Growing up in a Southern Baptist church, I heard about being “saved” and “born again” from the time I could walk into my own little Sunday School classroom. (In fact, many years ago when the phrase “born-again Christian” entered the American lexicon, I was bewildered, thought it was redundant; I didn’t know there was any other kind of Christian.) One of the ways in which we little Baptists were taught about salvation even before we could read, was the use of “The Wordless Bible.” This was a little square book, no more than three inches on a side, with, of course, no printed words. Each page was a different color, and the Sunday School teacher explained what the colors meant.
The three most important pages were black, red and white. Black was the color of sin, and the color of our hearts until we invited Jesus to live in them. Because Jesus could not live in a sinful, black heart, when He got the invitation, He would wash our hearts with His blood — the red page. After this, our hearts would be bright white, Jesus would live there, and we were saved.
While the wordless Bible was introduced before we were of reading age, it was brought out periodically throughout the primary grades. Its goal, or rather, our teachers’ goal, was to get us to invite Jesus into our hearts. I extended this invitation many times. (You were only supposed to do it once.)
In 1967, I was in Mrs. Clara Bell’s third grade classroom, with Jesus living right there in my white heart. We were learning about the amazing medical endeavor that was to take place that day, in Capetown, South Africa, at the hands of Dr. Christian Bernard — the world’s first human heart transplant. I don’t know whether the other third graders were impressed, or bored, or what, but I was terrified. No one was even mentioning the most important aspect of this event. What if the heart Dr. Bernard put in was not the same color as the one he took out?! Oh, if he took out a black heart and put in a white one, that would be OK — in fact, that would be a new way of saving people, of getting Jesus living inside them. But, if he took out the patient’s white heart with Jesus in it, and replaced it with a black heart filled with sin, that man might go through the rest of his life thinking he was saved, but then die and go to hell! The thought of this was unbearable to me. I had to tell Mrs. Bell — maybe she could call Dr. Bernard and ask him to make sure Jesus was invited into this new heart.
Something told me that no on else in my class shared my concern, so I was already self-conscious about approaching Mrs. Bell, and I was a shy child anyway. But this was important, it had to be done. I raised my hand to join in the heart transplant discussion.
“Do you know whether it’s a black heart or a white heart that the man is getting?” Silence and a stern look from Mrs. Bell. I tried again, “I’m worried they’ll put in a black heart,” I said quietly, eyes cast down.
“Susie, I am ashamed of you! Whether black or white, our hearts are all the same,” she said, holding out the red plastic heart model that I thought must have been like one of those “Slightly Irregular” items my Mom sometimes bought at Wilmington Dry Goods, because it wasn’t even shaped like a heart. Mrs. Bell’s voice sounded like it did when she talked to a white child about calling a black child “nigger.” It was 1967, and any mention of black and white necessarily involved race.
I knew I’d done something wrong, but it took me a few minutes to figure out what. I sat at my desk and cried quietly, while other children looked at me, and Mrs. Bell did nothing to comfort me. They didn’t understand about the wordless Bible, about Jesus washing black hearts, and all the rest. Someone might go to hell, and I, a seven-year-old, seemed to be the only one who knew enough to be concerned about this. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that had fallen upon my shoulders. And now Mrs. Bell thought I was one of those children who would say, “nigger,” even though I never had, and had been proud of that. (I didn’t know the race of either donor or recipient; it had never occurred to me to even wonder about that.)
I had tried. I sat there and silently prayed, asking Jesus to please come into that new heart, whatever color it was now, and whatever color the person was on the outside, too. I knew this wasn’t theologically sound — that each of us had to ask for ourselves — but I hoped that Jesus would make an exception. This was after all, a historic event, and I was having a very bad day.
In writing this, I wondered if the Worldess Bible is still used, and I found this site, among others, where the black page is now called the “dark page,” and the white page is now called the “clean page,” and I didn’t see any mention of hearts changing colors.