TAKING COMMUNION WITH JACKIE ROBINSON By Kevin Anthony Stoda, in preparation for June 11, 2009, the Feast of Corpus Christi June 11, 2009 is the Feast of Corpus Christi. This is when some churches around the world focus on the act of communion and on the fact that God was willing to become man. Sometimes we Christians cannot fully appreciate the humanity of Christ and what he suffered for our sins on the cross if we cannot think or meditate on even earthly heroes very often. Once we find an earthly hero, we will-of course--need to multiply many times over the persistence and courage of that hero, i.e. some earthly being who continued in his mission even in the wake of pain, anguish, frustration, and greatest of obstacles. In undertaking this particular thought-experiment about an earthly hero, we enable ourselves to come closer to understanding the meaning of the bread and wine on Sunday morn.
I NEVER HAD IT MADE-JACKIE ROBINSON (1919-1972)
Two weeks ago, here in Wiesbaden Germany where many American forces have been stationed since 1945, I came across an ancient paperback of an authentic American hero. It was the autobiography of Jackie Robinson. The title of this work was simply: I NEVER HAD IT MADE. It was originally published the year of his death, 1972. This self-titled narrative of this particular black American hero, Jackie Robinson, reminds us that Jesus, the Son of God, had also made a difficult choice to become a man. Jesus would suffer and die for his decisions and along the way, there would be glimmers of doubt. Jesus certainly wanted to remind us in communion, "I never had it made-as I agreed to become a man as well as God." (We Christians recognize the sacrifice of Christ in communion, i.e. Jesus had become a man to save us by suffering and dying for us.)
We know that men stumble and fall. There is never ever perfect sailing in a man's life. So, in a way, the title of a book called I NEVER HAD IT MADE could potentially refer to each one of us human beings. Couldn't it? Perhaps, Jackie Robinson might disagree. However, first, who was this man Jackie Robinson?
WHO WAS JACKIE ROBINSON?
Many Americans my age (or older) remember who Jackie Robinson was and what he represents in modern American history. In 1947, two years after WWII had ended, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play the sport of baseball in the until-then segregated major leagues of baseball in the USA. That is to say, by 1945 Hitler's Nazi Europe had been defeated, and Americans had begun to come home from war committed to make the playing fields of America more fair and just than had ever been the case before.
NOTE: In other words, throughout WWII America's military armed forces-like American baseball-had been segregated. There were white Air Force squadrons in WWII. There were also black air force squadrons. There was a Navajo Indian signals corp. There were also Japanese American army regiments. America was a relatively segregated country-i.e. in many ways not living up to its image, ideals, dreams, or passions. As a matter of fact, it wouldn't be until the end of the decade, 1948, that President Harry S. Truman officially began desegregating the U.S. military forces. The last all-black unit, would, therefore, not be dissolved till 1954.In the meantime, in the 1940s baseball was still considered America's national game or sport. Yet, not all Americans had access to the sport. For example, throughout the early 20th century, very few Native Americans or Hispanics had ever played major league baseball. Certainly, no black man had ever been allowed to play in the Major Leagues of Baseball. That was the case until later in the summer of 1945, the president (and general manager) of the national baseball team named the Brooklyn Dodgers invited Jackie Robinson to be the first black major league player.
The president of the Brooklyn Dodgers at that time was named Branch Rickey, who as a young college baseball coach in 1911 had had one black player on his Ohio Wesleyan baseball team. Since that time, i.e. for nearly 3 ½ decades, Branch Rickey had pondered a way to integrate blacks into the national game. Rickey would call this lifelong project of his "the great experiment" or "the noble experiment". In order for this noble experiment to succeed, Rickey was looking for a very special athlete, hero-and/or man. Jackie, sitting in Branch Rickey's office in New York City that August 1945, was just getting over the shock of being asked to be the guinea pig in this grand experiment, i.e. the first black major league baseball player in the 20th century, when the interview or briefing began in full swing.
HERE IS WHAT JACKIE REMEMBERS OF THE INTERVIEW (pp. 39-42) Jackie Robinson relates the following in his autobiography, I NEVER HAD IT MADE:
Abruptly, Mr. Rickey swung his swivel chair in my direction. . . . He pointed a finger at me. "I know you are a good ballplayer," he barked. "What I don't know is whether you have the guts." I knew it was too good to be true. Here was a guy questioning my courage. That virtually amounted to him asking me if I was a coward. . . . I felt the heat coming to my cheeks. . . . "I've investigated you thoroughly, Mr. Robinson," Mr. Rickey said. .... He (Rickey) had demanded and received more information and came to the conclusion that if I had been white, people would have said, "Here's a guy who is a contender, a competitor," After that he(Rickey) had some grim words of warning. "We can't fight our way through this, Robinson. We've got no army there is virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I am afraid that many fans will be hostile. We'll be in a tough situation. We can win only if we can convince the world that I am doing this because you're a great baseball player and a fine gentleman." "So there is more than playing," he said. "I wish it meant only hits runs, and errors-only the things they put in the box score. Because you know-yes, you would know, Robinson, that a baseball box score is a democratic thing. It doesn't tell how big you are, what church you attend, what color you are, or how your father voted in the last election." I interrupted, "But, it's the box score that really counts-that and that alone, isn't it?" "It's all that ought to count," he replied. "But it isn't. Maybe one of these days it will be all that counts. That is one of the reasons I've got you here, Robinson. If you are a good enough man, we can make this a start in the right direction. But let me tell you, it is going to take a whole lot of courage." He was back to the crossroads question again . . . . "Have you got the guts to play no matter what happens?" "I think I can play the game Mr. Rickey," I said. The next few minutes were tough. Branch Rickey had to make absolutely sure that I knew what I would face. Beanballs would be thrown at me. I would be called the kinds of names which would hurt and infuriate any man. I would be physically attacked. Could I take all this and control my temper, remain steadfastly loyal to the ultimate aim? He knew I would have terrible problems and wanted me to know the extent of them before I agreed to the plan. . . . The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity, I looked at Mr. Rickey guardedly, and in that second I was looking at him not as a partner in a great experiment, but as the enemy-a white man. . . . THE QUESTION--NOT TO FIGHT BACK? "Mr. Rickey, " I asked, "are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?" I (Jackie) never will forget the way he exploded. "Robinson," he said, "I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back." After that , Mr. Rickey continued his lecture on the kind of thing I'd be facing. He not only told me about it but he acted out the part of a white player charging me, blaming me for the "accident" and calling me all kinds of foul racist names. He talked about my race, my parents, in a language that was almost unendurable. "They will taunt you and goad you," Mr. Rickey said. "They'll do anything to make you react. They will try to provoke a race riot in the ballpark. This is the way to prove that a Negro should not be allowed in the major league. This is the way to frighten the fans and make them afraid to attend the games." . . . . Suppose I was at shortstop. Another player comes down from first, stealing, flying in with spikes high, and cuts me on the leg. The white player laughs in my face. "How do you like that, n-word boy?" he sneers. Could I turn the other cheek?JESUS AND THE SAME QUESTIONS
As we approach our weekly communion, please remember that communion, commitment and community are all related words in the world of bread and wine in commemoration in church or in fellowship with other Christians. They--commitment, communion, commemoration, and community--all come together in the procedure of taking the bread and the wine as Jesus commanded us to do when he met with his disciples and prepared to be taken to the cross: He would be- -abused psychologically through apparent loss of friends and apparent isolation -abused through words of rejection -abused through painful attacks on his body. Surely, the Father Almighty, had asked his son Jesus the same question in the centuries before Jesus joined us here as a man on earth and played in the fields as a child and spoke as messenger before roaring crowds as an adult.
-Jesus, will you take that awful verbal abuse?
-Jesus, will you survive the sense of loss of friendships and growing personal isolation before the screaming masses?
-Jesus, will you take all those painful jabs of spikes, whippings, and other sources of horrendous physical pain?
-Jesus, will you remain true to the aims of this great experiment, i.e. to save the lost? At communion we take the bread and wine which reminds us that Jesus was flesh and blood.
He was a man-our forerunner-who agreed to die for our sins. By dying first--and then by rising from the grave--, Jesus was our great path breaker. He made it possible for believers and disciples to take the path he blazed for us. We can thus now follow Jesus to a heaven of many rooms. We can enter the BIG LEAGUES OF OUR LORD.
FINAL NOTE-JESUS NEVER HAD IT MADE, EITHER, eh, Jackie?
Thanks, Jackie Robinson, for taking part in a great experiment to integrate America's national past time in the 1940s! Jackie was certainly a great ballplayer and a great competitor-winning the Rookie of the Year award (1947) and the national leagues Most Valuable Player award (1949)--as well as helping take his team, the Dodgers, to the World Series six times in ten years. Jackie, you blazed a path for so many others to follow and you began it all-even knowing it would be very painful/tortuous journey that would require great discipline and the need to turn the other cheek to the persecutors!! However, the consequences would be worth it for all who would come after you. We now have our first black U.S. President, Mr. Robinson. He has the unlikely name of Barack Obama. You, Jackie, were part of that journey to bring America this far. Thank you for your discipline, drive, and persistence-enduring all kinds of obstacles! Meanwhile, as we take this communion of bread and wine, let us recommit ourselves to continuing to be disciplined--and committed to the ideas of Christ (our biggest hero) and to the perseverance of men who have shown us throughout the ages how to behave whenever the experiment is noble. Certainly, integrating God and man in the life of Christ was the greatest and most noble experiment of all?--eh, Jackie?
NOTES Robinson, Jackie. I NEVER HAD IT MADE. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest Books, 1974.