God bless you.
Three months ago, when news of my newest health issues hit my former hometown of Kansas City, Kan., I got a lot of calls and get-well cards from former high school classmates, who have assured me ever since that they have been praying for God to heal me from my brain cancer, prostate cancer and end-stage congestive heart failure. Indeed, God is doing just that.
But the closest I've ever been to a reunion of my Sumner High School graduating class of 1961 came last Sunday when 30 of my former classmates came to hear me preach at the Strangers Rest Baptist Church in KCK, where my brother, the Rev. Jimmie Lee Banks, is pastor.
My good friend, Joann Ferguson Kendall, with the help of Annette Williams, was kind enough to call a couple of days in advance and inform fellow classmates that I would be preaching. I was extremely surprised, pleased and encouraged to see so many faces that I had not seen in 47 years and that gathering reminded me of how blessed I am.
Class reunions help many of us to count and relish our blessings as we see how we and our classmates have handled the many challenges of life since graduation. Especially hardships. Perhaps, you, too, have been equally touched by such reunions.
You've never met them. But nobody could have had better high school classmates than I had in the likes of Joann, Jimmie Lee (who was so smart he skipped a grade to be in the same class I was), his wife the former Alice Yates, Annette, Shelby Johnson, Lemuel Norman, Beverly Fouse, Henry Briscoe, Lurie Horton, Robert Scroggins, Carolyn Officer-Cook, Wiletta Easley, Herman Love, Jackie Brown, Margaret McGilbray, Sam Fennell, Annette St. Jean, Margaret McCluney and so many more. Former underclassmen present Sunday included Dr. Bertram Caruthers, an highly accomplished dematologist, my wife Joyce and Betty Maddox.
Many of our classmates, as old folks used to say, died before time. We lost some in the Vietnam War and some from the Vietnam War after they came home with drug addictions and assorted other afflictions that proved terminal. Others died young from cancer, heart attacks, auto accidents, violent crimes and other accidents. Most of my classmates, who got married, suffered at least two divorces and have been single ever since. Bad marriages can be hard, but good, teachers.
I especially hate to see so many of our fine black women unable to find good husbands, who are willing to love them, work hard, respect them, help raise their children and preserve their marriages. Too many are looking for wives to be their meal tickets, second mothers or punching bags. So I agree wholeheartedly with the exhortations of Presidential candidate Barack Obama. It's the same thing I preach about again and again as I look out from the pulpit and see that women make up 85 percent of the congregations I preach to. They are the backbone of our churches and families. And that's the raw, ugly, but honest ,truth.
"We were just glad to see you're still alive and doing well," Joann said. "Now we hope you'll fully
recover and be able to attend our 50th class reunion in 2011."
I assured her that if the Lord preserves me until then and they won't have to roll me in on a hospital
bed and in a critical illness, I promise to attend.
As a native of Lyon, Miss., who spent three years there attending an elementary school that had no
plumbing, no electricity, where one teacher taught five four grades in one room, where school was
scheduled not to conflict with the cotton-picking season and where our textbooks were the out-dated,
ragged publications that the white schools had thrown away, I saw first-hand the vicious lie in the
so-called "separate-but-equal" claim by southern white racists. School were racially separate but far,
far from being equal. And that was by design.
But when my mother, Mrs. Sarah Loraine Banks, died in 1954, and my father, the late Rev. A. D.
Banks got elected pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in KCK and moved us there in 1956, it was like
moving from a wilderness to a paradise in terms of improved opportunity and quality of life. I
was shocked to walk into Northeast Junior High School and find students taking for granted the
indoor plumbing, the electricity, the water fountains, the bathrooms with showers, the gym, the
cafeteria, the air conditioning, the beautiful classrooms and wonderful teachers.
Although I did not attend an integrated school until I enrolled at the University of Kansas, I was
blessed by the wealth of knowledge, experience and dedication of the all-black faculties at Northeast
and Sumner. I took advantage of every opportunity to excel and prevail at a student and as a boy
preacher in KCK. I started preaching at the age of nine. But as a 13-year-old preacher in KCK, I was
still a big attraction in the black churches there.
As a consistent honor society member, an athlete, singer, actor and leader, at Northeast and
Sumner, where I rose to student council president, I was considered one of the most likely to succeed.
My classmates looked up to me and have always admired me of my many accomplishments. I was the
president of all the YMCA's Hi-Y clubs in Wyandotte County and, as a senior, was elected the first
black boy governor of Kansas, when Kansas Hi-Ys took over the state house for an annual day of mock
At KU, I was president of the largest student organization on campus, the KU-Y, and I also
represented the national YMCA with a dozen other YMCA youth leaders from across America in the
1964 International Workshop Seminar that was held that summer in Omuta, Japan, Hong Kong, China,
and the Philippines capital of Manila. I also joined the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1963
civil rights march on Washington, D.C.
After college, I was the first black reporter for the Kansas City Star before I joined the Navy as an
officer after graduating from the U.S. Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I.
So all that history and more came to play in my former high school classmates coming to hear me
preach last Sunday. I'm sure that most, if not all, came praying and believing that that would not be the
last time they would see me alive. But just in case, they wanted to make sure because so many of our
other classmates died much earlier though they were much younger and in much better health. Death
plays no favorites. Death is an equal-opportunity destroyer.
The subject of my sermon was "You've Got Mail." taken from that AOL greeting we hear when we
log in to check our emails. The gist of my sermon was that Jesus was the best mail that man has ever
gotten from heaven. He is God's best love letter. I closed by identifying my ongoing healing as the
latest email that God is giving me and those who believe that He is still in the healing business. I got a
standing ovation and was greeted by heartening smiles and best wishes afterward.
God bless you.