I was ordained as an elder by Bishop Carl J. Sanders on May 31, 1976, in the Alabama-West Florida Conference at First United Methodist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. Later I shared in the memorial service for Bishop Sanders that was held in that same sanctuary. I didn’t know how my ministry would unfold and he certainly didn’t, but he always took a great interest in my ministry.
When I was consecrated a bishop, Carl Sanders was right there and he seemed to be very proud. When he died he had asked that I participate in his funeral. Oh, what a holy privilege. Someone whom he had ordained and set free for ministry was asked to participate in his funeral. After the funeral his wife, Billy Jo, a wonderful saint of God, gave me some of his sermons, and you’re about to get just a tad of one of them right now.
I’m going to share a story that Carl Sanders told. He was a great preacher. He preached the consecration service for the bishops of the Southeast Jurisdiction on July 19, 1980. I’ve got his sermon. I wasn’t there, but I’ve got the sermon, and he mentioned something that I knew really well.
Bishop Sanders pointed out that in 1881 Booker T. Washington came to a new school in Alabama – the Tuskegee Institute. (I’ve been there. Love the place. I’ve been in Booker T. Washington’s house there.) Mr. Washington found only a leaky old church and 30 students, some of them well past middle age. He taught them to read and write and he taught them how to make brick, and he built his house out of that brick.
For 15 years Washington labored but was now discouraged. So little had been accomplished. He had told his people to buy land, to produce crops, to raise livestock, to send their children to school, to become worthy citizens of a great republic. But the land was so poor, its yield so scant; the hogs were razorback; the cows gave so little milk; the children came to school half starved.
Their ways of planting and harvesting were most primitive. Superstitions and folklore so dictated their methods that he could not seem to reach their fundamental needs. He needed help, he needed trained help, scientific help. Alabama was starving. The people and the soil were going to waste.
While Booker T. Washington was on a speaking tour at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he heard of a black teacher at Iowa State University who was described as a genius. He heard that this man could raise corn on a wooden floor.
Back home in Tuskegee, Washington dared to write this professor – Dr. George Washington Carver. He closed his letter with these words – “I cannot offer you money, position or fame. I offer you in their place – work – hard, hard work – the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.”
Four days later, in his laboratory, Dr. Carver received the letter. He read it to the end without moving. Then, without a word he went out and walked toward the end of town. When he reached a favorite spot, hidden from the road and close beside a small stream, he sat down and, pulling the letter from his pocket, read it again very slowly.
“The children, barefoot, come for miles over bad roads. They are thin and in rags. These people do not know how to plow or plant or harvest. I teach them how to read, to write and make good bricks. I cannot give them food and so they starve.”
He read the last paragraph over twice.
Then he pulled a small notebook from his pocket, tore a sheet and scribbled on it three words and signed his name. Holding the sheet in his hand he walked back to the village, stopping at the post office. Here he bought a stamped envelope which he addressed to Dr. Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. He placed the note inside, sealed the envelope and mailed it.
At Tuskegee the letter was received. It said simply, “I will come,” and it was signed “G.W. Carver.” Nothing else, no date, no questions, no comments.
When Dr. Carver went to see the Iowa State University president to tell him of his decision, the president was dismayed. He spoke of the golden opportunity he believed George Washington Carver was throwing away.
Dr. Carver was deeply touched. He tried to make the president see what Iowa State meant to him, he then handed the letter to him from Booker T. Washington. There was a long silence in the room. At last the President, after reading what Booker T. Washington had written, rose and said quietly, “In this life we are prone to turn our eyes away from true greatness, lest we be blinded. He asks you to give up money, position and fame, but in their place he offers you – immortality!”
Dr. Carver stood and the president took his hand. The president’s eyes were moist as, looking hard into the black man’s face, he added this benediction, “Go – with God!”
George Washington Carver went – with God, and the difference the two of them made together is immense!
So, dearly beloved, may you, also, go with God wherever it is that God calls you to go.
Dear God, let it be!
Mike Watson is the resident bishop of the North Georgia United Methodist Conference.
This article is adapted from Bishop Watson’s sermon during the Service of Commissioning and Ordination at the 2010 North Georgia Annual Conference. To see a copy of the 2010 Ordination & Commissioning Service, please visit http://www.ngumc.org/videos/detail/32.