
Diabetic retinopathy took his eyesight and forced him into retirement in 1993. Nevertheless, before long he was serving as interim pastor to churches struggling to stay alive and to discern what God was calling them to do in new and challenging circumstances. One of those churches was the one in Elizabeth he had once pastored. Others were located in places as varied as upstate New York, central city Philadelphia, and San Jose, California.
Dad affirmed in many of his sermons, that, if one follows the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it will lead them “over many a high, high mountain and through many a deep, dark, and desolate valley….”
I started this blog on my dad’s 89th birthday, March 2, 2021. This past March he celebrated 90 years. And last Friday, June 3, 2022, late in the afternoon, he slipped away from us to be with my mother, who passed in 2016.
The Spirit has led him home.
I remember a sermon he preached on the story of Jesus healing the “man born blind.” You remember the one: Jesus and his disciples encounter this man, and the disciples immediately start arguing about whether it was the man’s parents who sinned or he himself, causing him to be born without sight. While they are arguing, Jesus stoops down, spits into the dirt, places mud on the man’s eyes, gives him some simple instructions, and heals him.
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man….John 9:1, KJV
“In the person of ‘the man born blind,’ ” my father preached, “the disciples saw a jumping-off place for a theological discussion.” He waited for the words to settle. “But Jesus saw a man.”
That was my father. When he looked at someone, he saw a man, a woman, a person made in God’s image, a human being in need of the love of God and the love of their neighbor. He met people where they were: Margaret, the homeless woman suffering from schizophrenia, unable to get federal assistance; Roland, a young boy who was thought to be mentally handicapped, until it was discovered that he simply could not hear what was being said; and Jim, a member of the church who was bitterly biased against queer people. Dad filled out the forms for Margaret’s SSI, saw to it that Roland received both hearing aids and therapy, and loved Jim past his prejudices. You see, my father didn’t view Jim as a mission project, someone whose mind he had to change. He saw a man–in need of change, perhaps, but first of all, a man. In their many conversations Dad witnessed to the love of God and gently led Jim to let go of one bias after another. By the time Dad retired, Jim was a much-loved mentor to the Red Ribbon Fellowship, helping the LGBTQ community cope with the AIDS crisis.*
Dad was a man with a sense of humor, who, when he began to go blind, rewrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” laughing as he sang: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind—and I still can’t see!” He was a man who gave warm hugs: when I remarked once to my mother how much I loved her hugs, she replied, “You can thank your father for that. He’s the one who taught me how to hug.”
Dad was the preacher who sent shockwaves through the congregation one Good Friday, when he threw back his head and howled, “My GOD! My GOD! WHY have you forsaken me!” The cry erupted out of his own intimate experience of desolation. He was the kind of preacher-father to whom his daughter could confess freely that she no longer believed in God, because of the hypocrisy of the church; the kind of man who listened thoughtfully and responded, “I have enough trouble deciding what I believe. So I’m sure not going to tell you how you have to believe.”
Dad was a man who, at the end of his life, was still questioning. “I wonder what happens after we die,” he said more than once to me and my brothers. “I’m curious: Is all this stuff I’ve been preaching right? Is there a heaven? Will I see your mother again? Or is it just nothing?” He’d pause, pondering the questions, then the always-ready smile would break across his face. “I can’t wait to find out.”
*The names of Margaret, Roland, and Jim have been changed to protect their privacy.