Segregation, tragedy, yet blessings prevail
PLANT CITY, Fla. (BP) -- Maxie Miller Jr. remembers the time when the men in his neighborhood sat on their steps and prayed no bombs would hit their homes.
Miller, the Florida Baptist Convention's strategist for the African American church planting team, doesn't just know about the fight for civil rights in America, he lived it in Birmingham, Ala.
Just 12 years old when his young friend, Denise McNair, was tragically killed in a church bombing during the civil rights movement, Miller went on to be one of six black students at an all-white Birmingham high school.
The smiling, gentle, Vietnam-era veteran admits what shaped him more than civil rights or even his military experience was a fear of his momma -- and his reliance on God.
Growing up in Birmingham, there were two major institutions, the school and the church, and "no young black child escaped those institutions," Miller recalled. "You are in school and you are in church."
And for Miller, both institutions involved his family.
"They were good Christian parents," Miller said of Maxie Sr. and Lillian (Lois) Miller who raised him in the historic African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. His father, a church steward, played the piano by ear and sang in the choir, along with his mother, who "still sings in the choir in heaven," Miller said, noting she "graduated" to heaven when she died in 2005.
"My mother was something else," Miller said fondly. "I grew up during a time where Momma would get you for what you did, anywhere at any time."
Miller said it was impossible to escape from the "long arm of the law" with his mother working in his school's lunchroom. His father was equally strict and would threaten, "'Son, I'm gonna get you, but when I get you, I'm gonna get you for old and for new.'"
"You would rather get Momma because she would get it out of the way," Miller smiled.
Hands-on parenting and grandparenting, he said, is lacking in much of today's culture.
"I'm not sure today that young people can say their father and grandfather were in the Lord and that they saw and witnessed their faith," Miller said. "I respect my dad and my granddad. My parents were not perfect people, but they did not give us something that they didn't have. They had Jesus.
"They didn't say, 'Go to church.' They went with us. They had the Lord," Miller said. "I always wish somehow that God would allow me to be just half the person my dad is in my life, to be as good as my dad. He's impacted me a lot and I try to pass it on to my children."
CHURCH IN BIRMINGHAM
Growing up in the church was expected in the 1950s and '60s. Churches cooperated so that Vacation Bible School was virtually a summer-long event with no two churches holding VBS at the same time throughout the city. Youth days, when young people in the church presided over every aspect of the worship service, allowed them opportunities to develop leadership.
"Youth days and VBS as a child were very important to me," Miller said. "I gave my life to Christ when I was about 11 years old."
It was during one of the youth days, on Sept. 15, 1963, when the church bombing took place and four girls were killed, including Miller's friend Denise. "It affected all the youth in the community," Miller said soberly. "I'll never forget that." The two families have remained close through the years.
The church buttressed the authority and discipline in young people's lives. Whatever his parents said, the preacher inevitably would back it with his words. "The role model was across the table from Mom and Dad, not on the basketball court or on the television."
Still, young men will be young men and on Labor Day when he was 15 years old Miller defied his mother's instructions and went to his cousin's home where the unsupervised boys found their uncle's gun.
"We were playing with it and it shot me in the side," Miller recounted. "It was the first time that I saw the pain and hurt in my daddy's eyes because of his child as he carried me down the steps into the ambulance."
Bleeding and in pain, Miller said he only remembers lying on a gurney in the hospital's hallway while it was determined whether the family had insurance and who would be the attending doctor. He said his dad remembers him being "bold" and grabbing onto a doctor's hand as he walked by to ask to help. "That same doctor became my doctor for the rest of my days there," Miller said.
The bullet did extensive damage, causing him to lose his gall bladder and part of his intestines -- and for a while, doctors thought he might never walk again -- but "it also brought all of our families closer together," Miller said. "It was a valuable lesson I learned about being obedient, and almost to the point of losing my life."
That same spirit of boldness, tempered with humility, after his first year at all-black parochial high school led him to be one of the first six black students at all-white Ramsay High School.
Things got rough again at the end of his junior year. An academic evaluation revealed Miller was a "square peg" in a "round hole," he said. "They said it would be best for me to drop out and take a trade because, they said, 'he's not smart enough to graduate' and not even smart enough to go to high school," Miller said.
He told his dad, however, he was going to stay in school.
"My mother said, 'I don't care what the district said' -- and people listened to her," Miller said, so he enrolled at the all-black Parker High School for the next year.
During summer school, he found a high school sweetheart, Brenda. The two went to the movies and dances, had an innocent relationship during his senior year and, by the time he graduated, were engaged.
After a few false starts away from home, in 1971 he convinced the Air Force to accept him in spite of the damage the bullet had done when he was a teen.
"I joined the Air Force because I got tired of Momma being on my case…," Miller said. Instead of his mother being upset, which is the reaction he sought, she laughed and told him, "That's great. It'll make a man out of you."
The tears came later, with healthy reminders for Miller to not forget his "training."
Miller recalled his grandfather's words: "'Boy, don't you forget where you're going; don't forget where you come from; and don't mess up the Miller name.'"
"Go to church," his momma said.
Miller, who earned the nickname "Ironhead" from his father, didn't obey.
Opting to learn food services in an on-the-job training slot in the Air Force rather than to handle guns, something he had issues with since the shooting, he landed an assignment in Loring, Maine, and prayed he would never have to join the war in Vietnam.
"I really got wild," he said.
Back in Birmingham, Brenda believed her fiance had forgotten about her, and when he finally came to visit for Christmas, she handed him back his ring. "I was so crushed. I was hurt," Miller said. But with a heavy dose of pride in the way, "I didn't say, 'Please take it back.'"
"Providentially, God had other things in my life for me to learn," Miller said.
At a Gospel service at the base, Miller renewed his commitment to the Lord and in 1973 married a woman he had met in Maine, Barbara, and had two children, Maxie III and Natasha. After eight years, he finally left food service to become an instructor in OJT for the remainder of his 20-year military career.
At MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Miller said the Lord "kicked up" his responsibilities a notch and he became involved in leading Bible studies for boys at correctional facilities, taking youth trips with St. John the Baptist Church in Tampa and singing in the choir.
"I was saying I have more flaws in my life," Miller said. "The Lord was saying I need to do more for Him."
He acknowledged a calling to ministry at his uncle Joseph Miller's church in Albany, N.Y., where he preached his first sermon and was licensed and then went on earn two bachelor's degrees, one from Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, and the other from Saint Leo's College in Tampa.
Meanwhile, Miller never stopped thinking of a childhood conversation he had with his dad "when segregation was so bad." Looking at a big sign for Howard College on a grassy knoll along Lakeshore Drive in Birmingham, Miller made a comment about the facility and told his dad, "I want to go there when I grow up." About the Baptist-affiliated school, eventually renamed Samford University, Miller's dad replied, "Yes, son, it is pretty, but you won't be able to go there because blacks are not allowed to attend there."
In 1991, when Miller finally returned to Birmingham after a 20-year military career, he barely noticed the cultural changes -- instead he was focused on taking care of his wife, who had undergone surgery to remove a brain tumor in the late '80s but had continued to suffer seizures.
With Natasha in the 11th grade and Maxie III in the eighth grade, Miller wasn't ready for retirement. One day after "almost" getting a job similar to his military occupation, his pastor, John T. Porter, at Sixth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, told him he had been considered as the assistant pastor. While Miller's hopes rose, Porter dashed them by telling him he couldn't have the job because he didn't want to "pigeonhole" him.
"I just wanted to be a good husband and take care of my wife and family, that's all I wanted to do," Miller said, tears welling in his eyes. "I walked to my car and cried, 'Why can't I get a break? Somebody just give me a break. Can't I get a break?' The Lord says, 'Go back in his office and say, 'Thank you for looking out for me.'"
Still on the hunt for a job, but with a deep desire to continue growing in ministry -- something his wife encouraged -- Miller finally enrolled at the divinity school of the college that once would have been off-limits. And while he was at Samford's Beeson Divinity School, "Anytime I needed finances, Pastor Porter was there; anytime I needed anything for school, Pastor Porter was there."
Returning home one afternoon after helping Porter conduct a funeral, Miller said he discovered his daughter washing dishes and his wife had died in her sleep. "It was a hot summer day," Miller recalled, retelling a heartbreaking story of his daughter finding her mother's lifeless body
Barbara had told him the last church that interviewed him was the one he would get. He told her he wasn't interested in pastoring after a previous interview soured when he learned they thought he and his wife were "too close" during the interview process.
"My first ministry begins with my wife," Miller said. "I cannot be the first minister that God wants me to be anywhere if I am not the first minister at home. I accept the challenges that God sends my way in that same light.
"God gave me this person and this family, and how I deal with them and love them and serve them and be with them reflects also on how I am supposed to be in the church," Miller said. "I can't be what I am out there until what I am first in my home. I don't apologize for that."
A week after Barbara was buried, Friendship Baptist Church in Birmingham called. Barbara had predicted correctly as they had circled the block around the church and prayed together only weeks before. This would be Miller's church for the next four years until he received his master of divinity degree from Beeson and began to pastor Mount Olive Baptist Church in Plant City, Fla.
UNEXPECTED NEW BEGINNINGS
The whole community turned out for Barbara's funeral, Miller said, including Brenda. A schoolteacher and longtime family friend, she had also been there to greet Barbara the first time Miller preached.
"What happened was we got married a year after Barbara died," Miller said. "I look back over my life, I think I've done a few good things and I've made a lot of blunders, but God had blessed me to marry the only two people I've every really loved."
Miller and Brenda made a new start in Plant City in 1996 where he learned more about Southern Baptists, eventually bringing Mount Olive, a National Baptist church, into dual alignment with Southern Baptists. He became a Sunday School growth consultant for the Florida Baptist Convention in 1997 and was named director of church planting for the convention's African American ministries division in 2002. He became the division's interim director after the 2006 retirement of the late Sid Smith.
Miller was named the division's director in 2007, with responsibilities for planning, conducting and evaluating ministries to African Americans and serving as a liaison to other Baptist African American denominations. Last year, he became the strategist for the convention's African American church planting team in addition to receiving a doctor of ministry degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary last year.
"When I got called to preach I would do everything to learn about God," Miller said, adding, "I do what I can to help people learn. I give away books and Bibles today. I believe you ought to pour in people's lives."
Miller credits his parents and his granddad, Pastor Porter and Florida Baptist Convention leaders, including Executive Director-Treasurer John Sullivan, as having made a "great investment" in his life.
"I believe the reason why we get where we are going is we remember where we come from," Miller said. "We know the people who have helped us get where we are. So I never want to let those people down."
For a man who wasn't supposed to finish high school, Miller said he is humbled by what God has allowed. "I was one of the few blacks that graduated from the seminary; I somehow made it through a doctorate at New Orleans," he said. "When I look back on my walk with the Lord, God is still pruning me, encouraging me.
"My blessings naturally came from God, and what I am came from God," Miller said. "I know the One who is perfect," he said of Jesus, "and He has impacted my life greatly."
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.gofbw.com.