Any mother-daughter or mother-son relationship can be complicated, said Dr. Julia Robinson, opening speaker for the United by Faith, Divided by Race discussion series between members at First Presbyterian Church and First United Presbyterian Church.
“And the Mother Church of the black protestant church is the white church,” she said to the 70-plus members of both congregations who gathered for the first session. “Some people like to say it’s the sister church but, no, First Presbyterian is the white mother church.”
Dr. Robinson, a teaching elder of the Charlotte Presbytery and an associate professor of African American Religions and Religious Diaspora at UNCC, pointed out the theological contradictions that allowed founders and early leaders of FPC to own slaves at the same time they taught those slaves about Christianity. Although they understood the fundamental principle found in Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”), they also believed there was strong Biblical justification for slavery in Leviticus 24:44-46, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-21.
Most notably, Genesis 9:25 (“he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”), known as the “curse of Ham,” was used to justify the belief that descendants of Ham—including all Africans—had been consigned to perpetual slavery.
“Africans were believed to be ‘called’ to slavery,” Dr. Robinson said.
Dr. Robinson outlined her research into the early years of FPC and its contradictory treatment of the black people in its midst. Although it was against the law to teach slaves to read, FPC taught the ABCs along with Bible study, typically offered on Mondays. While many in those days considered Africans to be less than human, slaves and their children were nevertheless baptized, indicating a belief that they also possessed an immortal soul.
After slaves were freed, those who had been affiliated with FPC wanted to remain Presbyterian because of polity and structure. They also wanted the freedom to worship on Sunday, leading to the founding 150 years ago of what became, through a series of name changes and a merger with Brooklyn Presbyterian Church (founded in 1911), what we now know as First United Presbyterian Church.
“Racism has operated as a smoke screen to take the focus off Jesus,” Dr. Robinson said. “If we are to heal the rifts of the past we cannot do it with made-up minds or with programs like this. We have to do it with the focus on Jesus Christ to knit us back together.”
Being knit back together, she said, does not mean we must all be part of the same church. But we must recognize how our history has divided the body of Christ and have the intentional discussions that will allow Jesus to overcome our past and heal the disease of conscious and unconscious racism from our respective congregations.
“There will always be a remnant that wants the status quo,” Dr. Robinson concluded. “There will always be pockets of racism that both churches will still operate in. But there’s a remnant that wants to heal. And God loves working with remnants.”
Next Week: Reaching Across the Table
On Sunday, May 22, all are invited to join in a conversation at First United Presbyterian Church, 201 E 7th Street, from 12:15-1:30 p.m. Lunch is available for $5.00. Dr. Julia Robinson will conclude with a brief history of what happened to and between our two churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
To prepare for the conversation that will follow her talk, Dr. Robinson suggests reading 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Luke 12:12, Philippians 2:13 and 2 Corinthians 13:9. She also suggests reflecting on how the following words from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. apply to our churches today: “The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body.”