Charleston, West Virginia

Called by Circumstances: Ronald English and James Patterson

First Recorded

April 1, 2016


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Ronald English grew up attending Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., served as a pastor and prompted English to join the ministry. In this conversation, English talks with his friend and fellow pastor James Patterson about the experiences under segregation and the influences that brought both of them to become pastors.

This story was produced by StoryCorps.

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. 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.

Called by Circumstances: Ronald English and James Patterson

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Ronald English: I think we have something in common, that both of us were born down further South. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, 1944, which means I grew up in the segregated South, went to a segregated school. But grew up in the situation, that I'm sure you're familiar with, where, because of segregation, there was a deep sense of pride in the black community and also, they were able to come up with the resources, as well as the businesses, that showed their self-determination in terms of how they went about taking care of the needs of the community. And a lot of times, we didn't know that we were deprived.

James Patterson: I can agree. I too grew up in the South, born in 1952 in a little town called Maxton, North Carolina, that was also doing segregation. I remember having your teachers tell you that you had to be twice as smart and twice as quick as your white counterparts just to make it. Then in 11th grade, the schools were actually integrated and that's where we had this proliferation of academies, particularly Christian academies that were white only because there were white people that just decided they were not going to send their kids to school with us.

Ronald English: I grew up in Ebenezer, which was the church Dr. King Sr. and Jr. pastored. But growing up in Ebenezer, my father and I hitched a ride with Dr. King when he was still in seminary in Pennsylvania because my dad had a sister that lived in New York, and we would always go up there to see her. Well, we hitched ride with him, and he was a little bit heavy on the gas. He got caught in Pennsylvania by a officer for speeding, and he was taken to jail, and he told us that we had to catch a bus in order to go on to New York-

James Patterson: Was this Dr. King Jr.?

Ronald English: This was Dr. King Jr.

James Patterson: Okay.

Ronald English: Yeah. So that might've been around the first time he was arrested, going to jail. I just remember that when he would come home during the summer to speak and preach, we always laughed because he always much shorter than his dad as far as preaching was concerned. But that was my initial inspiration for ministry, really. And he was very encouraging along that line. I had that experience of knowing him primarily in the pastoral role as his assistant at Ebenezer. And I gave the prayer at this funeral, which was one of the saddest moments of my life.

James Patterson: I knew from the time I was a teenager that this is what I was supposed to do.

Ronald English: I ran from it. I did not want to be a preacher. In fact, when I was a janitor at Ebeneezer, I would hurry up and vacuum the sanctuary because I did not want to hear the call of God. But at the same time, the black church in particular was the bastion of liberation. It was what black folk felt they controlled and the black preacher was not under the control of the white establishment that made it freer. And now for the source of the movement, there's no accident that it came out of the church and that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist preacher, and that's because it was ingrained in the wood of the black church that it would be about the business out liberating folk.

James Patterson: I am from the prophetic mode of ministry, which is belief that Dr. King had, as well as you have, that the church, and preachers and ministers ought to be involved in the broader scope of the life of people other than just a spiritual side. Because I believe that we are called, not only to fight what we consider sin from a theological perspective, but we are called to fight in justice, and we are called to fight inequality and we're called to fight evil in whichever way it comes. That's my calling.

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