A Long Journey: Slave or Servant
My father, Meyer Levin, was born at the turn of the century in a small Russian village. Not long after, to avoid the pogroms, my grandparents took little Meyer and his brothers and made their way across Europe and eventually to Philadelphia. Meyer married his high school sweetheart, Minerva, and spent the following years working and parenting and surviving the Great Depression. In 1940 a job opening brought Dad and us to Williamston, a sleepy little town on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in eastern North Carolina. Overnight we segued from a brick row house within walking distance of a kosher deli to a 1,000-square foot clapboard dwelling on a dirt road, featuring two wood stoves and a resident mouse. We had an accent people laughed at, a name no one got right and a religion everyone got wrong.
Growing up Jewish in Williamston was a trial by taunts. My older brother and I ran a daily gauntlet in the schoolyard, taking our requisite lumps in a tribal ritual that only children understand. At home, mother fought to keep tradition alive by lighting Shabbas candles. Twice a year in late September, we’d pile in the car and drive 50 miles to Rocky Mount where we would celebrate Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in a hot stuffy room on the top floor of a Masonic temple. The services were conducted almost entirely in Hebrew. The reading of the Torah approached the speed of light, and I always came away confused. I yearned for a God whom I could get close to, put my arms around and cry with in the deep-sea darkness of my childhood. Instead, I kept getting a being of fierce and frightening mien who was a stickler for details and largely unapproachable. God Will Punish You was written large in our daily lives. By contrast, we saw Jesus Saves on peeling billboards, its message a mystery to us and the butt of frequent bad jokes.
With the passing of time, the town came to accept and respect my mother and father: Mom for her industry, energy and organizational skills, and my father because he was eminently likable, if not lovable. To paraphrase Sara Lee, Nobody didn’t like Meyer Levin.”
After high school came college at UNC, then ten years of knocking about in a pinball machine of my own making: as grad student, nightclub entertainer, peach grower, and finally a married man and father of a beautiful daughter who made it into the world solely through God’s grace, though I would have scoffed at the notion. Those days I knew as much about God as a hog does about Sunday. And Jesus? Strictly persona non grata in my hologram.
In the late ’60’s I birthed an ad agency in Greenville, South Carolina, and buried a marriage. Cause of death? Terminal entropy. Through the actions of a longtime friend—angel, to be exact—I wound up in California where my daughter Gretchen came to join me. There miracles befell me—micro-variants of loaves and fishes. Each time I prayed—always at the pleading of my Christian friends—actions and events took place that profoundly blessed me and astounded all who observed. Did God get my attention through these? Hardly. It was “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”
After three years, I realized that rearing a teenage daughter in the neon thicket of southern California was the toughest gig in town. At that moment a phone call came from the friend who had brought me west. A new job offer returned us to Greenville, where I hung out my shingle as a “marketeer,” a new hybrid of business strategist. A seminar called “Boot Camp for Marketeers” became a hit with Fortune 500 companies. But with fame and money came a collapse.
One August night in the summer of 1992 I found myself on the outskirts of hell facing the searing truth of my spiritual bankruptcy. There loomed a larger question: Why continue the farce? A Colt .45 lay conveniently at hand. I managed to grab the phone and connect with Reuben Marlowe, a United Methodist minister and my daughter’s father-in-law. I said, “Reuben, I’m walking on the edge of the world.” Hearing my pain, he gently urged me to open my Bible and read Romans 7 and 8. I found the passage, and as I began to read, the words of someone named Paul struck sparks on a soul made of flint.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
Clearly, this man had occupied the same cell I did. I was a prisoner of promises made to myself that I could not keep. I knew what was right but kept doing wrong. I realized that another Jew had struggled with this, that I was no longer alone. I read further and learned that “the law” could not save me. Bottom line? I could be a slave to sin or a servant to Christ. I read the entire book through twice, fell asleep, then awoke and leaped out of bed.
I called Reuben and the words came rushing out: “I want to be baptized.” A week later it was done, yet even before that it was clear to me and others that my life had undergone a sea [of] change. The destructive behavior patterns and hollow values that had been my idols had been sloughed off with no conscious effort on my part. It was as though a sign had been hung on me: “Under New Management.”
With Father, Son and Holy Spirit in control, seminary at Candler came next. Now here am I, pastor of a congregation in a 150-year-old United Methodist country church in a crossroads community called Between, Georgia, where I chant the Shemah to faces radiant with awe and love. People here may fracture a subject and verb agreement, but they never break a handshake deal. From day one they have embraced me, much as the people of Martin County embraced my father a half century before. I hope that my family and others come to understand and accept my conversion not as a renunciation but rather as an affirmation of life and love. The bad news is that in America, in the world, a foul moat of anti-Semitism still separates Christians and Jews. This was never the intent nor creation of Jesus, but the work of hucksters whose twisted agendas called for putting their grisly spin on scripture.
I, Ron Levin, third son of a Russian immigrant Jew, take great joy in bringing the Good News. Yeshua died for all, not just some of us, and I am not making a pitch: I am passing on a promise.
¬ 1995 Christian Century Foundation. Reprinted by permission from the January 4-11, 1995 issue of The Christian Century.
Ron Levin is pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Monroe, Georgia, and the author of the recently published book, A Long Journey Home.