News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 18, 2013

MAX JONES: Call it religion if you want, it’s still bigotry

Max Jones
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The tiny grocery store my grandfather operated in the 1950s and ’60s was often a gathering spot for the colorful cast of neighborhood characters that populated my hometown. I liked hanging out there with my brothers or cousins because it was good entertainment and we all enjoyed the way our granddad interacted with the locals.

In those days, much like today, Loogootee was no different than other small towns in southern Indiana. White, rural and middle class. The only hint of diversity, if you want to call it that, was that half the community was Catholic, the other half Protestant.

Among the occasional store visitors (my granddad called them “loafers”) was an elderly preacher from a small evangelical church nearby. He always wore a dark suit, a dress hat, and spoke with a deep, stern voice. He would sometimes linger in the store if he had an audience, speaking as if he were delivering a sermon. I didn’t like it when he was there, and I got the feeling others, including my granddad, didn’t either.

On one particular day, much to my discomfort, the man focused his comments in my direction. I don’t know why he singled out a grade-school kid sitting behind the store counter, but my granddad was probably busy in another part of the store and I was the only other person around.

That day, he was apparently riled by news coming from the ongoing civil rights movement sweeping the country. He proceeded to lecture me about how the Bible teaches that “Negroes” are a curse from God, their dark skin representing some kind of punishment handed down by the Almighty.

My granddad was a stoic, mild-mannered man who rarely showed his emotions. But when he heard what the preacher was telling me, he instantly stepped in, halted the conversation and came closer to showing real anger than I’d ever seen from him.

It was an uncomfortable few moments. When the preacher left, Granddad settled himself and simply told me the guy didn’t know what he was talking about. He encouraged me to ignore the preacher’s comments.

As a Catholic kid going to a Catholic school, I had been exposed to biblical teachings all my young life. I’d never heard of any biblical reference like the one the preacher proclaimed, so had no problem quickly dismissing it. What I could not dismiss was the terrible feeling it gave me to think that the sort of religious belief the preacher expressed was actually out there, being freely taught and embraced in some church congregations.

How awful and hurtful it must feel, I thought, for people of color to know that some of their fellow human beings believed that they were a “curse from God.”

I recalled that childhood moment last week as I followed the prom controversy in Sullivan, my home for the past 38 years. A religious-based group is planning an “alternative” prom this year that would exclude gays. The effort grew out of Sullivan High School’s stated position that no couple will be excluded from participating in the school’s prom or grand march based on sexual orientation. Doing so, of course, is illegal and unconstitutional.

The group’s concept of conducting and seeking publicity and support for an event which boasts as its sole purpose to exclude certain people because of sexual orientation is blatantly offensive. I regret that it’s happening in the community where I live.

The most painful part of this, however, is that an entire group of human beings — gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered individuals, etc. — are being dismissed as “sinners” unworthy of respect and inclusion simply because of their sexuality.

The group’s meeting to plan their alternative prom was covered by WTWO-TV, whose report on the meeting contained what are now famously inflammatory comments from a teacher in the Northeast School Corp. of Sullivan County. The teacher told the TV reporter that, in essence, homosexuality is a choice people make that should be condemned. She also seemed to suggest that gays have no purpose in life. I’d like to think that’s not what the teacher meant in response to an odd question, but she did herself no favors with her rambling response.

I’m sure there are some who actually agree with the teacher’s comments. But, for the most part, they are being roundly criticized. Even her school district’s superintendent, Mark Baker, issued a statement to the Sullivan Daily Times, saying the teacher’s comments were “insensitive, unnecessary and hurtful,” and that he was “dismayed and disappointed.”

I could not agree more. And my concern goes beyond the foolish statements made by one teacher.

Rancid bigotry hiding behind religious dogma — the kind that spewed from a small group in Sullivan last week or from a small-town preacher back in the 1960s — is a scourge on all our communities.

Time, I trust, will take care of most of this. We’ve already made progress. But that doesn’t lessen the hurt for those today whose neighbors and classmates keep trying to exclude them, to punish them, or to marginalize them, all in the name of religion.

Max Jones can be reached at 812-231-4336, or by email at Follow him on Twitter, @TribStarMax.