|A Brief Review of
No Turning Back:
Reviewed by Josh Hale.
My copy of No Turning Back was given to me by my father for my birthday before I was ordained a United Methodist elder. I devoured it that spring and summer, often rereading particular passages or anecdotes that Gurdon Brewster shared of the summer during his seminary experience which he spent interning for (and living with) Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. As a young pastor, I identified with much of Brewster’s awkwardness as he began ministering in a radically different context than his own white, Eastern seaboard, Episcopal upbringing, and the halting starts of becoming a pastoral caregiver, or a preacher, or (most often) a community member. And my own origins in the suburban South might as well have been the North as far as my racial awareness was concerned; that, too, began changing in my undergraduate and theological education.
As a pastoral memoir, No Turning Back has become one of my favorites. Brewster is an engaging memoirist, and his often self-effacing stories are intertwined with razor-sharp snapshots of the lives of the people of Ebenezer. The tension is both heightened and relieved by delightful side trips into the new hymnody he was becoming acquainted with, preaching advice from “Daddy” King (“Make it plain, Brewster,” was his constant reminder), fishing as pastoral care, and his occasional meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He even shares a few recipes that marinate in the narrative of the ordinary communions shared in homes and at celebrations. But these episodes and conversations never relax the tempo of 1961’s martial drumbeat towards confrontation. The stories from the youth group are the most compelling, whether it is Brewster’s attempts to build bridges with so-called white moderate churches, clergy, and youth, or the passion and determination of Ebenezer’s youth (and their counterparts in many other churches) to bring about freedom and justice based in the Kingdom of God. As Dr. King, Sr. reminds Ebenezer, “The hope of the world lies in the minority that will do what is right rather than what is expected” (213).
So if this is a pastoral memoir, it also is a seditious invitation to those of us who minister among the privileged (and have privilege ourselves). No Turning Back is as much plea and prophetic text as it is past promises reexamined. The invitation to enter into The Story of Civil Rights, so well-known as to practically become legend, through Gurdon Brewster’s intimate experiences is a cleverly primed trap. I began to see myself not just in Brewster, but also in the well-costumed white clergy of Atlanta or in the blissfully ignorant rich white families described by their black maids and nannies.
Brewster went on to be ordained an Episcopal priest, and seriously weighed an offer from both the Kings to join the staff at Ebenezer. Instead, Brewster spent his ministry working with young adults as the chaplain at Cornell University for 35 years. If we’ve had the opportunity to read a fraction of the stories which his college students and faculty colleagues heard, then we too have been given not just entertainment and encouragement, but a lifelong challenge to follow Jesus out of sin and injustice: no turning back, no turning back.