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At each stop he makes, he builds racial bridges

COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP)–Halfway between midnight and dawn, Conley Bush got the call. Halfway.
Appropriate for a young man splitting Sundays between his African American home church and a white congregation.
“I’d had a great day of worship,” Bush said of that January 1993 early morning. For months he had made the one-hour commute between two Alabama churches, Rock Springs Presbyterian in Moulton and Woodmont Baptist in Florence. That night, as he lay on the couch “full of the spirit” and watching television, God called him to preach.
“It was like an audible voice, telling me, ‘I want you to be a minister,'” he said. Smiling and crying, he ran to his parents’ room, woke them and told them what had happened.
Despite the abrupt 2 a.m. announcement, Henry and Olivia Bush weren’t surprised. “I have three older sisters, and my mom promised the Lord that if she had a boy she would dedicate him to God’s work. She’d never told me, but she had been praying that way all my life.”
Her faith had been rewarded — but she never could have anticipated the route her answered prayer would take. Conley’s ministry wouldn’t be in African American Baptist or Presbyterian churches in Alabama like his preacher ancestors.
Instead, a white Southern Baptist student minister at the University of Northern Alabama would ignite his love for personal witnessing.
Woodmont Baptist would affirm and nurture him and ask him to preach in its pulpit. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in far-off Fort Worth, Texas, would train him.
And his first church staff position would be as an associate pastor with Northside Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C.
Early on, folks wondered if Conley would even go to church when he had the option.
“When he was little, every Sunday he would claim he couldn’t find his shoes so he couldn’t go to church,” Henry Bush said. “Most Sundays, ‘we’d have a round’ during preaching over Conley’s misbehavior.”
At age 12, the son of the church Sunday school superintendent, treasurer and deacon, and the church clerk and pianist made a public profession of faith.
He didn’t fight church-going anymore — but it didn’t make a lot of difference in his life either.
His focus was on basketball and his future in the National Basketball Association. “The only reason I went to junior college was to get the attention of the NBA,” Conley admitted. “I was not a very good student.”
Bill Moss, the coach at Northwest Junior College, took “even more interest in me as a student than as a basketball player” and hammered on Conley that very few players make the NBA and that he had better get serious about his studies.
To Conley’s surprise, he earned an associate of science degree. “I never expected to get that far. I was ready to take that degree and leave school. I knew I never could pass in senior college.”
But Moss would not let him quit. He called the coach at the University of Northern Alabama. There were no basketball scholarships available, but Conley could have a trainer’s scholarship if he wanted.
That got him to a university where he pledged a fraternity and managed to have a great time. UNA won the NCAA Division II national championship in 1992, and the Baptist Student Union hosted the team for a celebration party. BSU director Eddie Garner was not having much luck talking to the players who “were pretty arrogant because of winning the championship,” Conley said. “I didn’t want him to think everyone on the team was like that, so I went up and introduced myself. Before I knew it, he was asking where I was going to church (‘not anywhere, actually’) and the extent of my Christian commitment.”
Conley began attending Bible studies and BSU meetings, for a while living in two worlds — the BSU and the fraternity. But slowly BSU took up more and more of his time and interest. A growing desire to share his rekindled faith attracted Conley to BSU summer missions — but that program is for Southern Baptist students.
Soon, Conley became Woodmont Baptist Church’s only black member (later he would be the first African American licensed by the congregation and one of the first blacks to preach in the church). He spent the summer of 1992 as a BSU missionary in California and went to Washington in 1993.
In the nation’s capital, he had his first experience with street evangelism.
“The first guy I talked to was drunk, and he started cursing Jesus,” Conley remembered. “I wanted to hit him. I was yelling, ‘You can’t go talking about my Jesus like that!’ Fortunately, my partner kept me cool.” Conley overcame that rough start and kept sharing his faith. Now, witnessing is “my favorite thing.”
He completed his bachelor’s degree in social work in May 1992 and began working with sexually abused children at Three Springs Counseling Center in Courtland, Ala. Eight months later came his call to ministry and shortly thereafter Garner suggested he pray about enrolling at Southwestern.
“I didn’t know what seminary was, but Eddy asked me to go with the BSU group to a missions conference at Southwestern in March 1993,” Conley said. “As soon as I stepped on campus, I knew this was where God wanted me.”
The two of them were convinced, but his family wasn’t too sure. They had struggled to accept his membership in a white church and now “the baby” was going all the way to Texas.
“My dad worked second shift, 3:30 p.m. to midnight at the Delco-General Motors plant, so it was my mom and sisters who first visited Woodmont with me,” Conley said.
Henry admitted, “At first I tried not to accept it, but I decided to leave it in the Lord’s hands. My first visit I took off work to hear Conley preach there.”
Conley interrupted to recount, “Everybody just welcomed him and hugged him and told him how much they loved me. Afterwards he told me, ‘I think you better stick with these people if they think so much of you. They are good folks.'”
At Southwestern, Conley said he never encountered racially based problems.
“I lived in the dorm all four years and really got to know a lot of guys,” he said. “I have had quite a few guys come to me and thank me for breaking down their prejudice. Most of them had not been raised in contact with African Americans. All they knew was what other white people said.”
He did catch criticism from some blacks. “At places like the barber shop, when they found out I was at Southwestern they’d first ask why I needed to go to seminary to be a preacher, then they’d try to shame me for going to a white school. But my mom and dad raised me not to see color.”
The confidence he felt his first visit to campus remained through his May 1997 graduation. “God met my every need,” he said.
The biggest need was partially answered by Christians reaching across racial boundaries. Two weeks before 1996 Christmas break, Conley noticed a new “home cooking” restaurant, Julie’s Fresh Kitchen, and stopped by for lunch. He asked owner Jody Helton about the Promise Keeper’s shirt Helton was wearing.
He returned the next day and the day after. Finally, “because he was hanging around so much,” Helton offered him a job. He worked a few days then headed to Alabama for the holidays.
Christmas Day, his mother became ill suddenly and was hospitalized. Dec. 26 she suffered a stroke and died.
Distraught, Conley called his new friends and employers to ask for prayers.
The Heltons decided to do more than pray. They drove the 12 hours to Alabama for the funeral.
“That act of love changed my whole family’s life,” Conley said. “I have some relatives who are racists too. They couldn’t believe they (the Heltons) had made the long trip during the holidays for the funeral of a woman they never met.”
When classes resumed, Conley spent “five to seven” days a week with the Heltons, rapidly becoming a favorite of their three children. He was popular as a waiter too. “He obviously loves people,” Helton said. “But he shows love to even customers other folks ignore — the ones who sit in the smoking section, wearing shabby clothes. He takes care of them and talks to them like they are the most important people in the world — and they are to him.”
Since Conley graduated and moved to South Carolina to begin his ministry, “more customers have asked about him than any worker we’ve ever had,” Helton said.
Commencement was a major family event. His father, three sisters, two brothers-in-law, seven nieces and nephews, three cousins, one aunt, one family friend and his maternal grandmother rented two vans and a trailer and drove to Fort Worth. The after-graduation meal was at Julie’s Fresh Kitchen.
Henry Bush beamed throughout the entire event. But some of the smiles were melancholy.
“All his mom talked about the whole time Conley was in seminary was about him graduating,” he said quietly. “She was counting the days until he graduated and would call up her friends and ask, ‘Do you know how long until Conley finishes seminary?’
“As I sat there and watched him get his diploma, I really missed her and wished she was there. But I believe she celebrated in heaven.”

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  • Craig Bird