Called by Circumstances: Ronald English and James Patterson
April 1, 2016
This story is a part of the American Pilgrimage Project, a conversation series that invites Americans of diverse backgrounds to sit together and talk to each other one-to-one about the role their religious beliefs play at crucial moments in their lives.
“I ran from it—I didn’t want to be a preacher,” Ronald English tells his friend James Patterson in this American Pilgrimage Project conversation, which took place in Charleston, West Virginia. “In fact, when I was a janitor at Ebenezer, I would hurry up and vacuum the sanctuary because I did not want to hear the call of God.”
English heard the call anyhow, even in spite of himself. “Ebenezer,” the church in Atlanta where his family worshipped in the 1950s and 1960s, was the Ebenezer Baptist Church: the church where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., succeeded his father as senior pastor. That is, English wound up hearing the call of religious faith, and to the ministry, in a place where convictions about God and faith, about calling and duty, were set out powerfully week after week by a minister whose own calling altered the course of American history profoundly.
As a young man, English got to know Dr. King in humbler fashion—by catching a ride north with him when King was in seminary in Pennsylvania and English and his father were visiting relatives in New York. “Now, he was a bit heavy on the gas,” Rev. English recalls, and King was stopped, ticketed for speeding, and jailed. “That might have been the first time he was arrested!”
English would end up serving as Dr. King’s assistant at Ebenezer and gave a prayer at Dr. King’s funeral in 1968. By then, following encouragement from Dr. King, he was pursuing his own calling as a minister—a calling that, like Rev. English, was fostered by the Black Church’s role as “the bastion of liberation” for African-American Christians. Formed by the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Patterson explains, he pastors from the “prophetic side,” working against injustice and inequality out of the commitment that the church takes into account people’s whole lives, not just their spiritual lives.
Truly, religious belief is mysterious, even in the lives of two accomplished senior ministers. Would Ronald English have “heard the call” if he’d grown up somewhere other than Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, or if he hadn’t gotten to know Dr. King? Would James Patterson have heard the call if he hadn’t come of age during the Civil Rights Movement?
Hearing these two men talk, their clarity and confidence about their beliefs makes it hard to believe that either one ever had any doubts about his call, much less that he high-tailed it in the other direction. But so it was, and that same clarity and confidence makes clear that they are giving account of their beliefs in all their complexity—the way Martin Luther King Jr. would have done.
The interview was recorded and produced by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.