FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The bridges Willie Bolden is building are fashioned from his experience of living in two worlds, along with the memories — once bitter, but now softened by the love of Christ — of what it means to be mistreated because of black skin.
Today, Bolden studies alongside his white sisters and brothers at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, seeking a doctor of ministry degree as a ticket to building more bridges. He credits Christ with melting the racial hatred he once harbored.
After converting, “I no longer felt that white people were the enemy but the devil is. He is behind the evils of our culture, including prejudice. So it is him we must fight,” Bolden said.
The spiritual insight did not come overnight, but his rude introduction to racial abuse did.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Bolden moved with his family in 1960 from an all-black neighborhood to a previously all-white one. The 10-year-old Bolden got his first taste of racism walking to and from school, as white classmates taunted and beat him daily.
Later as a 16-year-old, administrators at Southeast High School, where just 25 of 1,000 students were black, expelled Bolden for fighting. He said he was defending an African American female student harassed by whites. Though it took a semester, his mother convinced the Kansas City school board to allow her son to enroll at Westport High.
The Vietnam War propelled Bolden far from Midwest racism, but his stint in the Air Force proved that prejudice can be found anywhere.
Stationed in Aviano, Italy, Bolden met other black soldiers. “That was a time of self-identity for African Americans,” he recounted. “We started referring to ourselves as ‘blacks’ and ‘Afro-Americans.’ When racist trouble began on base, we formed a black grievance committee and I was asked to be spokesman.”
Three days before an investigator appointed by the president arrived in Aviano, Bolden found himself assigned to temporary duty in Germany. On the plane, Bolden’s arms and legs were restrained. He was admitted to a large military hospital where, he later testified to the Veterans Administration, he was again restrained and given 27 pills per day, including depressants and “speed.”
In less than a month, Bolden was transferred to the military hospital at Shepherd Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, and diagnosed as a “latent schizophrenic with a passive/aggressive attitude and drug-induced psychosis,” he said.
“I had simply volunteered to be the grievance committee’s spokesman,” Bolden stated, “and now I was called a loony drug addict.”
He later learned the other grievance committee members had been demoted in rank and scattered from Alaska to Greenland to North Dakota.
Four months passed before Bolden was released to return to the military, on the condition he be stationed in close proximity to a relative. He joined his brother, Carl, a chief petty officer, in Southern California.
“By this time I wore the title, ‘Willie Bolden, black militant,'” he said, noting it was during the time when groups like the Black Panthers were in the headlines. “I continued being harassed,” he said. “I wanted out.”
His request for an honorable discharge was refused initially. Then, unexpectedly, he was told one morning he was to be honorably discharged. Out-processing, normally a two-to-five-day procedure, took three hours. Bolden was presented an agreement making him liable for fines of up to $5,000 and/or six months in prison should he step foot on any U.S. military installation. Hurt and upset, but determined to get out, Bolden signed.
During his hospitalization, his wife had not received his allotment check from the military. That fact, coupled with Bolden’s frustration at having seven months of his life “wasted” through hospitalization, compelled him to sue the federal government. He won a settlement on the grounds of a service-connected disability — mental illness. He was to receive payment for the rest of his life.
“The most I ever received was $44 a month, but I mainly pursued the matter out of principle,” Bolden said.
Settling in southern California, Bolden had his wounded pride nursed by Elijah Muhammad, a Nation of Islam leader who preached that all whites are devils.
“I heard that we had to work to get back to Africa, that we should kill the white man,” Bolden said. “With my experience, I agreed. I wanted to be more knowledgeable, so an old friend loaned me ‘Message for a Black Man’ by Muhammad.”
Bolden never “got around” to reading that book, but he did take notice of his wife’s Tuesday night Bible study.
“She had been asking her group to pray for me and my hatred for whites. Jim Holley, an insurance agent who was part of the group, came by — not to talk about life insurance but eternal life,” he said. Still, Bolden resisted a “white God.”
Yet one night after driving his wife to the study, he was persuaded to stay a few minutes. Though raised in church, Bolden viewed preachers like he viewed pimps who drove big cars and had lots of money and women.
“I determined before I went in that if this pastor asked for money, no way,” he said.
Instead, he heard Jim Franklin say, “I hitchhike 60 miles one way every Tuesday night to teach the Word of God. I don’t do it for any money.”
Convinced the man was genuine, Bolden stayed for the entire meeting, an expositional study unlike any he had heard. He began accompanying his wife every week.
A phone discussion with Holley confronted Bolden with his need for Christ.
While debating with Holley, Bolden remembered his mother saying, “anything that preaches hate could not be of God.” The Nation of Islam prospect prayed over the phone to receive Christ “at 9:20 p.m. on Sept. 10, 1973.” He continued going to Bible studies, which switched to Saturday nights, keeping him out of the night club and party scenes.
As he matured as a Christian, he became convicted about the court settlement, which paid him for being a “latent schizophrenic with a passive/aggressive attitude and drug-induced psychosis.” Realizing the detriment the label posed for future ministry or leadership positions, Bolden asked to be re-tested, willingly forfeiting the disability payments for the opportunity to prove he was not mentally ill.
After years without Christ, Bolden wanted confirmation of his eternal decision. He sensed a call to preach and enrolled in Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., where only 15 of the 2,500 students were African American. “I said to myself, ‘OK, we’re going to see if you’ve really been changed. Can you cope with a student body that is mostly white?'” His answer — relationships with college friends that have lasted now more than 20 years.
Today, Bolden blends the lessons God has taught him into a multi-colored ministry.
“I want to tear down walls that separate, and God is asking, ‘Who is better trained than you?’ I have lived in both cultures. That’s why I can sit in classes with 50 white guys and be the only black there. I can preach to an all-white congregation because I know what to say, how to carry myself; but I also know the jargon and style of my own people,” Bolden said. “A lot of guys can’t go in and out of these circles.”
Bolden has started three churches, none exclusively African American, calling himself a multiethnic church starter.
Bolden has been pastor of established African American churches such as the Community Bible Church in Dallas, mother church of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, started by Tony Evans.
In 1995, not long after his first wife died from cancer, Bolden started These Are They Community Church in DeSoto, Texas. Less than two years later there are 200 members. “God is saying ‘Amen!’ to the ministry there,” he said. He has remarried, and his wife is a key part of the church.
With a master’s degree in theological education from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, Calif., Bolden has taught at the Los Angeles Training School, founded by the late J. Vernon McGee to offer Christian education to the inner city’s poor. He also has taught theology and inner-city relations at Dallas Christian College in north Dallas.
“After finally convincing myself that I was doctoral material, I enrolled at Southwestern,” Bolden said. “Not enough African American pastors have earned doctorates, and without one you cannot gain a hearing in many Southern Baptist and African American circles. I don’t believe it’s an accident that I’m here at Southwestern. I’m not just here for an education, but for the betterment of the school and the body of Christ.”
Bolden, saying he wants to be a catalyst, noted, “In one of the world’s largest seminaries, there isn’t one African American professor or trustee and less than 4 percent of the student population is African American.
“I believe we should earn our chance and not be given favors. I don’t want to badmouth or tear down structure, but we as a seminary are out of step with the rest of the country. I’m not a Malcolm X nor do I want to be a Louis Farrakhan. I just see a problem and I ask, ‘What can we do together to make it better?'”