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Getting beyond segregated Sundays

From the August 2013 issue of The Christian Science Journal

When I discovered that Christian Science practitioner and teacher Bettie Thompson is a black woman who witnessed the civil rights movement, immediately I knew I had to interview her for the Journal. When I first called and told her I wanted to speak with her about civil rights, she gave a vivacious, spirited reply: “My friend, I’ve been around a long time. I can tell you all about civil rights.”

A few weeks later, I met with Bettie in her home in the southeast neighborhood of Washington, DC. I quickly learned that she is iconic in the history of African Americans in the Christian Science movement. Her honest observations about that history intrigued, inspired, and, in some cases, amazed me.

Bettie outside her home in Washington, DC

Credit: Andre Jackson

Bettie, you’ve lived through some turbulent times in the United States. I’d like to start our conversation by asking how you think about the civil rights era today.

Yes, I’ve been on this planet for more than nine decades. It’s interesting, when you’ve grown up in a situation and watched the movements and events over the years, you are able to look back and see the difference of how things are now compared with the way they were then. A lot of people—because I’ve been here so long—look at me and say they’re looking at history. 

I’ll tell you one story. My husband and I were two of four blacks who helped integrate the University of Oklahoma in the early 1950s. We also helped integrate some of the local facilities,
restaurants, and theaters. We had bonded with a Jewish couple, and one night this couple went to the movie theater and purchased tickets for us four blacks. We went into the theater, and we went all the way down and sat two rows from the front. 

About half an hour later, the ticket seller must have remembered that he’d seen four blacks go down there, because he came with his flashlight and found where we were sitting. He said, “I’m sorry, but you’re not supposed to be here. You’ll have to leave.” 

My husband replied, “We’re enjoying the movie, and all is well.” 

This colloquy went on for a little while, but rather than create a disturbance, we left. But we continued to negotiate with the owners of the facility over a period of several months, and finally we did get the agreement that integration could take place. 

Now, I think about those days compared to today. Today, we have some of the greatest football stars who look like me, who are or were at the University of Oklahoma. Those guys, they don’t know me—they don’t even know I exist—but you see, I know the then compared to the now.

It must have taken great courage to integrate that school and theater and live through that time. What spiritual lessons did you learn to help you deal with racism?

Over the years I learned to embrace what the Bible says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). That’s one of the two commandments Christ Jesus encouraged us to live by. He taught us to love, and Mary Baker Eddy tells us we have no enemies (see Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, pp. 8–13).  

We have to learn how to reverse hatred by focusing our thoughts on God, who is Love itself. God, Love, created us, so we must love also.

I have learned to put aside the concept that sometimes people are not all in one accord. We have to learn how to reverse hatred by focusing our thoughts on God, who is Love itself. God, Love, created us, so we must love also. 

And we must love not only in thought, but also in our lives. We have to go out of our way to show love, to do things for people, smile, go to the store for someone—to demonstrate our affection, brotherhood, and love of one another. 

We all belong to the same brotherhood and sisterhood. We might look different, we might talk different, but we all come from the one God. Today, I think we’re getting to a place in humanity’s history where we’re understanding more about the relationship between God and man—that we are all one people, regardless of the color of our skin, and that we are all one with God. 

Isn’t it true that the more we understand and express God’s love toward others, the more we are doing to heal racism? That love can help change those who might be racist?

Yes, many times we have to go out of our way. We almost have to make it our mission to love. That’s a peculiar word, love. A lot of people say, “I love you,” but real love embraces demonstrating love, not just saying it. 

I’m sure a lot of people have heard the expression originally spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” If we truly embraced love, wouldn’t we invite people of other races to our churches? The only way we’re going to have a greater brotherhood and sisterhood is if we truly come together, and not be separated.

As long as you are over there, and I’m over here, then you don’t know me, and I don’t know you. We may talk a good game about love, but can we come together and really interact? Can I go to your house, and can we eat dinner together? Can I cook for you, and you cook for me? You know, all of those little things we do for one another are really facets of divine Love. If we can’t do those things, if we can’t truly accept everyone else, then we are limiting ourselves. There is so much to be learned by interacting with people of different races and backgrounds.

You mentioned the expression, “The most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” Do you think that applies to the Christian Science church? As a black woman who wasn’t always a Christian Scientist, I bet you have a unique perspective on this question.

That’s true. In Washington, DC, we actually have a black Christian Science church, where my membership has always been. It became a black church in 1951. 

You see, I think people want to be comfortable. In my early days as a Christian Scientist, I would hear stories about black Christian Scientists. They would attend a church that had only white people, and they often were not given the opportunity to participate in church or be part of the organization. 

I was the first African American on the Christian Science Board of Lectureship. I had to break the ice and encounter some prejudice, kind of like Jackie Robinson.

So, if you are connected with a group of individuals, and yet you are not really a part of that group, then you are not given the affection, smile, love, and embrace to make you feel at home. You feel out of place, and you want to go have a place where you can be comfortable. I imagine that’s what happened with how our black Christian Science church got started. 

I can understand the need for a black church during the civil rights era, but wouldn’t it be problematic if there were still a need for such a church today? I would hope blacks and whites could come together in their church congregations. Is your church still an all black church?

Well, my church is not black by choice. There are no restrictions as to who may join. Churches, like other institutions in our society, generally reflect the demographics of their locale. However, over the years, our church has had white members, who later moved to other parts of the country. Also, periodically, whites attend and are very much welcomed.

It’s amazing to me to think that in the Christian Science church, prejudice could ever have taken such a foothold as to cause a need for specifically black churches. Such prejudice seems to go entirely against the ethics of Christian Science. I’ve heard stories of blacks sitting on one side of the church, and whites on the other side, but you weren’t even at the same church!

Well, let’s move ahead a few decades. In 1980, I was appointed the first African American lecturer on the Christian Science Board of Lectureship. I was just about to go on my first lecture tour. It was a Friday, and I was leaving home on the following Monday. But then I got a call from The Mother Church, saying, “Bettie, we’ve got some sad news. There’s a church in Oklahoma that has canceled.”

Here I was all excited, and I had butterflies in my stomach as I was about to leave on my first tour. But I was just told, “A lady called and said when the church got your material in the mail, they discovered you were black.” 

In olden days, in the Journal, they used to put “C” behind the listing of black practitioners’ names—“C” meaning “Colored.” But they’d stopped doing that by now, so the lady had said, “If you had put a ‘C’ behind her name, we would have known she was black, and therefore we would not have selected her.” 

When I heard what she said, I couldn’t believe it. You know, when I became a Christian Scientist, I looked at Christian Scientists as being different, as being saints. I had read in Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures all about the love of humanity—all of the good qualities of man. I thought if all of that was in the writings, then the Christian Scientists must be perfect! 

When I joined my branch church, after I interviewed for membership, one of the members looked at me and said, “Remember, Christian Science is perfect, but Christian Scientists may not be perfect.” 

We’re all related to God, and we have only one Father, so we can’t be different. As we develop this spiritual understanding, the healing will come with racism.

That blew my brain! It really did. I tell you, I had been on cloud nine. This pierced my bubble. But as time went on, I found that the Christian Science movement consists of human beings, and they often embody the qualities of their surrounding environment.

So, after that lady canceled, I started getting other refusals, too. I said to myself, “I wonder why?” I thought of Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to integrate Major League Baseball. A lot of black people think in terms of Jackie Robinson breaking the ice in baseball. I was the first African American on the Board of Lectureship. I had to break the ice and encounter some prejudice, kind of like Jackie Robinson.

Fortunately, I was able to lecture in 47 of the 48 contiguous United States. But many churches were still concerned about a black person being the lecturer, because, back in those days, they had huge churches, and they were packed. The first lecture I did, the church held 700 or 800 people. Every seat was taken, and people were lined around the walls. Yet I looked out at the audience, and the only black face I saw was my husband’s. 

On the other hand, I had many wonderful experiences and favorable reactions from people who welcomed me. I think this is because I lectured a little differently from most people. In our race, we have some outstanding orators. You’ve probably seen Martin Luther King, Jr., give his speeches. Back then, many black people who spoke were orators. I was in that range, and often when I gave a lecture, the audience was rapt. When I finished, many people were not ready to get up and leave. I would often hear about people saying, “Whenever that black lady comes to your town, be sure you go and hear her.”

What you’re saying makes me think how, even today, at least in the United States, you don’t see too many black people in Christian Science churches—or Hispanics, for that matter. Why is that? Do you think racism and prejudice are still issues in the church, or have we moved on?

Mostly it feels like this isn’t an issue anymore, and yet from what I hear from black friends, it’s difficult to pinpoint sometimes, but they can tell from body language, conversation, and attitudes that sometimes some subtle form of racism still exists. Getting all of us truly to demonstrate love for everyone else does not necessarily come overnight. It’s a process. Yet the truth is we’re all related to God, and we have only one Father, so we can’t be different. As we develop this spiritual understanding, the healing will come with racism.

Just a few years ago, I was doing some traveling, and I happened to discuss this issue with some fellow Christian Scientists. I could see the look on their faces—that they had respect for people of color, and yet there was some discomfort. That was disappointing to me because in today’s world, you would think that discomfort would be all gone.

But there are not too many black people in the Christian Science movement—that’s the unfortunate thing. Some people might say I need to do more to reach out. But I think the weight is on all of us who are members of The Mother Church to reach out to the blacks. We don’t hear much of anything about blacks in America becoming Christian Scientists. That grieves me. What can be done to attract more blacks to Christian Science? 

I would say that every black person in America should be urged to understand the fact that God is his employer, his supplier, taking care of all his needs. Because of their experience in this country, some black individuals feel burdened with limitation, but if they would overcome their ignorance of Christian Science, they could become aware of and understand that the application of the spiritual laws of God will enable them to live a healthier and more abundant life. But nobody is telling those black people that. Black people need to know that, but they need somebody to tell them.

So, I would encourage all Christian Scientists, all members of The Mother Church, to pray earnestly for black people in America to become aware of Christian Science, to join the church, and to receive the benefits that come from studying Christian Science. That sincere prayer can make a big difference. And we’d find that black people have so much to contribute to the church. But first we need to go on a kind of crusade—a prayer crusade—to welcome the idea of having more blacks involved in Christian Science.

Would you say you were one of those black people who was benefited from studying Christian Science? I know you have a powerful story about how you came into Christian Science.

Yes, when my husband and I first married, we were staunch Baptists. One day we discussed with a friend some problems we were having. This friend indicated, “Why don’t you talk to a Christian Science practitioner about those problems?”

We didn’t know anything about Christian Science practitioners, but we did find one. She told us to get a copy of Science and Health and to read the first chapter on “Prayer.” We got the book, and that night, I was propped up in bed reading it. A few days later, I recognized a healing had taken place. It was of a lump in the breast. I had been getting ready to have an operation, but the lump just disappeared. 

We need to go on a kind of crusade—
a prayer crusade—
to welcome the idea of having more blacks involved in Christian Science.

That got me on a journey. I started reading Christian Science periodicals all the time. After a while, my husband said, “Since we are reading the periodicals and studying, why don’t we go to one of the Christian Science churches?” We still loved the Baptist church, but my husband said, “Why should we enjoy the loaves and the fishes without participating?” So, we decided we should join the Christian Science church.  

Later, just before I went into the public practice of Christian Science, I had another healing, of a long-standing problem. I had been diagnosed by a physician years earlier with sinusitis. The doctor gave me all these pills and said I’d have to take them all my life. But I had begun to think of one of the statements that Christ Jesus gave to his disciples. He said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). I thought about that word truth. I asked myself, If the truth will make me free, what is truth? 

Eventually, I came to a realization. In a courtroom, the judge asks a witness, “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” The judge wants that witness to tell the facts. 

I thought about how truth means the facts about something. I was learning the facts of who I am—God’s spiritual idea, made in the perfect image and likeness of God, expressing all the qualities of God. 

As time went on, I discovered that the sinusitis no longer plagued me. When exactly it disappeared, I do not know, but I do know that because of the gradual realization of who I truly am, I was free. 

In Science and Health, Mrs. Eddy writes, “… the march of time bears onward freedom’s banner” (p. 225). To me your life is proof of that idea.

That sentence is from the chapter “Footsteps of Truth.” In it, Mrs. Eddy often talks about slavery. I look at that chapter perhaps differently from white people because of my experience. There’s a line in there that says, “Love is the liberator” (p. 225). Most white people might not look at that the way I do. 

See, Mrs. Eddy lived in South Carolina with her first husband in 1844, where slavery became very real to her. Now, I know there is some question today among scholars on this issue, but my best understanding is that her husband, George Glover, had slaves, and when he passed away, she freed those slaves. You can read more about this in the biography The Life of Mary Baker Eddy by Sibyl Wilbur (see pp. 37–40). So, I think when Mrs. Eddy wrote that chapter “Footsteps of Truth,” she was thinking of humanity being in bondage, not only in belief, not only mental slavery, but also literal slavery. And the amazing thing is that she says, “Love is the liberator.” 

When we truly reflect God’s love, and love our neighbors, making them feel as human beings rather than objects or property, that love is powerful. It dissolves conflicts, including family and community disputes, bringing needed happiness for individuals and peace for humanity.

I think of this journey I have had, and it reminds me of another sentence Mrs. Eddy gives in that chapter. She says, “I saw before me the awful conflict, the Red Sea and the wilderness; but I pressed on through faith in God, trusting Truth, the strong deliverer, to guide me into the land of Christian Science, where fetters fall and the rights of man are fully known and acknowledged” (pp. 226–227).

Mrs. Eddy talks about this “awful conflict.” The illness I had in my early days—to me, that was a conflict between the real and the unreal. I was suffering, but I came to the realization I didn’t need to suffer because suffering was not part of my heritage. God endowed me with freedom, alertness, perfection, vitality—those were my rights.

As we concentrate on spiritual truths, we discover we no longer have a conflict. We finally realize we have moved from a stage of limitation to one of unlimited, boundless goodness that the eternal God has given us. Man is made in the image and likeness of God; he is endowed with that truth. Therefore, as time goes on, the fact is, we are delivered—we are no longer in bondage. We have become emancipated. 

I’ve had a long journey, knowing what bondage is, and knowing the value of emancipation. God is my emancipator, like Abraham Lincoln is the emancipator of the black people in the United States.

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