Preaching the most powerful message

Norris Beckley, right, fist bumps the author, John Herndon, in front of the Cracker Barrel in Shelbyville, Ky. A star basketball player at Shelby County High and Morehead State, Beckley now serves as pastor of Centennial Baptist Church and preaches a message of loving others through Christ. (Photo by Stephanie Herndon)

Former Shelby County all-stater Norris Beckley seeks to see others as Christ sees us

By John Herndon,

My first memories of Norris Beckley date back to when he was tearing up the basketball court as a Shelby County Rocket, but these days, our conversations rarely turn back to that time over 40 years ago.

It’s not as if we’d have little to talk about. Long-time fans know that Norris Beckley is one of the all-time greats in a tradition-rich basketball program. His accolades include being named first team all-state and a member of the Kentucky All-Stars for the summer series against Indiana. His final game as a high school player ended with Shelby slipping past Covington Holmes in overtime to win the state championship.  

And there was the college career at Morehead State University, where Beckley scored over 1,100 points and pulled down over 500 rebounds despite being an undersized forward standing at 6-foot-2. 

“How are you doing?” he said with that familiar booming voice and broad smile as he met my wife, Stephanie, and me. It’s always been that way ever since Stephanie, an elementary school teacher, introduced her sportswriting husband to the local hoops legend who was working with special needs children in her school more than 10 years ago.

We’d often crossed paths at some high school gym, but this meeting was different. Like me, Norris Beckley is perplexed by the condition of the world we live in today. Like me, he believes the world is in a crisis. Like me, he believes the answer to the world’s confusion can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Unlike me, Norris Beckley’s skin is black. Like me, he serves as pastor of a small rural church.

And like me, Beckley believes the time is ripe for the God’s people to shine. 

He’s in his fifth year as pastor of Centennial Baptist Church in northern Shelby County. Once each year, his church meets with a neighboring church, Christiansburg Baptist, to worship and fellowship together. 

Norris Beckley (center) and members of Centennial Baptist Church share in a fellowship meal with members of Christiansburg Baptist Church in February. (Photo courtesy Harry Hebert, Christiansburg Baptist Church)

“Black and white come together. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we have a wonderful time in the Lord,” he said. “We are trying to expand. Instead of just once a year, maybe even having a summer revival. There is so much joy in worship and so much joy in ministry. The people just want to come together.”

Beckley also works with young people at Martha Layne Collins High School. In the past, he has also served as an assistant coach at Collins and Shelby County and was head coach at Cornerstone Christian Academy near Shelbyville.

As we talked, the storm clouds of current events hung over the conversation. Instead of people coming together, we were reminded of riots, yelling, screaming, finger-pointing and blaming. It’s a far cry from coming together, but an opportunity for the church to be the church.

“I think one of the biggest problems we have in ministry today is we want to put a timetable on things when we worship, but Jesus told us to go and make disciples,” Beckley said. “We should worship at any opportunity and take any opportunity to glorify God. In Shelbyville right now, we have had an outbreak of revival for the last 11 days.”

The meeting, at Shelbyville’s Mose Dale Park, has featured speakers from different churches in Shelby County speaking about reconciliation and healing through Jesus Christ in a world full of racial strife that has evolved into chaos.

“I was talking to some people who had been to the revival and they said 50 or 60 years ago, this could not have happened. It would not have been possible,” Beckley smiled. “In the midst of all this racial strife, racial injustice, God is using the church. God is using the church to bring his people together.”

Riots, looting and anger are not the answer. Beckley believes turning back to God is.

“In II Chronicles 7:14, it says, ‘If my people humble themselves and pray,’” Beckley quoted. “He didn’t say, ‘Humble yourselves and protest.’  He didn’t say, ‘Humble yourselves and hate one another.’ He said just come together and seek His face. He said he would forgive our sins and heal our land.”

Beckley fully believes that the answer to the strife gripping the world today is found in how God intended for man to be in fellowship with Him and with each other. “In the book of Genesis, it says God created us all,” Beckley says with a big smile. “It doesn’t say He created whites or He created blacks or He created Hispanics. It says He created us all in His image and His likeness. So when we begin to look at color or look at race, we are in violation of Scripture. 

“We know that God looks at the heart. That’s what God is concerned about, but America has a heart problem and that heart problem has become racism. I told my congregation Sunday that we need a spiritual heart transplant because we have gotten away from God.”

Norris Beckley lives what he believes. And he grew up in a world in which his opportunities might have been limited because of the color of his skin.

“We grew up poor but we didn’t know we were poor,” he says. “That’s how you could describe it. My mother and my father worked every day. They supported us. We struggled.”

But the basketball court afforded Beckley an opportunity. As a freshman at Shelbyville High School in 1975, he was a reserve on the Red Devil team that advanced to the state quarterfinals.

It was however, the final year for Shelbyville High as it merged with Shelby County the following year. Beckley remembers the struggles he faced in another time of racial tension. While both schools were already integrated, most African-American children had been attending Shelbyville while Shelby County’s reputation was mainly white and rural.

“At the first of the year, we — when I say we, I am talking about the African-Americans — we felt like we weren’t being accepted. We felt like we were outsiders. From an athletic standpoint, we knew we were superior, but just being people, we felt racism. Racial slurs were said against us.”

But Beckley also saw where sports can play a major role in racial harmony. After all, the only color that matters on the basketball court is the color of the jersey. 

Norris Beckley (left) talks with his longtime friend and high school teammate, former Kentucky Wildcat Charles Hurt at the 30th District Tournament in 2013. Beckley says that while some of his high school friends went in other directions he and Hurt “chose to follow Jesus.” Hurt died in 2016.

“It was through the lens of athletics that we were able to bridge that gap. We had a new coach (Tom Creamer). He didn’t know anybody and he came in fresh. He didn’t have any favorites from Shelby County or Shelbyville.”

Shelby County, which had won a state championship 10 years earlier and had been a statewide power in the 60s and early 70s, suddenly shot back to the top of the state’s elite. With many of Shelbyville’s top players from the year before now suiting up for Shelby County, the Rockets advanced to the state semifinals before being ousted in Edmonson County’s Cinderella run to the title. 

Shelby returned to the Sweet 16 in 1977 and, led by Beckley and future Kentucky Wildcat Charles Hurt, won the big prize a year later. Around Shelby County, they were simply Rockets. Athletics had brought acceptance and changes in attitudes.

“It’s something about a team,” Beckley says. “There’s an old statement, ‘There’s no I in team.’ If you put yourself ahead of the team, you will be weeded out. I have always lived by that principle and have always coached by that principle. There is something about the camaraderie among teammates that you don’t get in the classroom, that you don’t get in the community or in the neighborhood. 

“Sports teach us discipline and they teach teamwork.They teach us how to work together as a group…. The team has to come together and work together for the common goal.”

Which brings us full circle. Sports provide simple, yet profound lessons the world desperately needs today. 

During our conversation, I related that even though my parents instilled in me early that I should treat all people with respect, it was impossible for a white man who grew up on a farm to relate to some of the injustices inflicted on African-Americans even when I was a child. I can remember when schools were often segregated and remember the first African-American students at my rural elementary school.

“I agree with that and I will tell you why,” Beckley said of my self-assessment. “What we are seeing happen, is happening at a rapid pace. They had a rally over in Lawrenceburg. They had one here in Shelbyville. What was amazing about that was whites and blacks engaging the community leaders and share and come together. 

“What’s that old saying? Treat people the way you want to be treated. Living by The Golden Rule. 

Beckley believes that seeing things from another perspective comes only from showing the love of Christ.

“We can’t overlook that we are different colors. We can’t change that. If we worship together, you have to learn how to adapt. If you come to a black church, you have to adapt to the culture of the black church,” he smiles. In the black church, there is a lot of rhythm, a lot of hallelujah, a lot of praise, even though that might be uncomfortable to you. You might not get that in your church. You might not be able to dance or shout but to that moment, you adapt to the situation.

“If I come to your church, I may have to adapt my preaching style.”

But the message for true healing has to be the same. 

“I think the biggest thing we can do and this is what we have been preaching since day one. It is love. It has got to be about love. Scripture says in Matthew chapter 6, ‘Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ That means with everything. 

“The second thing is, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Who is my neighbor? You two are my neighbors. If we can put aside the race, put aside the bitterness and the past, so to speak, and begin to look at each other like Jesus looks at us in the eyes of love, I think that has got to be the answer.

“If this is going to be resolved, it is going to have to get resolved through Jesus.”

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