Portrait of a Radical as a Young Man



I get asked quite often how I went from a tent evangelist prodigy and Moody Bible Institute student to a radical. In conversations I primarily focus on the transformation that happened during Bible college with the extreme transformation that occurred in me when I encountered liberation theology and it’s contemporaneous allies from the Mainline church through the courageous efforts of the sanctuary movement.

Yet, recently I have felt this belittled a type of radicalism that was already inherent in the theology of midwest fundamentalists and the deep influence that a patient group of radical friends exerted on me during an impressionable time in Jr. High and High School.

The first type of radical theology is one that might have been erased by current political and financial success of evangelicalism. Still, 30 years ago I was steeped in thoughts that were in agreement with liberationists saying that there is a preferential option toward the poor.

I remember those family dinners started with a Bible quiz or devotions. My father’s strong personality and opinions always permeated the room. Through long and terrifying labor strikes at his job at Lincoln Telephone and telegraph we knew clearly that one of life’s great evils was that fat-cats made money off the backs of the working class. It was in the Bible, it was all around our family’s struggle to survive and it would be buttressed by the exploitations I experienced in service industry jobs.

Not only was it in my family, but it was preached from the pulpit. I remember relishing the sermons from the pastor I still idolize to this day: Rev. H. B. Leastman. Having been a long haul truck driver, like my relatives, gave him a respect that no educational degree could ever accomplish. He was common as an old shoe (as my dad would say). He had farmers, mechanics and factory workers as the heroes of his sermon illustrations. Many of those struggling in the working class felt he was preaching right to them, he knew their struggles and story.

I remember one of the last times I saw this great man. My parents had volunteered me to help him with cleaning his garage. Quite feeble but still feisty he asked me about my plans after my senior year. I proclaimed that I was going to Moody Bible Institute to study and that I was destined to be a missionary. Instead of the affirmation I expected I was greeted with skepticism. Was this a practical use of my gifts? It was almost like he and my father had colluded in attempting to get me to enroll in Ag college to have something that I could always fall back on.

As opposed to the elitist thinking of many liberal, moderate and conservative mainline leaders I am around these days, my religious upbringing celebrated the hard working people. It was honorable to work on cars, bag groceries or washing dishes. Since this is the work of most people in the US I am extremely grateful to carry on that thinking.

The second group of influence in my life were those I met and befriended after leaving a private, fundamentalist school in the 7th grade. These cross dressing, mohawk wearing, punk listening, peacenik loving, feminist, poetry loving and socialists accepted me. Accepted the geeky, pacifist, fundamentalist for who I was and challenged me to be better.

A litany of names means nothing to you, but helps me to remember those who loved me when I couldn’t love myself. Matt Buell, Jesse Quam, Brooks Whitehead, Karla Leybold, Carin Bringelson, Arron Lane, Elizabeth Bui, and Chris Kinney. These people were my wise mentors in a time of radical shifting through my beliefs on justice, equity and peace. I certainly would not be the person I am today without their patience, support and love. Even though I am bereft in keeping up with these amazing people I do think of them with affection quite often.

What does it take to be saved and transformed? In my case it takes a whole lot of people who love, care, challenge and encourage my growth. I am grateful that I have had those people going far back in my history and I hope that I continue to grow more radical as the years go by.


4 thoughts on “Portrait of a Radical as a Young Man

  1. Thank you, Brian! I am so glad that our “coffee and theology” ideas have lived on and are being put into practice daily. Maybe Chattanooga needs another coffee shop… What do you think? 😉

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