Brooks Ramsey: 

THE LION IN AUTUMN

Though he recently celebrated his 79th birthday, Brooks Ramsey still stands tall. Blue eyes steady beneath his white mane, Ramsey looks out a window and he recalls a meeting held almost 40 years ago, on the afternoon when he met Dr. Martin Luther King.

In the spring of 1962, Ramsey was pastor of First Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, where earlier that same year more than 700 people had been arrested in one day while protesting segregation. Ramsey, along with eight other ministers -- four black and four white -- was attending a secret meeting held in the basement of an African-American church. All in attendance risked the wrath of their congregations as they struggled to find, as he puts it, "some strategies to help bring us together."

The host preacher spoke first. "I don't know how you would feel about this," he said, "but Dr. King is upstairs, in my study. He said to tell you he would be glad to join us, if you are not afraid that his presence might place you in an even more precarious position."

"We sounded off like a chorus," Ramsey recalls: "'Please, ask him to come down!' And in a few minutes we looked up to see Dr. King slowly descending the stairs."

Ramsey's memories of King are still strong. "He had a calming presence," he says. "He radiated a peaceful strength. I have experienced such an aura with few people.

"Dr. King talked about his principles of non-violence," Ramsey continues. "His countenance remained serene throughout the afternoon, except for the times when he laughed. He used humor quite often, to help make a point. He was far from being the 'angry man' so many had depicted him as being. He quoted from Gandhi and Tolstoy and Reinhold Niebuhr: writers and thinkers who happened to be my favorites as well. It was a magical afternoon!

"Dr. King said one of his main goals was to help save the white church," Ramsey recalls. "He felt that members of any religious group that supported segregation -- repressing the rights of fellow Christians -- might have 'some answering to do when they get to heaven.' He said his hope was that we could work toward bettering life here on earth for our black citizens and life in the hereafter for our white ones."

The meeting ended, of course, with no real solution to the problems they all faced. It's a topic that in many ways is still being addressed today. "But we emerged from that basement with added strength," Ramsey says, "and added courage to continue the struggle."

Ramsey would soon need this boost.

His church quickly became a focus of national attention when an over-zealous usher, working with local police, had three black men arrested outside the building one Sunday while Ramsey was preaching. The charge: "Vagrancy and Loitering." Their actual intent was to present the church with a petition supporting racial reconciliation. When informed of the arrests, Ramsey was outraged. His response was quoted in articles published all over the country.

"This is Christ's church," Ramsey stated. "And neither I nor anyone else can build walls around it that He did not build! There is no white wall around this particular church and no colored wall around a black one. In my opinion, any group that calls itself a church should be open to all!"

Members of Ramsey's congregation quickly organized a meeting to decide what to do with their preacher, this man who expressed such "radical" opinions. Ramsey -- by a narrow margin -- was allowed to keep his position. But it was understood he should make plans to leave Georgia, and soon.

The Sixties were a rough time in America. The struggle for civil rights coupled with concerns about the country's role in Vietnam created rifts throughout society. In the South those who "sided with liberals" ran the risk of ostracism. This would not be the last time Brooks Ramsey would be asked to leave a church after attempting to broaden its perspective. At the next church he would pastor -- here in Memphis -- he would meet a similar fate.

Ramsey left Georgia soon after the arrests incident and came to Memphis in 1963. He had been asked to serve as pastor at Second Baptist Church, then newly constructed on Walnut Grove Road. Considering themselves "a fairly liberal group of Baptists," according to Ramsey, the church had pursued the preacher, in part due to his pioneering reputation. But in 1968, when Ramsey joined a multi-faith gathering of ministers to march down Poplar Avenue to City Hall to show their support for improving race relations in Memphis, it proved too much for the more conservative members of his church. In a meeting held to upbraid him, Ramsey was told journals had been kept which would prove that he "did not preach often enough about hellfire and damnation." These records, he was told, would "prove" that Ramsey tended to dwell upon other topics, like tolerance and love.

"Again, I must not have been reading the same gospels they were," Ramsey smiles, as he recalls the charges today. "I had, and still have, a lot of good friends at that church. And things have greatly changed there in the intervening years. But after that meeting, I knew it was time for me to go."

Ramsey was born and raised in Memphis and attended Central High School before ultimately graduating from Millington High School. He began his college studies at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, where a teacher helped set in motion Ramsey's life of activism.

"I had a professor who had a Ph.D. from Yale," he racalls. "He was a sophisticated fellow, especially for a Southern Baptist. He told me to go read different theological views and make up my own mind how I felt. I took him seriously."

But it was an incident in seminary school in Ft. Worth, Texas, a few years later that truly fired Ramsey's lifelong passion for racial justice.

"The first black student was admitted to seminary while I was there," he says. "He was allowed to attend classes but was barred from living in the dormitory. One afternoon we were sitting on some steps outside and he pulled up his pants leg to show me the scars from his World War II wounds. He said, 'Any person from any country all over the world can come here and live in this dorm. But even though I fought for my country in the South Pacific, I'm barred.'"

The enormity of that injustice stuck with Ramsey, and shaped his life and career.

After leaving Second Baptist in Memphis, Ramsey went on to pastor churches in St. Louis and Dallas. And again, controversy followed.

He left St. Louis because his inner-city church became uncomfortable with a program Ramsey instituted which offered latchkey kids a place to stay until their mothers got home from work. "Most of the children were black, and that became a problem for many members," he recalls.

The church parishioners in Dallas thought it inappropriate when Ramsey expressed disapproval of the 1972 Christmas Day bombing of Hanoi.

"We had already said we were going to pull out of Vietnam; so why bomb that city?" he asks rhetorically. "And on Christmas Day?" Ramsey read a statement from the pulpit that a rabbi had written, denouncing the bombing. It met with strong disapproval from his parishioners. And once again a church found Ramsey's compassionate convictions too much to handle.

Having earned a graduate degree in pastoral counseling (to go along with undergraduate and graduate degrees in subjects ranging from theology to English literature), Ramsey decided to "hang it up, as far as preaching from a pulpit." He moved back to Memphis in 1973 and has been counseling here ever since. (Ramsey and Ernest Mellor practiced out of the same office for 20 years.) Sometimes he has worked with others, helping out at Idlewild Presbyterian and Calvary Episcopal. Sometimes he has worked alone. For the last six years he has operated out of a book-lined room in his Cherry Road home.

Ramsey and his wife Rebecca have been married 56 years. Their four children and five grandchildren are scattered across the East and Midwest. At this point in his life Ramsey wants time to attend to his brood.

"Working at home, I can do my counseling and still see Rebecca -- and have our dog around as well," he says.

"How much longer do you intend to work?" I ask.

"Forever," he quickly replies, with a smile. Then, after thinking a moment, he adds, "as long as there seems to be a need for my counseling and as long as I still have the ability to do it. Most of my clients are pro-active in their approach to life, and I enjoy working with them."

"About 80 percent of my sessions are with individuals," Ramsey says. "We attempt to remedy the root causes of problems they may be having, or -- more generally -- to increase their ability to live an authentic and creative life. The rest of my practice consists of work with couples, both married and non-married. I try to help by enhancing their ability to communicate, which is a necessary thing if you really desire a true relationship."

"Romance is an important part of life, in my opinion," Ramsey says with a smile. "Not only the romance we experience when observing nature and sunsets, and the romantic feelings we get from music, but romantic love as well. I have felt romantic love toward Rebecca for over 50 years now. Not that we don't have our good days and bad days! But the good times today are just as special and exciting as that moment I remember so well -- over half a century ago -- when I first laid eyes on her. Three months after our first date we were married. And she has enhanced my life in so many ways, I cannot imagine having lived it without her."

Ramsey swings a golf club daily, to keep his muscles supple. "Seventy-five times with one arm, 75 times with the other, followed by 52 arm swings," he says. He still plays an occasional round of golf, eschewing riding-carts whenever possible. Forced to give up jogging a couple of years back due to recurring knee problems, he now walks two and a half miles each morning.

"You have to stay active; you have to keep moving," he says.

Ramsey played in amateur symphonic groups for years and still likes to play classica and popular music on his violin, sticking to a self-prescribed routine since he is no longer affiliated with an orchestra.

"Good music can refresh the soul," Ramsey says. "At least it has that effect on me."

Ramsey loves to read. Serious conversations are punctuated by quotes from philosophers and thinkers. These are not tossed out in a pontificating fashion. He seems to enjoy sharing knowledge as a small boy might share a secret, with a gleam in his eye. The poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and Mary Oliver and David Whyte are his constant companions, though their work is occasionally leavened by trips back to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Yeats.

I ask Ramsey, "If you were exiled to Tom Hanks' desert island and could take only four books, what would they be?"

"Martin Buber's I And Thou -- which stresses the importance of real communication -- would be one, " he replies, "along with the poems of Rilke, the complete works of Shakespeare, and, of course, the Bible."

"What is the secret of happiness in a relationship?" I ask.

"I can grow, you can grow, we can grow together," Ramsey says. "We must never hold growth back, never limit ourselves or anyone else."

"What about religious beliefs that are different from those expressed by your church? What about other faiths?" (Though Ramsey is an ordained Baptist minister -- affiliated with the American Baptist church instead of the Southern Baptist organization more prevalent in this area -- he has preached from the pulpits of many denominations and has for decades stressed love and tolerance toward all.)

"I consider myself an Ecumenist," Ramsey answers. "I have the desire to work with and appreciate the value of everyone. I happily receive Truth, whatever its source. I do not believe that God has only spoken through my particular faith. I believe we are all connected: all created in His or Her image; all equal in His or Her sight."

"How do you feel toward those who ran you out of town in the Sixties, when you stood up for civil rights?" I ask. "And what about those who say your belief system is too universal now?"

"I don't hold any grudges," Ramsey replies. "Though I do get a bit sad sometimes, due to the narrow view some people take of the all-embracing gospels I love and worship. Some people desire to make faith so limiting, which is something I do not understand."

Ramsey smiles and adds: "The poet and writer Carl Sandburg was asked, 'What is your least-favorite word in the English language?' Sandburg quickly replied, 'Exclusive!' Carl Sandburg envisioned life and community as a very inclusive thing.

"That Sandburg," Ramsey laughs, "he was my kind of man!"

Autumn can be the best of times for a golfer. The autumn swing can be more effective, more relaxed, following the rhythms established in earlier seasons. Many players pack it in when summer fades, storing their clubs in a closet, settling in for winter. But for those who don't mind the occasional chill, autumn can offer the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime.

May your autumn be a long one, Brooks Ramsey. n

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