Jackie Robinson and Evangelism

July 12, 2013

(Rev. Frederick Outlaw) - A couple of months ago, with the beginning of major league baseball, I had some free time and decided to go to the movies. As I was driving to the theater a ministerial colleague called and we began a conversation. My friend asked, "What are you into?” My reply was, "I am going to the movies." He responded, “Are you going to see 42?" I said, “No, I prefer an earlier film, The Soul of the Game.” Further, I explained how this depiction captured Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the Negro Baseball League after his discharge from the Army for taking a stand against some discriminatory practices. At that time, Jackie Robinson played for the Kansas City (MO) Monarchs, of which Mobile native Satchel Paige was the star pitcher. The conversation continued about Jackie Robinson, the integration of the major leagues and eventually the United Methodist Church.

I arrived at the theater, bought a ticket to see another film. While sitting in the dark watching trailers for upcoming movies, the plight of Jackie Robinson got me to thinking on a definition of evangelism from a Huffington Post blog, “Evangelism is crucial for the church not just because Christians have something to share but because the church needs those whose presence has always been intended but who have not found their way to where they have always belonged. Evangelism is more about taking down our road blocks, barriers, and prejudices that keep people out than it is persuading people to come in. It is part of the nature of Christianity to always draw the circle wider. But expanding the circle can be uncomfortable and conflictual.”

The film 42 celebrates Jackie Robinson’s courageous crossing of major league baseball’s color line. The film The Soul of the Game chronicles the anticipation of the best players in the Negro Baseball League waiting for the call to cross the color line. Jackie Robinson was not the best African American baseball player in 1946. He was a rising talent in development. But, he was willing to help Branch Rickey take down road blocks, barriers and prejudices which were keeping a specific group of players out. Branch Rickey’s and Jackie Robinson’s mission was to draw the circle wider. Both men recognized the consequences of their actions would make people uncomfortable and lead to conflict. Yet they covenanted together to be “evangels” for major league baseball in the United States of America.

Almost some 60 years later, we as the United Methodist Church find ourselves renewing our commitment, vision and mission to evangelistically make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are discerning the adaptive challenge for our specific congregations within the Alabama-West Florida Conference. The more and more I resource, or coach, local congregations, the road blocks, barriers and prejudices in each area, though different, become clearly apparent. We must be courageous and embrace whatever the crisis is in our local congregation. To follow Jesus, we are going to go through some crisis events, crisis moments. We must embrace the crisis in our local congregations. We can get through it. God is there, if we embrace the crisis. The road blocks, barriers, and prejudices–problems–we face today cannot be solved by the exact thinking and behavior which led to them in the first place.

The story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson can be seen as analogous to evangelism in the 21st century. They were willing and obedient to take the risk to avoid the decline and appeal of major league baseball. Consequently, for Methodism to avoid our spiritual cliff, we must go and do what God has commanded us to do, "Be my disciples." Thus, by being disciples of Jesus Christ we become transforming agents of God to the world.

“…Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets before you…”- Matthew 5:11-12 RSV

As a member of the team at our Conference Resource Center, I look forward to assisting local congregations discern the way forward in bringing down the road blocks, barriers, and prejudices in order to become a vital effective evangelistic congregation. Somebody is knocking at our doors. It sounds like Jesus Christ. We must let Him come in.

Your consideration in this matter will be greatly appreciated.

In the love of Christ!