We all know how much white conservatives opposed school busing. The most famous case was in Boston, when Louise Day Hicks became famous saving south Boston from the horrors of white kids going to school with black kids. So it was a strong principle for them, right? Busing is bad.
Well, L.D. Burnett shows us the answer is, predictably, no. The right was all about busing when it meant getting white people out of black neighborhoods to white religious institutions. Despite Jerry Falwell rising to prominence on opposing busing, he was all over it when it benefited himself.
A key leader in the 1970s church growth movement was Elmer Towns, a member of Falwell’s church and a co-founder of Liberty University. In 1973, Towns co-authored a book with Falwell describing the ministries of Thomas Road as models that other churches could follow to see similar growth. “The Sunday-school bus ministry has the greatest potential for evangelism in today’s church,” Towns wrote in Capturing a Town for Christ (Fleming H. Revell Co., 1973). “More souls are won to Jesus Christ and identified with local churches through Sunday-school busing than any other medium of evangelism” (34). This is a broad statement about the evangelistic potential of bus ministries in general. Towns follows up this general endorsement of church bus programs with an explanation of what makes the bus ministry at Falwell’s church stand out:
Many bus workers only work in the housing projects, ghetto areas, and among the poor in the slums. All people within a community must be reached, the poor as well as the affluent. Thomas Road Baptist Church has sixteen buses that operate in middle-class neighborhoods of twenty-five-thousand-dollar homes and above. One bus brings in thirty-five riders from the status Boonsboro district, while the next bus that unloads on Sunday morning is from the Greenfield Housing Project, and the bare feet and dirty clothes indicate a poverty level.
Lynchburg has only fifty-four thousand people and some feel the Sunday-school bus ministry has reached its saturation point. Now twenty-one buses leave the city limits and bring children in from rural areas and distant towns such as Bedford, Alta Vista, Appomattox, Amherst, and Thaxton. One reaches fifty miles to Roanoke (35).
There’s a lot going on in these two paragraphs, and a lot going on around them. Housing projects, ghettos, and slums – in 1973 (and today as well, I guess) these words could be used to introduce race into a discourse without ever naming the issue. So I think Towns isn’t just talking about “the poor as well as the affluent” here – he’s also talking about black urban poverty and contrasting it with white suburban affluence. The assertion that “all people within a community must be reached” is not offered here as an argument that more churches should use busing to bring the black urban poor into their midst, but rather as a justification for churches to consider providing free bus service to white affluent suburbanites who might wish to become members. Busing can bring people of “status” into the church. And busing over long distances – well, that’s not a problem. What’s wrong with busing new members into a church located fifty miles away from where they live, if that’s where they want to be on a Sunday morning?
People picked up on the irony at the time, but Falwell certainly didn’t care about that.
Hope waking up to Falwell didn’t make anyone expurgate their breakfast.