On Religion

Preacher/ex-ballplayer, 92, gives sermon on race

When the Rev. William Greason tells his own story, he stresses that God gave him the ability to throw a baseball, but that that gift wasn't what mattered the most -- because his true home was a pulpit.

Of course, that's exactly what a 92-year-old preacher is going to say hours before entering the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame for his trailblazing efforts as -- in the words of sports scribes -- "Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson," pitching for the Oklahoma City Indians in 1952.

"The Lord laid this on my heart. He said, 'You're going somewhere where you were not wanted. ... You gotta go and you gotta represent me,'" said Greason in a guest sermon Monday at Oklahoma City's St. John Missionary Baptist Church, just before the hall of fame rites.

"I've been careful about asserting myself, wanting to be in positions where I didn't have any business being. ... But it's been a blessing, though, to know you have a God who is able to do all things."

Greason's road to the pulpit was long and, at times, dangerous. Case in point: When the American flag was raised high on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi, Greason was among the young Marines who saluted it from the beach. Watching his buddies die in combat was tougher than facing jeers and sprays of beer from racist fans.

His former Birmingham Black Barons teammate Willie Mays put it this way, in a tribute to Greason: "He was a groundbreaker in Oklahoma City, a World War II veteran honored for his service, a man of God and a good friend to many."

Greason's sermon was a revelatory moment after seven years of work building the case to honor him, said amateur sports historian Mark House. Everyone knew Greason still preaches almost every Sunday at Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church, where he has served since 1969. But seeing him in action was a shock.

"He has always been a somewhat quiet, reserved and humble person," said House. It was a surprise, and inspiring, "to see him 'robe up' for the first time, take the pulpit within his grasp and escalate to that level of delivery."

The sermon -- now on YouTube -- ranged from the Garden of Eden to Good Friday, from Easter morning to visions of heaven. "Amens" from the pews turned into shouts of "Yes, sir!" during the final cadences.

There were so many memories -- from post-atomic-bomb horrors while stationed in Nagasaki to life in the Oklahoma City YMCA, back when few people would talk to a black baseball player. White teammates brought his food to the bus when restaurants refused him service. After baseball, Birmingham church leaders faced life with the city's infamous Commissioner of Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor.

That was then. But believers face even tougher challenges today, because old sins are now dividing homes and churches, as well as the nation, said Greason on a weekend when Americans were rattled by hellish news reports from Charlottesville, Va.

"We are in a crisis, y'all, a crisis of inclusiveness and exclusiveness. ... Even among those of us who profess to be Christians, we are kind of 'choicy' in who we [share] fellowship with," he said. It's like some people are even afraid to be together in church, because someone might "come in and shoot up the place, with all of us together. If you're afraid that that's gonna happen -- don't come."

The preacher, at times, spread his arms wide as if trying to pull the flock in tight.

"Husbands don't want wives, wives don't want husbands and parents don't want children. ... This is a crisis where, seemingly, everybody wants their own way. We don't want to be together. We don't want to come together," Greason said.

"We've got a problem from the White House to the church house. ... From the White House to the church house, we don't want Jesus in our lives. ... I believe, right now, God is speaking and nobody's paying any attention."

At the end, the Rev. Major Jemison, pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist, was wiping his forehead and his eyes.

"Have mercy," he said, as Greason returned to his seat. "Yes, sir! I want all of that at age 92. ... That's preaching."

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Religion on 08/19/2017