By Steve Petersen*
In 1968 I had a near death experience. Attempting to swim a rain swollen river, I was pulled under and with my last breath I pleaded, “God save me!” I lived and found myself owing God. Within months I went from a surfing college football player to a Mormon mission working in Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas.
I grew up in and around Long Beach, California. My family were lapsed Mormons. I didn’t attend church. Instead, I worshiped the sun as I surfed the Pacific, and the moon as I walked my dates along the sand.
I knew little of the Bible. Now I was a missionary in the Bible Belt. I studied day and night memorizing hundreds of passages from the Bible. After a two-week orientation, I was sent to Tabor City, North Carolina. The last missionaries there had been tarred and feathered and run out on a rail in 1959 because they were Mormons. During the third week I was arrested by the Whiteville Sheriff and jailed for “Preaching without a license.” Later I found out the local Protestant ministers had demanded I be taken off the streets.
But I’d met the Sheriff’s sister, a retired school teacher, while looking for an apartment. Hearing of my arrest, she came to the jail by bus, made him release me and drive us back to her home where she told him she was renting me her upstairs apartment for as long as I wanted to stay. The Sheriff stood there shaking his head.
When I read in the local newspaper that the Tabor City High School football coach was leaving for a better paying job, I volunteered to serve as the Red Devils football coach.
The players and I bonded. I taught them Scripture to quote each time they ran to the line of scrimmage. I’d yell out “John 3.3” and the team would yell together as they ran to the line of scrimmage: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It was a blast. We had the school’s first winning record: 6-5.
Soon I was inviting the team to come to youth services at the church where I served as a missionary. The Mormon Elders were not happy. The town divided at the railroad tracks: whites on the West side, blacks on the East. I was told I couldn’t do my laundry on the East side and couldn’t bring blacks to church on the West side. The Elders told me they’d end my mission.
I started youth dances for kids of both races at a small Mormon Church building. We played Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Righteous Brothers, and the Everly Brothers. The kids danced in one large group instead of with a partner. After a few weeks, the dances got so crowded that we moved them into the parking lot. In public, the dances created great tension in Tabor City. I didn’t realize that I was asking the youth to do something their parents had told them was not acceptable.
One black kid was a gifted athlete but poorly educated. We would play catch with a football as he learned how to spell words I gave him. After two weeks he didn’t show up for school. I drove to his home and he and his family were gone. I never found out where they went. But as I walked back to my car several men in a pick-up truck drove by and yelled, “Get out of town, nigger lover.”
That night around 2 AM there was a knock at my door. I could see flames through the window curtain as I opened it. Standing before me was a man in a white hood and robe. He pinned me against the door frame. His breath smelled of gumbo. I looked past him to see six other men and a burning cross in the yard below. He hissed, “This is your only warning.”
I reported it to the high school and the church. Nothing happened. I stopped bringing the football team to youth night and finally cancelled the dances.
One Sunday when I was sitting with Mormon leaders preparing to give a sermon, one of them sat next to me. His name was Carlyle Watts. I’d once been to dinner at his home and had gone into the forest with his lumber crew to cut pine trees for the mill. As we worked, one old timer built a fire and hung an old steel kettle over it to make chicken gumbo. The gumbo was one of the best things I’d ever eaten.
As we sat in church that day, Carlyle turned, smiled, and welcomed me. His voice echoed in me. I could smell gumbo on his breath. I looked into his bloodshot eyes and I realized who he was. I stood and pulled him to his feet saying, “Don’t you ever threaten me or the children of this community again or God will destroy you.”
He didn’t come back to church.
I stayed there a year. As I was about to leave, the people of Tabor City offered to build me a community church to pastor. We didn’t talk about what denomination it might be. I thanked them and told the mission president about the offer. A week later, I was transferred to the mission headquarters. Mormon leaders didn’t want a missionary leaving to start his own church.
I spent the second year of my mission in Atlanta, Georgia. In the newspaper one day I read about a minister’s breakfast: “All You Can Eat, Free!” in a downtown Baptist church.
There was a long line of people snaking through the main hall. My missionary partner and I stood in line talking to each other until we got our food and found a place to sit. I realized then that we were the only whites in the building.
The leaders entered. The main speaker was Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. His son had been killed the same year I almost drowned. Now I was sitting before the father. Tears filled my eyes.
Reverend King stood. The hall grew silent. He wore a dark blue robe with white trim. Everyone in attendance had on dark suits, white shirts and dark thin ties, including my companion and me.
King bowed his head then raised it along with his right arm and pointed his finger at me. “You do not belong. I want you to leave now! You are not welcome here,” he said.
He appeared angry. His voice was deep and commanding. My companion was so scared he could hardly breathe.
I stood and tried to find my voice. I said, “Reverend King, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. But if I was having an open house and you came to my door, I would never ask you to leave.”
There was a reverent applause.
He stood a moment, dropped his arm, and then invited us to stay and eat but not attend the sermon. I always assumed it was a sermon about the strength and expansion of the black churches – a motivational seminar for black preachers in and around Atlanta.
But I think he wanted us out because we were white. We were also clearly Mormons, and the Mormon Church then didn’t allow blacks into the priesthood – which is one of the reasons I left it a decade later.
But that day we ate breakfast, then left the hall.