BY JIMMY CARTER
In 1976, I was invited to speak to the 17,000 delegates assembled for the Southern Baptist Convention. Later that year I would be elected U.S. president, but I was asked to speak because I was an active member of the Brotherhood Commission, not because of my political status. Three of us were asked to represent Baptist men, and we were requested to limit our speeches to five minutes each.
I was very concerned when I looked at the program, because the first speaker was the eloquent and charismatic Billy Graham, and I had to follow him. And then I was somewhat relieved, because the person speaking after me was a truck driver. I was told that he was literate, but not well educated, and I thought to myself, “Well, I suppose that at least I’ll sound good compared to him.”
As we sat on the stage waiting to be introduced, the truck driver told me he had never made a speech in his life. “I don’t think I can live through it,” he said. “I just can’t do it.” He was drenched with sweat, and I was barely able to prevent his fleeing. Billy Graham gave one of his usual forceful and inspiring talks, and I did the best I could with my own remarks.
Then the truck driver got up, and for a long time he just stood there. Someone took him a glass of water, and he almost mumbled into the microphone. “I was always drunk, and didn’t have any friends. The only people I knew were men like me who hung around the bars in the town where I lived.” Then someone—he didn’t remember who—told him about Christ, and he wanted to tell other people. He studied the Bible. And talked to some men in the local church where he became a member. The only places he felt at ease were barrooms, and he began to talk to customers there. The bartender told him he was ruining his business and should find some other place to make a nuisance of himself.
But he persisted, and eventually the folks in the bar looked forward to asking him questions. He said, “At first they treated me like a joke, but I kept up with the questions and when I couldn’t answer one, I went and got the answer and came back with it. Fourteen of my friends became Christians.” He stood there a few seconds, and then returned to his
The truck driver’s speech, of course, was the highlight of the convention. I don’t believe anyone who was there will ever forget that five-minute fumbling statement, or remember what I or even Billy Graham had to say.
One of the greatest fears is of being embarrassed—of being publicly scorned or rejected, or of getting ourselves out on a limb and having it chopped off. But who builds and maintains the barriers? We do.
We have the same mandate about witnessing to others that Jesus gave his disciples…. But some of us will live out the rest of our lives—ten, twenty, thirty years—and never attempt to break through the obstacles that separate us from those who may be eager to have a new friend, or to learn about Jesus Christ, our Savior.
The truth is that we are too comfortable with our prejudices. They become so deeply ingrained that we’re scarcely aware of them. We can go on happily for a lifetime, barely aware of the thoughts, needs, and talents of others who look, sound, and behave differently from us. But that’s not the way of life Jesus intends for us. By his own example,
Jesus shows us how to overcome the barriers that separate us from other people, and the amazing ways our lives can be enriched when we dare to take the first step toward an “unattractive” person.