Bill Withers, Mine shafts, De facto Integration, and the Church


My son and I had just dressed our burgers from the charcoal grill and were sitting down to eat when my brother set the needle down on a vinyl.  A silky voice backed by a driving bass and keyboard stole my attention away from the patty.  “Who is this?” I asked.  “Bill Withers,” my brother replied.  How in the world had I missed Bill Withers?  This was the Bill Withers of “Just the Two of Us” and “Lean on Me” fame.  But I had never heard his other music.  That evening set me on course to investigate more of Mr. Withers . . . . which led me to a YouTube video interview . . . which led me to contemplate the Church.

Bill Withers grew up in a small coal mining town in West Virginia.  There were railroad tracks running to the mines and, as was often the case in the 1960’s, African Americans lived on one side, while whites lived on the other.  But coal mining did something for integration.  Mr. Withers quips that when you come up from the mine, everybody’s black.  There is more to that quip than just humor.  

The mines threw men into a very dangerous occupation.  “People have to have a certain trust in each other.  People become necessary to each other.”  Outside of the mine was similar.  “We had a telephone and our white neighbors had an icebox.  When we needed ice, they shared.  When they needed to make a phone call, we shared.  It was a de facto integration.”  

Likewise, Christianity is a dangerous calling.  While a Christian’s sins are not held against them because of the substitutionary work of Jesus on their behalf (2 Cor. 5:21), Christian’s are still called to live out an extraordinary lifestyle which mimics their Savior in a world not suited to living to God, but for self.  On the one hand, we are called to do such within a tight-knit community where personal sin is still very real and hurtful.  Like in a mine shaft, what one person does effects those around them, whether for good or for ill.  On the other hand, we live as a community in a world where we are foreigners.  We are to think and act very differently from the world around us not utilizing the same motives and tools for engagement.  

Bill Withers found that coal miners worked for the good of each other.  They had to or else they would die.  Christians ought to think the same way.  When we grasp the majesty of what we are called to be and to do in the world, and for Whom we are called to live, we should become crucial to each other.  What Christ has done and is doing ought to set aside any cultural, ethnic, economic, or gender differences so that we work in unity toward life for ourselves and for others.  Petty opinions and differences fade in the light of the kingdom of God coming in power to usher in a new heaven and a new earth.  

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Unknowingly, Withers sums up the Galatians call to integrate pretty solidly:

Lean on me when you’re not strong

And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on

For it won’t be long

‘Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on


Please, swallow your pride

If I have thing you need to borrow

For no one can fill those needs

That you won’t let show


You just call on me brother, when you need a hand

We all need somebody to lean on

I just might have a problem that you’ll understand

We all need somebody to lean on

We’re in this life together.  The common goal of the glory of Christ binds us and begs us to fight for one another (and against self-glory) so that our race is not run in vain.  This calls for hand-in-hand worship and discipleship that challenges one another to seek Christ and to live out of the trust that we profess.  It means being vulnerable about our struggles and willing to have others speak into our lives.  It means being compassionate and bold to speak into other’s lives.  It means working together toward an outward expression of our changed lives for the sake of our neighbor.  It means going into the collapsed shaft together to save those who are dying because they are still trapped and breathing in the dust of darkness of self-trust.  It means singing songs together while in the darkness to encourage one another.  And when we come up into the light of day from the mine, we’ll find that everybody who made it out is the same color, baptized into the uniting death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.