For some people Southern Presbyterianism and racial reconciliation is oxymoronic. But the elusive reality of diversity and unity in the church just took a significant step forward.
I recently participated on a panel about the topic “Christianity and Race” at the historic First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi. The church has over 2,500 members, is the largest Presbyterian congregations in the state, and one of the founding congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America denomination. It has also been the subject of much controversy in the past regarding the racist stances of some of its members.
The panel which was part of the church’s “Friday Forum” series included the prominent Senior Pastor, J. Ligon Duncan, III as well as Rev. Elbert McGowan, Jr. of Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at Jackson State University (the first such chapter on the campus of a historically Black college), Rev. Wiley Lowry, Minister of Pastoral Care at First Pres., and myself.
The panel was divided into three segments. In the first segment each of the panelists highlighted significant events from their past regarding race. In the second segment, Dr. Duncan and Rev. McGowan each respectively spoke about the history of First Presbyterian Church and the gospel imperatives surrounding race. The final segment was devoted to a question and answer period.
In the days following the panel many people asked me the same question, “How did it go?” In an attempt to encapsulate an enormous amount of information, here are three reflections I’ve had since the Friday Forum at First Pres. regarding Christianity and race.
1. Be Glad that It Happened
We can’t overlook the historical significance of this moment. The fact that the historic First Presbyterian Church hosted a discussion about race and the church can hardly be overstated. For many this single night of discussion didn’t go nearly far enough. And while it’s true this is only a start, it is indeed a start.
Conversations like the one that happened at this forum tend to spark curiosity. Curiosity leads to learning, and learning leads to action. Even though these few hours of conversation may have seemed like the heaping up of so many words, ideas have often sparked reform.
2. Young Adults Lead the Way
There’s a new generation of Southern Presbyterians and they’re demanding change. The Friday Forum was part of the young adult ministry at the church. Nearly 100 people, most of them in their 20s gathered to hear from men–White and Black, youthful and experienced–about the topic of race and the church.
This largely White group of men and women have grown up in a different age. They are the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Movement. They have gone to school with Blacks, they have worked with them, they have seen a Black U.S. President elected, and they are looking for more. They recognize that their churches don’t resemble their communities and they want a different reality.
Many movements are led by the youth and this one is no different. It will be gatherings of young adults like this one that provide the energy, innovation, and passion to push forward the conversation on racial diversity, inclusiveness, and equity in the church.
3. There’s an Older Generation that “Gets It”
The leaders at First Presbyterian Church didn’t delegate this difficult conversation about race. The Senior Pastor himself took on the topic in a public platform. He addressed the long and often painful history of his church regarding racial issues. Although he was not there for most of the particularly sad moments of the church’s past, he did not shy away from the mistakes of his predecessors. In fact, he owned them as part of his ecclesiological heritage.
The other leaders, too, recognize that now is the time for change. In countless and unheralded ways the ministers of this Presbyterian church have been sowing the seeds of racial solidarity. These seeds are scattered in coffee shop conversations, in Sunday School lessons, and distributed in the form of verbal and material support for other reconciliation work.
It’s All Because of the Gospel
It’s all because of the gospel. Gospel truth doesn’t leave any room for equivocation on matters of racial and ethnic inclusiveness in the church. Many ministers of Southern Presbyterianism have come a long way since R.L. Dabney and others who held similar theological positions dominated the discussion.
These servants of the Word see the multi-ethnic promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” They see the implications of 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.” They understand the necessity of John 17:21, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” And they see the consummation of unity in diversity displayed in Revelation 5:9, “you [Christ] ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
If you think it improbable that a denomination so steeped in historical racism could overcome its past, then I urge you to remember the gospel.
Remember Paul who looked on with pleasure as Stephen was stoned to death but who later went on to write half of the New Testament. Remember Tom Skinner the gang leader of the Harlem Lords who, while planning what would have been the biggest gang fight in New York City’s history, stood up the next day in front of his army of misfits and testified to his new life in Christ. If you are a believer, then remember your own story. How you were once shackled to sin and how Christ took a hammer to your chains by submitting to the hammer that nailed Him to the cross.
If our Lord is able to deliver these men and us from our past sins is He not also able to deliver a denomination, a church, its leaders, and its young people from the benighted behavior of their forebears? He is able. And He is willing. Are you?