In 1968 James Swanson worked in the Tokyo Gardens Japanese Steak House in an all white neighborhood.
Working late, he had missed the last bus home. A police cruiser approached him as he walked down the sidewalk, and the officer yelled out the window, “Boy, what are you doing here? We’re going to make our rounds, and if you’re still here when we get back, we’re running you into jail.”
“You can talk about what you would have done, but in 1968 I started trucking,” Swanson said.
“I was laying it down from there to downtown Houston, where I called my aunt on a payphone and she sent a taxi to pick me up.”
In 2014, Johnson was back in that same neighborhood, as Bishop Swanson of the South Georgia Conference, proclaiming the word of God at the Shift Happens: Ministry in Transition Conference.
He said he has seen some shift in his days, and the church must give people hope for what will come next.
“You’ve got to give your folks a dream, even when it looks like the church is going down,” Swanson said. “If God is before us, who dares to be against us? Give them a dream to help them understand that God placed us where we are.”
One of those places for Bishop Swanson was being appointed as the first black pastor of an all white congregation in Southern Georgia.
“You tell me, what is all white about 11 people?” he said. “I was just there because no white boys wanted it, and the 11 people there were glad I was there, because they were looking for an excuse to leave.”
When people asked him how long he was going to stay, his reply was that he would be there until he had built a church that he would want to go to himself.
Bishop Swanson read the scripture from Revelation 21, verses 1 -5, which describe the shift to a new heaven and new earth.
“John found himself exiled on an island, but he didn’t give up on leading,” Bishop Swanson said. “The system, circumstances and conditions changed, but John remained true to his mission. The mission never changes. Regardless the circumstance, condition or color of people that we pastor, the mission doesn’t change. We must remain true to mission regardless of circumstance or condition.”
Bishop Swanson said that now that he’s Bishop, he could sit back and drink Mint Julips and watch the river flow by until it’s time to collect his retirement check, and there’s not much anyone could do about it. But he’s not guided by job requirements, or lack thereof, now, and he never was.
“Regardless of where they appoint me, I’m going to preach,” he said. “I don’t trust in minimum salary, pension plan or health benefits. My confidence is in God. Even if they move me, I’m going to preach. Even folks I’ve prepared my sermon for leave, I’m going to preach.”
Bishop Swanson said the church’s reputation isn’t what it used to be, back when the church could roar and everyone else would lay down.
“The sermon you prepared in the church of the rising sun won’t resonate where the sun is setting,” he said. “When folks believe the whole community is shutting down, you need to preach a different kind of sermon. You can’t lead in the midst of crisis the same way you lead when folks are comfortable. You need to give people a dream that compels them enough to live the ministry in the midst of the mess.”
Bishop Swanson said many of our churches, and the community that surrounds them, are in the midst of a great storm. But we have the answer.
“I believe with every fiber of my being, that in the midst of the storm, I’ve got a God that can pick you up, turn you around, and plant your feet on solid ground,” he said.