Matthew 22:39


It was 1945 and two men were eating lunch in a small diner in Brooklyn, New York. One was Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers; the other was Red Barber, the radio voice of the team. Rickey knew that most people identified with the team through the voice of Barber as they listened on the radio. He felt that Red Barber was the most important PR tool of the Dodgers. He had something important to share with Barber over lunch.

He said, “I’m going to share something with you that even the Board of Directors don’t know about. My wife knows about it. My sons know about it and all my family is dead set against it but I’m going to do it. By now you’ve heard that the scouts are all out looking for black players so that we can enter a team in the Negro National League called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. But I’m telling you it’s all a sham. There will be no Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. I’m telling you today that a black player is coming to the Dodgers. I don’t know who he is, I don’t know when he’s coming, but he’s coming.”

That was all he said. He didn’t ask for any feedback. He didn’t ask his opinion or even if he had any questions. He simply laid it out on the table and Barber was in shock.

Red Barber had been raised and educated in the Deep South, in places like Mississippi and Florida. He couldn’t fathom the idea of a black player playing Major League baseball alongside white players. He went home that day and told his wife what had transpired. She asked what he was going to do. “I’m going to quit,” was his reply.

It’s hard for us to fathom this kind of response as we look back 60 years ago. It’s hard to imagine that a man was going to quit such a lucrative position simply because one player on the field would be of a different color. But Red Barber was a product of his time and truthfully, many would have thought the same thing. Fortunately, things changed before Barber carried through with his threat. God began to work on his heart. Being a disciple means one is always open to God’s leading, whenever and wherever that might take us.

Red was called upon to address several civic groups about rising racial tensions directed toward local Jews. He was, after all, a highly respected member of the community. As a Christian, he pointed out that the second greatest commandment says we are to “love our neighbor as ourselves.1 And as he spoke to various groups it began to dawn on him that somehow he had failed to apply that verse to his attitude toward those of another color. Somehow he had blinded himself toward his own prejudice.

God works like this. He can take His Word, just a single verse at times, to work on our heart. To be a disciple means to be a learner or follower of Jesus, and unless you’ve learned or mastered it all, Jesus may yet turn to you as you follow and plant that one verse within your heart that begins to change and shape your attitude toward others.

Jeremiah the prophet once said that the Word held within is like a fire. If you want yet another explanation for what was happening to Red Barber, turn to Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The Word of God within is living and active. It produces change and judges both thoughts and attitudes that we might align ourselves with God and change that attitudes we might harbor within that are counterproductive to His kingdom.

When Branch Rickey announced he had signed Jackie Robinson and that he would play for their Montreal farm club that season, Barber thought, “Well he said he was going to do it and he did.” When it was announced the next year that Robinson would join the Dodgers, Barber didn’t quit. Rickey had given him the time he needed and the Holy Spirit had worked on his heart.

Branch Rickey was a man who challenged not only the baseball community but society as well. He helped society move forward. He didn’t solve the problem. We still deal with it, but he did what he could and Branch Rickey understood this to be the call of Christ in his life. The call of Christ is always that we would do whatever we can to help alleviate the suffering of this world, that we would help confront the prejudices and evils of this world, that we would minister on behalf of the Savior.

Men who were some of the most prejudiced of that day were given the chance to change through the action of the Dodger’s General Manager. Another man of the Deep South, Harold Reese (better known as “Pee Wee” Reese) would later acknowledge how deeply the experience changed him. As shortstop and captain of the team, he once made a profound statement against racial prejudice without uttering a single word.

It was late in the season with the Dodgers playing at home and battling for the pennant. The Brooklyn crowd had already learned to appreciate the talents of Robinson and playing at home provided a safe haven against the hatred Robinson experienced all season as the team traveled. But on this day Robinson made an error at a critical point in the game. Suddenly, the home town fans turned against him and he heard all the same epitaphs he was so accustomed to hearing on the road. He stood out at his second base position demoralized. His head was down, his shoulders slumped as the boos and vicious catcalls were raining down on him. He would later admit this was the one time he almost quit that season.

From his shortstop position, Robinson called for time and walked over to where Robinson stood. He placed his arm around Robinson’s shoulders in an unspoken gesture of support until the booing subsided and stopped. It was something Reese probably would never have dreamed of doing before that season. God had changed him simply by allowing him to experience day-to-day interaction with a man of another color.

Discipleship is not just about me and my relationship to God. Discipleship is also about me and my relationship to my fellow man. As the Bible states, the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

In Luke 4, Jesus teaches in the synagogues of Galilee. He returns home to Nazareth where he reads from Isaiah the prophet 2 and defines his ministry as “preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and release for the oppressed.” In other words, his ministry includes working for justice, ministering to the sick, and working for the oppressed. There are times when we seek to interpret discipleship in terms of me but we also need to define it in terms of service in the Kingdom, working for justice, racial equality, standing up for those unable to stand up for themselves. In other words, we need to see discipleship in terms of we as much as we define it in terms of me.

There’s an old poem entitled “I am one.”

I am only one.
But I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But I can do something.
What I ought to do, I can do.
And by the grace of God, I will do.

That’s a great attitude for disciples. None of us can solve all the world’s problems but we can each do something. Disciples are those who recognize God’s call whenever and wherever they see injustice in the world around them.

Years before there was a Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers, the University of Michigan baseball team traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to play Notre Dame a series of games. They were checking into the hotel in the days before credit cards, computers, and faxes. The coach would introduce each player as he came to the desk and they would sign in. When his catcher approached and was introduced, the clerk drew back the book and said, “We don’t register Negroes in this hotel.”

The coach stood there stunned. He said, “Well now, this is the University of Michigan baseball team and we are here as guests of Notre Dame University.”

The clerk replied, “I don’t care if it’s the University of Michigan football and baseball teams, we do not register Negroes in this hotel.”

By now, all business in the lobby ceased and all those passing through waited to see what would transpire next. The coach asked if the young man could stay in his room, thus not having to officially register. The clerk thought for a moment and decided that would be all right.

When the coach got up to the room, he found this young man sitting on the bed and sobbing. He was pulling at the skin on his hands. Here was a young man who had been raised in the upper peninsula of Michigan and who had never experienced racial prejudice. He looked up at the coach and said, “It’s my skin coach, it’s my skin. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everybody else underneath.”

The coach vowed on that day that he would do something to address this injustice. Years later, as the General Manager of the Dodgers, he did just that.3 It was that one act of injustice that drove Branch Rickey to act.

Disciples are those who see the injustices of the world, are affected by them, and strive to do something about it. Disciples are those who recognize God’s call whenever and wherever they see injustice, suffering, or oppression in the world around them. Disciples are those who minister on behalf of God in a hurting, often hurtful, sometimes hate-filled world.


Daniel Nicksich is Senior Minister of First Christian Church in Somerset, PA.


1. Matthew 22:39
2. See Luke 4:14-21 including the quote from Isaiah 61:1, 2
3. Red Barber, Branch Rickey, & Jackie Robinson references are from the book, The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told. Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2001, pp. 127-137.

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