I had heard that “still small voice” many times before. It wasn’t a loud voice; in fact it wasn’t even an audible voice. But I heard it on this day in the Mississippi Delta. I heard it loud and clear. I recognized it because I’d had recent, profound experiences with it. On at least two other occasions I had heard it and, to my everlasting detriment, did not give it either the priority or authority it requires. Oh, what a mistake that was!
The still, small voice, round one
I recall one occasion when the voice spoke, intense and overwhelming. Stuck in Friday afternoon traffic on the Tallahatchie River bridge in New Albany, Mississippi, I was rushing to get to a party in another town. Only minutes before, a business associate had told me that a long-time friend, a state court judge, was seeking “help to get over a hump.”
We had apprehensively speculated as to exactly what that meant, but had no reason to anticipate what it actually turned out to be. Then, hurrying out the door, I had foolishly advised,“You must find out what he is seeking, and why. Perhaps he just needs your help, because he has nowhere else to turn. Who knows? It may not be anything, but you should at least hear what he has to say! He’s your friend!”
Later, navigating through traffic, my mind considered every scenario imaginable. It created rationales in which the judge’s request was innocent: just a desperate plea from an old friend with nowhere else to turn. The scary fact that my business partner frequently and inappropriately spoke to the judge on behalf of others was not lost on me. However, it was also widely known that the judge routinely and casually solicited his advice and legal analysis. That seemed to be the nature of their obviously close relationship. I even found myself feeling sorry for the aging judge. After all, I had no business whatsoever with him. According to his own words, he was in desperate need of some sort of help. What could possibly be wrong in helping him out if we could?
Yet, somehow, it just did not feel right. Something was amiss. It seemed inappropriate for him to ask for anything. Even more so, if it was money he needed to “get him over a hump.”
As I approached the Tallahatchie River bridge that day, I heard that still small voice urging me, prodding me to “Turn around! Go back! Tell him! Tell him not to do it! Say No! Stop it! Stop it now, tell the judge no, something is amiss.”
Sadly, I did not heed the small voice in my head. Instead, I let my own voice drown it out. I rationalized it would be alright. After all, these guys know what they are doing. Besides, I’m already late for the party. It will be ok!
“Don’t be spooked by the request,” I had reasoned to myself. “Perhaps he’s in such a bind, he is embarrassed and really can’t seek help anywhere else. After all, I’ve been in that shape a few times myself.”
My naive and always conflicted reasoning was fatally wrong. What he was seeking was wrong, terribly wrong. Despite my mistaken faith in his integrity, I somehow sensed the corrupt sleaze of his motives. I think we all did.
Shockingly, the judge’s plea for help turned out to be an extortionate plot to entrap a group of nationally prominent and extremely successful lawyers in a criminal act. An act that would forever alter the lives of everyone involved — no matter how slight their connection.
The still, small voice, round two
A week or two later, the still small voice spoke yet again. This second time with much more urgency. “Call him! Go! Call him now! Put a stop to this foolishness now, before it’s too late,” the voice urged.
When the voice prodded me this time, I was in Israel. I was standing in front of the very cave where the prophet Elisha had hidden in fear for his life. Jezebel had vowed to kill him, and, ironically, that’s when and where Elisha had first heard “that still small voice.”
It’s impossible to precisely relate what happened next. In my memory, it’s as if a magical wave took me off the tour bus and mystically transported me to the privacy of my hotel room, in front of the telephone. I frantically tried to call home to urge caution, sanity, and integrity. My mind was now screaming, “Stop it, put a stop to it now. Act! Something is not right. Perhaps it’s not too late to stop it!”
Alas, I was unable to reach my friend, and after multiple tries, gave up. I later learned that my erstwhile friend and co-worker was already working with prosecutors and purposefully avoiding my calls.
Ignore the voice at your peril
When I returned home a few days later, I soon learned it was, indeed, too late. The truth was revealed. I was now involved in one of the most sensational judicial scandals in the state’s, if not the country’s, history. ”What are you doing here, Steve?” The voice now sarcastically scolded.
We who had fallen victim to the government’s scheme, with the judge’s orchestration, could and did argue ‘entrapment,’ with good cause. We were victims of extortion, but it simply didn’t matter in the end. Our fate had been sealed. My young business associate had undeniably met with the judge and ill-advisedly agreed to the judge’s extortionate scheme. That behavior had been mindlessly stupid and we all knew it.
Everyone involved ended up pleading guilty to conspiracy to corruptly influence the judge. I was sentenced, not for any action I took, but for not speaking up and stopping the so-called conspiracy when I had the chance. If only I had acted when the voice first spoke!
As the embarrassing saga unfolded, it became obvious that the risk was too great to do anything other than plead guilty. We were all very high profile trophies. I pled guilty because I was guilty. I had not obeyed the “still small voice.”
I feel exceedingly blessed to have heard the voice, even though I did not heed its instructions. Did that voice speak to the others involved? I don’t know. All I know is I’m thankful it spoke to me then, and it still does today! And when it speaks to me now, you better believe I obey!
The soul stirring Delta voice
On this sultry May day, I was meandering through the Mississippi Delta. Tiny impoverished towns popped up every few miles. When Cotton was King, they’d been prosperous little plantation villages. The king was secured to his throne by back-breaking labor—first, of enslaved dark people, later by indentured sharecroppers. These towns had now descended into heartbreaking, poverty-ridden, hopeless squalor.
Webb, Crenshaw, Sumner, Tutwiler, Drew, Ruleville, Lambert, Sledge and other such towns appeared along my journey. All, no doubt, named for white settlers or plantation owners who came seeking fortunes from the most fertile soil this side of the River Nile. These little hamlets, largely populated with descendants of slaves, all lay in the path to my final destination, Tchula, Mississippi. Located in the fertile flat farm lands of Holmes County, Tchula is a destitute, forgotten little town in the poorest county in the United States.
“God doesn’t like this” the voice kept whispering. “What are you doing here, Steve?”
My soul was being stirred in the Mississippi Delta!
On my journey that day, I passed a young pregnant mother with two raggedly dressed little girls. They were walking down the highway barefooted, carrying what appeared to be a sack of potatoes. “God doesn’t like this,” the voice said.
I passed a group of school age boys leaning on a rusted out old car, music blasting. Looks of both anger and despair were engraved on their faces. ”God doesn’t like this,” the voice once again instructed.
And, finally, as I neared my destination, I saw an elderly black woman sitting on her decaying front porch. Six young children crawled all about her, as she kissed and hugged each one. She sat on the porch swatting flies, because it was the only dry place to sit. Her home was clearly flooded. She and the children could not escape the porch’s safety without wading into muddy snake-infested waters. Once again, that still small voice whispered, “God doesn’t like this.”
A Blues Alley Epiphany voice
I had traveled these two-lane back roads all my life. I had friends, really good friends, both black and white who lived all around these places. I had seen similar deplorable sites for years, but not until that day had I really noticed. On that day I not only saw the despair, I felt it.
It was not like the Apostle Paul’s Damascus road conversion, but more a simple awakening— A Blues Alley Epiphany! “God doesn’t like this,” and I was being questioned as to what I was going to do about it.
My face flushed red hot with embarrassment when I reflected on the thoughts that consumed me as I’d begun this day. Worry, constant worry devoured my peace, as it had for months. Financial worries consumed my every thought.
“I must scurry around and find the means to meet my obligations. What am I going to do?” And then, “Oh well, perhaps, if time permits, I’ll stop at Gardenias in Greenwood tonight and eat one of my favorite fish dishes, pompano.” My struggles were indeed troubling, stressful, and demanding. But as my sainted Grandmother always said, “I’ve got a good warm house and plenty to eat.”
Sadly, millions of American men, women and children, can’t say the same. About 600,000 of whom live in my back yard, Mississippi!
I thought I was struggling financially like I’d never before struggled, but on this day, I came to realize what an embarrassment of riches I really enjoyed.
A voice of conscience
Providentially, the reason for my Delta journey on that fateful day was to attend a church service. It was being conducted by an African American preacher from North Carolina. Many believe he is the logical heir apparent to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mantle as the “conscience” of America. No doubt he is a widely respected voice for social and moral justice.
The Reverend Dr. William Barber is an oratorical genius, with endearing charisma and a passion for preaching the gospel. I had read newspaper accounts about his activism, and his theological and political views. I had seen several of his sermons through the magic of YouTube. A friend informed me Dr. Barber would be preaching in Tchula, in an effort to reinvigorate Dr. King’s vision of a “Poor People’s Campaign.” I had to go see this man up close and in person.
I had a chance to visit with Dr. Barber before the service began and we immediately bonded. I was one of only three white folks present that night. I was not disappointed in the inspiring message he delivered, or the overflow crowd he attracted.
Dr. Barber is my new friend. We talk or text each other often and we plan to visit again soon.
He has united tens of thousands of American citizens, from all walks of life, in a movement to challenge systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation. He has partnered with a white female Presbyterian theologian and ordained minister to create what they call, “A poor people’s campaign; a national call for moral revival.”
A voice of thunder and lightning
This old school preacher speaks with clarity. His is no ‘still small voice,’ but rather a voice of thunder and lightning. His sermons are akin to the ‘thunder and lightning’ that the Book of Revelations teaches us “proceed from the throne in Heaven.” He speaks to the rocky hearts of mankind and breaks them into pieces through his passionate oratory.
Dr Barber’s messages are designed to shake our consciences and awaken us to God’s displeasure when His word is not obeyed. He calls us, both individually and collectively as a nation, to a “moral revival.” His sermons are unambiguous and filled with the gospel reminder of the love, pardon and peace available to us in the sure grace of Christ.
Henry James once said of Emerson, “life never bribed him to look at anything but the soul.” I believe the same can be said of Dr William Barber. His mission is to stir the soul of America, and he stirs it like no one else I have ever heard.
Based on Biblical truths, his sermons and the movement he birthed hold the promise of transforming the public psychology of racial and economic injustice, and combating, on an unprecedented scale, the foolish, erroneous dogma that argues “if you are poor, it’s your own damned fault.”
Courageous voices desperately needed
I have come to realize the hard way that how or when God speaks to us is less important than what we do with what he says. In addition to sudden moves of the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us through his inerrant word. The more we learn it, the more we study it, the more easily we will recognize his voice when he speaks, and the more likely we are to obey what we hear.
Indeed, there is an abundance of things that God doesn’t like. But on this day he was especially speaking to me. He made his displeasure at the deplorable poverty and hopelessness that was all around clearly known. My soul was being stirred, and I knew I was being called to do something.
Systemic poverty has a hideously grim face. The stark poverty found all across Mississippi and our beloved south land cannot be ignored. It certainly can no longer be denied. Southern poverty is primarily rooted in the history and politics of racism and the feudalism of the plantation. Victims of this history–these poverty stricken men, women and children–are not merely statistics. They are our brothers and sisters. We are all created by the very same creator.
They are the disastrous consequences of slavery, America’s original sin. Generations of repressive public policies, designed to deny equal opportunities, have succeeded in codifying and making permanent their deplorable plight. Only enlightened public policy initiatives can address these historic immoral inequities. The entirety of my life experiences persuades me of this truth.
Clearly, it was the oppressive, harsh, draconian policies of the old plantation system that led to these unacceptable conditions. Plantation economics, and the mentality which logically follows in public policy development, must be abandoned. “Keeping ‘em down on the farm” is an immoral set of public policy goals. State and federal policies alike must give priority to the urgent needs of the “least of these.” Then, and only then, will “justice roll down like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Courageous new voices that reject the worn out mentality of the plantation are being called. We need to hear from voices that are willing to use their faith to embarrass the faithful. We need no more whiny, bashful hunkered down voices that are frightened of engaging a complex world and horrified of challenging generations of existing norms.
Those timid voices have already found a home in far too many American political forums and church pulpits. Voices that seek the higher ground of the ennobling ideas of our sacred creeds are what’s called for today.
Perhaps, that answers the question, “What are you doing here, Steve?” I don’t know!
I have no doubt that Dr. Barber has been anointed by God’s own hand to preach a message of economic, social and political justice. He fills a huge void by providing a true moral voice in our public discourse.
As for me, I’m still listening for that “still small voice” to further instruct me. When I get those instructions this time, I will not hesitate.
Like the prophet Isaiah, I have vowed, “Here am I Lord, send me.”
More of Steve Patterson: America’s Dilemma