I’m going to brag a little. No, not about me or someone in my family, but about my old college roommate.
Wayne Bridegroom grew up on a dairy farm in the little town of Denair, in central California. When people think of California, they never think of Denair, or Turlock, or even Modesto. They think metropolitan San Francisco or Los Angeles — the mountains and the beaches. Denair is closer to Iowa than to anything that would resemble the California image. So when Wayne came to Wheaton College and ended up in a suite with suite mates from Los Angeles, New Jersey and Rochester, New York, it was an eye-opener for this back-country farm boy.
We were ruthless to poor Wayne. We treated him as if his idea of diversity was a brown cow instead of a black one, and it was our assignment to educate him about the real world. It also didn’t help that Wayne was a little hard-headed. Like all of us back then, Wayne had come from a very legalistic Christian (southern Baptist) background, and Wayne had totally bought into it and wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. We were trying to throw off all those non-biblical rules and regulations we grew up with, and for a while, Wayne thought we had jettisoned the faith, and he was going to hold down the fort and white-knuckle his way into heaven.
By the time we graduated, however, Wayne had loosened up considerably, and more importantly, he had learned about the grace of God and a deep relationship with the person of Jesus. It’s a good thing because Wayne was going to need a lot more patience, understanding and open-mindedness than any of us, and no one would have expected this, since he went right back to where he grew up and became the pastor of a church in Modesto.
But here’s what a lot of people don’t realize about this area of central California. It is an area that has had a highly-diverse multi-cultural influx of farmworkers and immigrants, and Wayne has been right in the middle of it. He recently wrote me that the last Modesto High School graduation he attended had kids who spoke 31 different languages in their homes. The church he pastored helped start Lao, Hmong, Cambodian and Hispanic congregations and has nurtured them for thirty years. “They are all now independent of us,” he wrote, “perhaps because we treated them as equals from the beginning.” This very day, as a matter of fact, Wayne is one of many speakers at the Modesto High School “Day of Respect” — a day to try and make up for how the southeast Asian refugees were treated with a pretty good degree of disgust when they first arrived in the area. Ask Wayne what he thinks about immigration.
Two years ago, Wayne received the MLK Legacy Award “for his 40 years of pastoring at a church on the west side of Modesto, fighting for the people and neighborhoods there on issues such as immigration reform, social justice, improved infrastructure and racial reconciliation. He also has been involved in improving relationships between churches and government, between the sheriff’s and police departments, and between pastors on the west and east sides of town.”
Quite simply, Wayne didn’t have to go to the world; the world came to him. Wayne writes, “If a little ol’ cow-milking farm boy like me can learn …” then what’s our excuse?
There is a mean-spirited, exclusionary spirit sweeping this nation, and shockingly, many so-called Christians are joining ranks. True followers of Christ should have no part in this. “In my view,” Wayne wrote me, “the entire evangelical church needs deep lessons in cultural competence.”
In my book, this “little ol’ cow-milking farm boy” from central California is world class.