Voices: How an obscure comic book superhero helps a multi-ethnic church pastor

(Photo: Eric Black / Baptist Standard)

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If you told me when I was a child and a comic-book nerd that there would be a live-action Black Panther movie and that it would be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, I absolutely would not have believed you.

We are closing in on 24 films for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for a nearly middle-aged comic book nerd, we are—in my opinion—living in the golden age of entertainment.

That said, they are going to have to make a lot more movies before they get to one featuring Battlestar.

The complicated story of an obscure comic book superhero

According to the comic book narrative, Lemar Hoskins was a black kid from Chicago who joined the U.S. Army after high school, got superhuman strength—along with some of his Army buddies—from a sketchy mad scientist, became a wrestler and then a vigilante, and was selected to become the new Captain America’s crime-fighting partner when the old Captain America gave up his costume for a while for ideological reasons.

Hoskins’ new superhero name was the same as that of Cap’s old partner: Bucky. (If you just thought, “Uh-oh,” you probably have a sense of where this is going.)

In future issues of the comic, an older black man informed Hoskins that ‘buck’ was a racist term used for black men in the pre-Civil War south; so, before his public debut, Hoskins changed his name to Battlestar.

The inspiring story behind the story

What happened in the editorial room at Marvel Comics is even more interesting and involves two of my favorite comic book writers. Mark Gruenwald was the writer and a senior editor of Captain America. Gruenwald grew up in the mostly racially homogeneous city of Oshkosh, Wis.

When he was plotting this story of a new Captain America and a new Bucky, he had absolutely no idea of the racist overtones of ‘buck’ applied to black men.

After the issue was published in which Hoskins takes on the identity of Bucky, Gruenwald received several angry letters from fans informing him of his mistake.

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But before those letters, a black assistant writer named Dwayne McDuffie told his editor, Gregory Wright, that he couldn’t believe this was allowed to happen, wondering aloud whether Gruenwald was racist.

Wright also had no idea of the racist overtones and suspected Gruenwald didn’t either. He encouraged McDuffie to speak to Gruenwald. While McDuffie didn’t relish telling a senior editor he made an egregious mistake, he did speak to Gruenwald.

Wright later described the scene: “Mark was horrified and wanted to know how he might rectify this. He and Dwayne sat down and figured out a way to correct the error. … Mark was also man enough to own up in print to his mistake.”

The joy of pastoring a multi-ethnic church

I currently pastor a multi-ethnic church. About a third of us look like me—Anglo/Caucasian/white/whatever; a third are of Hispanic origin, including immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico; and a third are black, both African-Americans and immigrants from Cameroon and Nigeria.

I count it a beautiful miracle to stand before them each Sunday and speak the word of God to the people of God who reflect in their faces just a hint of “every people and tribe and tongue and nation” belonging to the family and kingdom of God. I do not take this for granted.

Our church is in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. There are plenty of options for places to worship. If any member of this church wanted a church where everyone looked, spoke and shared a similar background to themselves, they could find one within easy driving distance.

But each person at The Crossing Baptist Church has chosen to worship in this place with these people. It is humbling, and I am deeply grateful to be their pastor. I didn’t build it, I just get to enjoy it every week.

I am supposed to lead this congregation in matters spiritual and practical. I would be lying to you if I told you I don’t worry about having a Battlestar moment—saying or doing something unintentionally offensive or that excludes or demeans people.

How I am learning to lead a multi-ethnic congregation

Wayne Schmidt, general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church speaking about his experience as the pastor of a multi-ethnic church, said something with which I resonate:

“I had to learn and lead simultaneously. I read everything I could get my hands on. I participated in church-based seminars and community-based experiences. Most of all, I approached people of color I trusted and asked them to be the ‘safe people for me to ask my dumb questions.’ They sensed my sincerity and I experienced their grace. When people sense sincerity in your heart, it prompts a ‘love that covers a multitude of sins.’ I have been amazed at how forgiving people have been of my leadership lapses when they see progress brought about through humility and intentionality.”

I have been on a similar journey over the past year and a half. I have been to multi-ethnic church conferences. I have read much: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Ta-Nehisi Coates; People of The Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States by Michael Emerson and Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States by Hector Tobar—a definitive read for me. I am now reading Leading a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church by Mark DeYmaz, from which the above quote is drawn.

I am grateful to learn from these writers. But I am most thankful for The Crossing’s grace, for those who have been “safe people for me to ask my dumb questions,” and for those who, like Dwayne McDuffie with Mark Gruenwald, have been bold enough to let me know when I have been off course. I promise to keep working on being gracious enough to listen.

Patrick Adair is the pastor of The Crossings Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas.

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