Volume 33, No. 14
Let James Dunn’s Freedom Ring!
I’ve been thinking about my friend and mentor, Dr. James Dunn, recently. It is always at this time of year that memories of Dr. Dunn’s wiry voice pierce my spirit and recollections of his extended finger point and prod at the slumbering courage in my heart. You see, this July 4 is the fourth anniversary of his death. I think a wry smile crossed God’s face knowing that the intrepid freedom fighter and previous Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington D.C. died on the one day of the year that caused his passion to swell and his patriotism to shine.
I reminisce about Dr. Dunn because it was at the beginning of August in 2004 that he preached my ordination charge as I was officially ordained at South Main Baptist Church before becoming their Minister to Children. His support guided me from my first day as Reverend Gregg all the way until he addressed a letter to Dr. Gregg two weeks before his death. The letter I received heralded one of my sermons that another one of my mentors, Kenneth Dean, praised. And I know countless of us progressive and politically-minded Baptists have these many personal and meaningful stories about Dr. Dunn.
And I recently beamed as I read Dr. Bill J. Leonard’s recollection of Dr. Dunn causing a stir at a public reading of the Declaration of Independence at Old Salem Village on July 4th in 2007. The document was read by a Wake Forest University colleague of Dr. Leonard and Dr. Dunn, the Moravian historian Craig Atwood. According to Dr. Leonard, “Atwood moved eloquently through the revered document, then came to the Declaration’s list of grievances against the English king, George III:
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers. He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount, and payment of their salaries. He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people. . .
Dr. Leonard continued, “As Atwood read each sentence, James Dunn answered back, a July-4-Baptist-call-and-response: ‘Yes he has!’ ‘Uh huh!’ ‘Oh yes he did!’ Dunn didn’t mean the king of England; he meant the president of the United States!”
Since this time of year had a special place in Dr. Dunn’s story, I think it is appropriate that I, along with 700 other UCC, Episcopalian, and Baptist clergy, joined an amicus brief filed on July 3 asking the United States Supreme Court to affirm that our federal civil rights law prohibits job discrimination against LGBTQ workers. This is an action that is very Baptist and very Dr. Dunn.
It is my belief that Dr. Dunn, just as he did on that July 4 in 2007, would not remain silent at discrimination, family separation, and the need for equal rights for all people. He would be shaking his head and saying “Uh huh” to the many places in our current political atmosphere where fiery Baptists need to fight for justice and lean into our historical values of inclusiveness and freedom. Dr. Dunn never remained silent during the July 4 season, when Christian leaders weren’t living like Jesus. And, with his spirit fresh in our hearts, neither must we.