200 Robes

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood\’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16, New International Version (NIV)
One night after playing a show at the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland, a white man came up to black blues musician Daryl Davis and complimented his playing. Such compliments weren’t unusual for Davis—the man had led an industrious and illustrious career playing alongside some of the greatest blues artists of all time. (You don’t play backup for Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King without developing some serious chops.) However, it was the white man’s next compliment that caught him completely off-guard. Shaking Davis’ hand, the man said: “You know this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” Taken somewhat aback, Davis asked him where he thought Lewis had learned to play piano like that in the first place. The white man smiled and answered that Lewis had invented the style himself. Davis—who had actually known and played with Lewis—knew quite differently: he, along with the other white pioneers of rock music like Elvis Presley, had learned their playing from blues, rockabilly, and boogie-woogie. You know, Davis said, black music. 
Their conversation continued on into the night, Davis politely yet firmly correcting the white man’s faulty musical knowledge. Abruptly, the man paused and said: “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?” For the second time that night, Davis was caught off-guard. How could that conceivably be possible? When he asked him why, the man responded: “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.” Davis’ response wasn’t to scream or run away, but to laugh. This was Maryland, for crying out loud, not the Deep South in the 1950s. But the man pulled out his wallet and drew out his Klan membership card, proving without a doubt that this oblivious lover of black music was indeed a faithful member of the Invisible Empire. Davis stopped laughing. But before he could react, the Klansman told him that he wanted him to call his number whenever he was in town so he could hear him play. And that gave Davis an idea.
What happened next is the stuff of legend, something so improbable, so seemingly contrived that it defies belief: Davis started going out of his way to befriend Klansmen. He’d find and strike up dialogues with them, interrogating their White Supremacist beliefs. How could you hate me, he’d frequently ask, when you know nothing about me? More often than not Davis learned that their hatred came from misconceptions about black people planted during their youth. But by forcing them to confront a black man who went against every prejudice they’d been brainwashed into believing, their racism crumbled. His methods were startlingly effective. Davis didn’t just befriend numerous Klansmen, he single-handedly convinced over 200 of them to leave the Klan, including Roger Kelly, the Imperial Wizard for the State of Maryland. Davis became such good friends with Kelly that not only did he leave the Klan, he asked Davis to be his daughter’s godfather. His former KKK robe now hangs in Davis’ closet alongside the 200 other robes of all the former Klansmen he’s saved.
Davis has been explicit about the role his Christian faith has played in his decision to engage Klansmen on a human level, and indeed his life is a living testament to the highest aspirations of the church and the teachings of Jesus. But make no mistake, he converted nobody by simply loving them enough. His road was a difficult and sometimes dangerous one that took him not only into the heart of institutionalized racism but Christian hypocrisy. Despite their abhorrent teachings, the Klan has always fancied itself a Christian organization (as long as said Christians weren’t Catholic). So it’s almost certain that some of the 200 Klansmen Davis befriended thought of themselves as good and faithful Christians who saw no contradictions between their racism and the Gospel. Here is where we must remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians that Christians must teach and admonish each other. Note those words: “teach and admonish” not “love and ignore.” Sometimes our brothers and sisters in Christ need to be called out and corrected when their lives are in direct, violent contradiction with the Gospel. But notice the rest of the verse; we must do it by including them in our lives, in our churches, in our worship, not by rejecting and excluding them. We must teach and admonish like an old blues artist telling a Klansmen that, no, Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t invent black music. But also like Davis, we must teach and admonish through love.


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