LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—During a recent racial unity worship service at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Carolyn Staley was feeling nostalgic about the civil rights movement.
An admonition from Steven Arnold, pastor of St. Mark’s Baptist Church, and a glance at the audience created a yearning to go back to the future.
“Steven Arnold had just said we ought to look at people, to speak to people, to touch people to make progress,” said Staley, minister of education at Pulaski Heights, who led the congregational singing at the service.
She glanced at William Larry, a person she passes in the hallways every day. For 27 years, Larry, an African American, has served as the custodian, cook, building maintenance supervisor, yard worker and jack of all trades at Pulaski Heights. He’s described by Randy Hyde, pastor at Pulaski Heights, as the “minister to the ministers.”
“What’s called is what goes,” Larry likes to say. “I do a little bit of everything.”
He also worships at another church, an African-American congregation in North Little Rock.
At the racial unity service, Staley noticed Larry in the pew with several members of Pulaski Heights, a predominantly white congregation.
“I was gonna be at the service anyway because I had to lock up,” Larry said. “I decided to be a part of it. I was in the back when some church members motioned for me to be with them. We’re family, and I decided to sit with family.”
Almost as an epiphany, Staley caught the irony of singing and talking about progress in racial relations—yet until that service, two people who work in the same church every day had never worshiped together. She made a public commitment to doing something about it.
“I just thought to myself, ‘I’m getting real nostalgic, and I’m not doing anything about it today,’” Staley said. “It doesn’t take that nostalgia anywhere today if you don’t act on it and create deep friendships with people of different races and cultures. I saw William and thought we smile and speak and are friendly with each other in the halls all the time, but I’ve never talked to him about racial relationships and his experiences and thoughts on that. I’ve never really gotten to know him and his family.”
“I decided we’re gonna be friends and we’re gonna do things together and talk about things,” she said. “If relationships are going to improve and we are going to make progress, I thought it had to begin with someone I knew—one experience, one person.”
“It’s more than getting church people together to say good things and to pray,” Staley added. “There’s lots more to do.”
Staley and Larry plan to get together regularly with their families on an informal basis.
She’s already found out that Larry, whose service is well respected by Pulaski Heights members, doesn’t have any racial horror stories.
“Mama raised nine kids, and we always tried to do the right thing,” Larry said. “Some people would go toward trouble. I always tried to do what Mama said and go away from trouble.”
Larry has helped rear four children himself, and things went relatively smoothly at racially mixed North Little Rock High School.
As he related those experiences during a formal interview, he and Staley also began an informal dialogue about racial relations, cultural changes and young people.
“My kids were cheerleaders and in the band and played football and everybody rode together on a bus and the parents would carpool to take them home,” Larry said. “There was never much trouble at all.”
“What I’m not sure about is how to relate to black teens and college kids and youth in a downtown area,” Staley said. “I would like to better relate to them in a world that is going out of control.”
“The main thing that I’ve discovered is if the older child turns out all right, the others usually follow,” Larry said.
They discussed openly the challenges young people of all races confront in the modern culture.
Larry politely had to cut off the dialogue to serve a group assembling for a luncheon meeting at the church.
“We’ll talk some more,” said Staley.
William Larry, a servant by occupation and nature, was gaining a fuller dimension in Staley’s eyes.
And it was obvious that Larry was seeing Staley, a minister by occupation and nature, in a new light.
As noted by Staley, progress sometimes comes about one relationship at a time.
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.