I felt ill at ease here at first,” says the Rev. Bruce Edwards of his new church in Makakilo, Hawaii, a working-class suburb of Honolulu, “because of the tremendous affection these people give. They come up and hug us. In Georgia,” he adds, “if people you’d never met before came up and hugged you, you’d wonder about their motives.”
Edwards left Georgia in a squall of racial unpleasantness last February after he (and Jimmy Carter) had sided with parishioners favoring integration of the Plains Southern Baptist Church. For the Florida-born Edwards, 30, and his college-sweetheart wife, Sandra, the offer of a pastorate in Hawaii was heaven-sent. Their dark-skinned 18-month-old son, Phillip, whose adoption further inflamed the segregationists in Plains, is half Hawaiian. They have a natural son, Paul, 7. Edwards says now of Plains that “the issue wasn’t racism, it was freedom of the pulpit. I don’t see myself as a civil rights leader. I’m a minister, and through my understanding of the Scriptures I believe in civil rights. The preacher has to be the voice of conscience, especially when the congregation is doing something immoral.”
Ironically, the Rev. Clennon King, the black preacher who triggered the crisis in Plains by trying to join the church two days before the presidential election, showed up in Makakilo as a guest speaker the day before Edwards arrived. King told the congregation to question the new pastor sharply about discrimination. But the incident produced hardly a ripple. (Since Edwards left, the Plains church has rescinded its ban on blacks but has not yet taken in any black members. He says, “I told the deacons that they’d have to be honest with the next preacher and tell him, ‘You can’t preach this or that.’ Frankly, I believe their actions discredited the Christian faith.”)
The new job—Edwards calls it “a pioneer mission”—keeps him busy. There are new names to learn—and to pronounce. He visits his congregation in their homes and studies for the family counseling that is part of his responsibility. He is also writing “an inspirational book about how our faith sustains us in times of crisis. It’s definitely not vindictive, but I do draw some examples from our experience in Plains.” When there is time, the Edwardses enjoy Hawaii’s exotic outdoors, finding the climate mild compared to the muggy summer heat of Georgia.
The minister speaks to President Carter occasionally by phone—”I’ve never had any trouble getting through”—and they exchange letters, but are not in constant touch. “He has his own pastor now,” says Edwards. “I’m not his spiritual adviser. And I have my own church to think about.”