Cleaning Out the Closet: The Childers Chapel Story

From the Travis Park Church archives and church historian Bobbi Kroll:

November 8, 2023 is the 21st anniversary of a significant event in Travis Park Church history. What you read may surprise you—or not. Either way, it is a rich story from our archives that should be shared. 

While some may think we don’t need to look “backward,” it is clear, as philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” As we live forward, serving our community, may stories like this help us understand who we are and who we hope to be. 

Cleaning Out the Closet

TRAVIS PARK CHURCH HISTORY

In the 1920s, waves of cultural change alarmed and thrilled Americans as the nation catapulted into modern culture. Changes shocked conservative Americans who viewed them as an assault on traditional values. Conservative reaction revitalized the KKK empire which influenced all major Texan cities except San Antonio and Galveston. This movement was vigorously opposed by the Methodist bishops. Texas KKK headquarters moved from Dallas to San Antonio when Marvin A. Childers became the Grand Dragon (state leader) from 1924-25. He was a prominent lawyer in San Antonio and lay leader of Travis Park Church.

Changes accelerated after the next world war. Witnessing racial genocide in Europe, Black soldiers returned home determined to fight for equality. Desegregation in San Antonio began in 1954, the year the Supreme Court struck down school segregation. In this way, San Antonio was ahead of the state and nation. In July 1960, the Official Board of Travis Park Church publicly commended eating establishments for integrating peacefully and voluntarily. By November 1963, The Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church adopted a statement concerning equal rights: Pastors were to “receive all persons who are qualified and desire to be received without regard to race, color, or national origin, and we individually and collectively pledge them our support as they do so. The Methodist Church is an inclusive church.” Some at Travis Park Church, however, balked at the inclusive language. The bishops’ statement was followed, but the practice of directing African American attendees to sit in the balcony continued.

On Easter 1965, the worship service bulletin for Travis Park Church printed “Childers Chapel” for the first time. The chapel in the Youth Building was named in Mr. Childers’ honor. On June 2, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the monumental federal Voting Rights Act guaranteeing the right of all citizens to vote. On Christmas Day 1965, Marvin A. Childers, former Grand Dragon of Texas, died. Numerous Travis Park members grieved. They revered Mr. Childers. He was their Sunday School teacher, friend, and Methodist lay leader extraordinaire. To older members, Childers’ KKK connection was like a long-ago family secret. As Ms. Josephine Forman prepared to publish We Finish to Begin, her history of Travis Park Church, the pastor at the time told her not to mention Childers’ connection because “it was not central but distracting.”

“Where Do We Go From Here” Global General Conference (2000)

Corresponding with the official statement of equality in the UMC, several bishops started sermon series on race relations. Resulting conversations led national UMC leaders to address the issue. As various branches of Methodist churches began to merge, some demanded a stronger stand regarding inclusion and civil rights. Travis Park Church member Byrd Bonner was named to the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. He was asked to give a ten-minute Pan-Methodist Moment for the Global General Conference in Cleveland, OH in May 2000. The theme was a call to repentance. Mr. Bonner presented a moving sermon. Watch it here. 

Follow-up Sunday School lessons and Bible studies focused on the need for repentance and reconciliation. After one such Bible study, Travis Park member June Ferguson talked with a friend at St. Paul UMC–the first African American church in San Antonio, begun in 1866 when the Methodists created a segregated conference.  June expressed her desire to see unity and connection between the two churches. Her friend kindly suggested that “they [Travis Park Church] clean out their closets first.” Asked if that referred to Childers’ Chapel, the friend answered, “Yes.”

The Tuesday Women’s Group prepared a clear statement for the congregation opposing both racism and the honoring of Mr. Childers.

After much discussion and prayerful consideration, the Tuesday Women’s Group has decided to address the issue of Childers Chapel in an open letter. While it is not our desire to vilify Judge Childers, neither do we feel it is appropriate to honor an acknowledged Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan…. Travis Park UMC as a house of God and a place of worship has an opportunity to be part of the healing instead of the hurting….”

Byrd Bonner and June Ferguson wrote an article for the Travis Park Church newsletter that clarified Marvin A. Childers’ KKK leadership and asked if that was what the congregation wanted to have representing their work for God. Some members praised this opportunity to address the issue. Others sent hate mail. Angry protests were staged by those who revered Mr. Childers. Relationships were strained. Thankfully, courageous women and men continued to do what was right and long overdue.

Several Travis Park members were inspired by visits to San Francisco’s Glide Memorial UMC and its social justice warrior pastor, Cecil Williams. Travis Park church members had approved a policy to refuse naming church rooms for an individual. Under Connie Marshall’s leadership, the church council voted to remove Childers’ name. Phil Watkins decided to act. One Friday afternoon, he went into the youth building, told head custodian Leonard he could go home, and–with hammer and chisel–dislodged the Childers dedication plaque.

The husband-wife pastoral team of John Flowers and Karen Vannoy led Travis Park at that time. Both were passionate regarding social justice. John removed the Childers brass name plaque from the chapel door and took it to a metalworker to craft into a communion chalice. In 2002, St. Paul UMC was designated a historic site as the first African American congregation in San Antonio and planned to celebrate. They invited Travis Park to join in celebration. On November 8, 2002, members of both congregations sang and walked together from Travis Park to St. Paul. During the service, the Travis Park pastors presented the brass chalice to St. Paul Pastor Terrence Hayes as a symbol of repentance and desire for reconciliation.

A plaque was also presented to St. Paul Church as a memorial of that day. The plaque fittingly concluded with the prophet Micah’s timeless words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

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