06/23/2014 10:04 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

A Letter That Shook Me and Changed My Life

I got involved in civil rights gradually. At the outset I simply cared deeply but didn't know very much about it. It became clear that it was one thing to be legitimately in favor of racial justice, yet quite another to take a controversial public stand on the issue. Race was dynamite as a major issue in America. In 1961 it was sharply dividing U.S. families, places of worship, universities, you name it. Virtually everybody had an opinion. I realized that I was acutely interested. I was touched by influential writings of the time, voices speaking from books and the theater and in film. But I kept my distance intellectually and emotionally.

Yet one day I was reading James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son," "Nobody Knows My Name") on a San Francisco bus and, to my genuine surprise, was crying. I was deeply touched beyond my own defenses. This mattered to me in ways I could not easily understand. The point is, I could not easily remain distant from racism. Yet organized religion of the time was largely a victim of its own implausible racism.

Organized religion -- "the church" -- was unmistakably an integral part of institutional America. At this time my position in it was as an Episcopal chaplain at a university in Colorado. I was sharply influenced by the worker priests in France, industrial mission in Britain, and such books as "The Diary of a Country Priest." I was idealistic. The church was not "a job" for me; it was a vocation, a calling by God.

So, should I speak out?

Actually I was scared about drawing undue attention to myself. It seemed sinful in many ways. "Father, you gave a great sermon." I had my doubts about that. Wasn't a preoccupation with such a question sinful in itself? I believed "priestly servanthood" was linked to vocation. Yet a priest was a public figure, especially when such a person, playing a role of social and cultural involvement, took a public stand. So I had decidedly mixed feelings about drawing attention to myself.

Linked to this, moreover, was that I was, overwhelmingly, an introvert. This was personal stuff, but that's precisely why it was significant. For example, how could I possibly metamorphose into some kind of media personality that would retain even the slightest element of truth? Shouldn't my goal of priestly servanthood include not drawing attention to myself (as I would be doing in any public role), a contradictory kind of public witness?

To complicate the issue, we were moving into an entirely new era of clerical stardom in the media. Billy Graham was a superstar. So was Norman Vincent Peale. So was Bishop Sheen. Even the Oscars came aboard when Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman received Academy Awards for playing clerical roles.

Everything changed for me when I was invited by Louisiana State University to be a speaker for its Religious Emphasis Week. Soon I was invited for a sequel appearance there. Then, suddenly, I was cancelled, period. I was too frank, too outspoken. The issue was race, as the New York Times pointed out in an article. The Times quoted me: "When one becomes involved in such a situation, one must make a choice either to condone evil or to stand up and fight for truth."

I was caught in my own public situation. I was ready to respond when, in 1961, a letter arrived on my doorstep. It invited me to join a Freedom Ride that would shortly originate in New Orleans and proceed to Detroit. A group of Episcopal priests, black and white, from various parts of the U.S. would participate. Would I like to join them?

I sat all night in a dark room. I prayed. I wrestled with God. And at last I said "yes."

Our Freedom Ride attracted international attention. Many of our lives were irrevocably changed, mine included. This began a lifetime of involvement and active participation in civil rights.