Reel Theology – The Green Book

Message for January 20, 2019
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

This is the first Sunday of our 2019 Reel Theology Sermon series. There were so many intriguing movies nominated for Best Picture for the Golden Globes this year, it was hard to choose just five to discuss here with you folks. This year, instead of picking six Best Picture nominees for the sermon series as we did last year, we decided to include a distinctly award-winning Canadian film, Indian Horse, which we will be showcasing in a couple of weeks. For three of the six movies, we will be showing them here in the sanctuary on the Friday evening before the Sunday they are featured. For more information, just have a look at the poster board near the office or ask me after worship. This week we are looking the movie, The Green Book. I’m thinking that not many of you had a chance to see the movie—has anyone other than Christopher and me? It was released in exactly the wrong timing for this series – a month before Christmas and was on its way out of the theatre by the time it was nominated for the Golden Globes and being included in our list of movies. It should be released to DVD by the end of February. I will give a bit of summary so I apologize in advance for revealing the story but you need to know the outcome of the movie so I can talk about the theological implications of this wonderful tale.

The movie is based on the true story of when the celebrated black pianist Don Shirley travelled through the southern United States for an eight-week concert tour in 1962, two years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act. He hired a white man to drive for him and, ostensibly, to act as his bodyguard as they got deeper and deeper south, where Jim Crow laws were in effect and his presence would like be problematic. The driver, an Italian named Tony Vallelonga who preferred to be called Tony Lip, had been a bouncer and enforcer for a local nightclub and was out of work while the club was being renovated. The movie begins with Tony waking up at home mid-morning by a hullabaloo happening in his living room. His male family members and friends are excitedly watching a game on TV. He asks them what on earth are they doing in his home and they indicate they are keeping an eye on the workers his wife hired. He turns to see his wife offering glasses of water to two black repairmen. When they are finished drinking, the two men place the glasses in the sink. After they leave, Tony goes into the kitchen, carefully takes the glasses from the sink and puts them into the trash can. After a few days of unemployment, Tony finds himself recommended as a driver to a Dr. Shirley. He is given Dr. Shirley and is surprised to learn that Dr. Shirley lives in a lavish suite atop of Carnegie Hall. And he is not a medical doctor but rather a musician. And he’s black. After some negotiation and a phone call from Dr. Shirley to Mrs. Vallelonga in which an understanding is reached concerning the need for Tony to be home for Christmas, Tony agrees to drive for Don Shirley. Before they leave New York, the management company hands Tony a book, The Negro Motorist Green Book, published by a fellow named Victor Green. Folks just referred to it as The Green Book. As black people 1962 did not have freedom of movement or action in States which the Jim Crow laws were active, the Green Book was a guide to services and places that would permit black people on their premises.

As Don and Tony travel from New York to the south, they get to know each other, and Tony begins to recognize that his preconceived notions of what it means to be black in the United States might not be fully accurate. And Don, a man used to protecting himself and not showing anyone, much less a white person, any vulnerability, finds himself opening up to the white man chauffeuring him mile after mile. Tony embraces his role as bodyguard and Don sees that a white man can be compassionate and caring. So much happens during their travels but I will leave them for you to discover when you get a chance to watch the movie. It’s enough to say the tour ends with Don’s final concert being a bust. Tony has managed, through many a trial and tribulation, to get Don to each of his scheduled concerts. They arrive at a big fancy resort for the culmination of the tour, an hour before the start time and they are hungry. Tony is invited to eat in the dining room, but Don is told that he can eat in the kitchen. One of America’s finest pianists, dressed in tails and who is there for all the white people to hear, is not permitted into the dining room. Well, one thing leads to another and Tony and Don leave. It is blizzarding in New York when they get home on Christmas Day. Tony invites Don up to his apartment for supper. Don declines. Tony arrives to much fanfare and settles down to eat Christmas supper. There’s a knock at the door and in walks Don. Tony’s entire family, who is sitting at the dinner table, fall into a stunned silence. Tony hugs Don and turns to his family and says this is my friend Don Shirley, make some room for him. Everyone at the table erupts in a chorus of welcoming and shuffling as a place is set for Don.

This movie has many themes worth exploring—homophobia, classism, family disfunction, self-determination to name just a few. Racism against black people is, however, the primary theme of this movie. While the story takes place in 1962, I’m thinking the overall sentiments of the movie will feel familiar to many folks living in the States today. With the election of president who leads from a place of fear and scarcity and who often refers to people of colour and immigrants as not deserving the fullness of what it means to be cared for and loved as he would care for and love himself, with this President’s leadership, the people of the United States are finding that the equality that was fought for with the Civil Rights Movement has not yet been fully realized. And it’s not just the States. Before we Canadians get to sitting up too high on our horses, let us not forget that we have our own struggles with racism. Some of our most notable issues centre around relationships with Canada’s indigenous people, our history of blocking Chinese immigration and interning Japanese people in the last century and how, in some places in Canada, refugees and immigrants are viewed with suspicion today. Did you realize that the last school that segregated blacks from whites in Canada was closed in Nova Scotia just in 1983? This is all to say, we are not immune to the social issues in this movie, despite us living north of the 49th parallel.

Tony obviously grew up in time that is much different from today. His childhood would have been informed during post-war America. His country was divided on whether or not a particular race of people were fully human and whether those people were worthy of all that their Constitution promised its citizens. Heck, not only were black people not considered equal but neither were women. In fact, the United States is one of only a very few countries which have not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. (Canada ratified that Convention in 1981.) Which is to say, a person cannot help the environment in which they are raised. They cannot help the beliefs of their parents, their community or their church. When a neighbourhood or school has little diversity, it is hard to learn about people and situations that differ from your own experience. It is easy for children to grow up thinking that the way they experienced life as a child and teenager is how the whole world operates.

Last summer, our 14-year-old daughter had a summer full of revelations that not all people have lived life like hers. We have kept our upright deep freeze in the garage, and we use it primarily for the beef we order directly from a rancher. The beef arrives wrapped in brown butcher’s paper. One day Abby came home asked, ‘do you know…that not everyone has a freezer of beef in their garage? That all meat is not wrapped in brown paper? Other people put their freezers inside the house. They use it to store other food. And then, ping ponging. Do you know that not everyone stores medicines in the hall closet? They keep it in a kitchen cupboard—why do we keep ours in the hall closet? It makes sense to keep it all in the kitchen.’ These were remarkable realizations for her—someone who understands that sexual and gender identities can be fluid and exist on a continuum was shocked that other folks organize their household storage differently than we do.

Our scripture reading today is a familiar one—love is patient, love is kind. The greatest of these love. But what is often missed when this piece from 1st Corinthians is read at weddings, is that middle part. The bit about being a child and speaking, thinking and reasoning like a child and then putting an end to childish things when becoming an adult. It goes onto to say, now I know only in part, then I will know fully. I cannot help but think of a young adult I was visiting with on New Year’s Eve. She mentioned that she was looking forward to the year 2020 when she could keep saying, well, it’s all hindsight now—cause hindsight is 20/20. And, isn’t that the truth? How often have you thought, jeez, if only I knew then what I know now? Life might not have necessarily been easier but maybe it would have lessened the fear that came with the uncertainty.

I believe this is what the Corinthians reading is reminding us of today. That things change. That, over time, situations, beliefs, understandings, experiences change. I feel this is what progress is all about. Decisions and determinations are formed and made at certain periods in our lives. But, as we grow up and as we experience the world outside of our neighbourhoods and schools, as we meet others from walks of life that are not similar to ours, as we learn how others were impacted by the laws and policies of our governments and our society, we begin to understand that not all decisions are good for all people. That what feels comfortable and safe for one group of people, does not feel at all safe or comfortable for another. That loving our neighbour as our self means our neighbour needs access to self-determination, healthcare, education and housing just as we have it ourselves. Progress means to take information that is new to us and we use it to reevaluate what was and how things currently are, we use this information that is new to us to see if adjustments are required in order for the health and care of all of humanity, that the health and care for all of creation is considered, not just one group of people, not just one type of people, not just yourself. And we don’t know the totality of human experience in the world. We can’t know. And so, we must be willing and open to hear from people whose lives are lived differently than our own. Just because they don’t store their beef in the garage freezer doesn’t mean they are wrong.

This is exactly why diversity in all of our social systems is so necessary. Why diversity in business and academia is important. Why diversity in leadership is vital. Diversity of thought, of belief, of gender, of sexual identity, of mobility, of race and colour and of religion. Because, when one is a child, one speaks like a child. One thinks like a child. One reasons as a child. But when one grows up, the childish things must end and what had been seen dimly in a mirror can be seen more clearly, face to face. Tony was taught that black people were so significantly different from him, that they needed to be treated in a different manner than Caucasian people. This belief would have come from the society and family dynamic in which he was raised. As an adult, he had no reason to think otherwise. Until he was confronted with the knowledge that a person he knew, and by extension, a whole group of people, was being held down by forces that were unjust and cruel. At first, he did not seem to be willing to look into the mirror to see more clearly. But, through the love of his wife encouraging him and not shutting him out when his behaviour was less than stellar and with the persistence of Don Shirley to not have his humanity ignored and shuttered away for someone else’s comfort, Tony allowed his heart to open to the wonderful human being sitting in the back seat of his car. And he allowed his ears to be open to hearing about that man’s life—the joys and the struggles of it. And he allowed his eyes to be open to seeing how that man was treated—simply for the colour of his skin—not because of his education, wealth or behaviour.

1st Corinthians says, if I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels and do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Tony’s wife was filled with love. For her husband but not at the cost of the world. Don was filled with love. For himself and for the man driving him, although that man could not initially see too far beyond what he knew as a child. And Tony was filled with love. For a nation that could be better. For community that could be stronger. For a friendship that could be seen more clearly face-to-face. Because he was willing to put away childish ways and know, from the core of his being, that faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. And for this, we give thanks to God. Amen.

Comments are closed.