Last week, as a part of our strategic planning process, Kathryn Justis, Ward Davis and I met with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian’s Senior Pastor, Dr. Scott Black Johnston. Kathryn and Ward are co-chairs of the “Balcony Group” (the group of members who are guiding this process of taking a big-picture look into our future as an urban church). If you missed the story about this initiative in last week’s FirstNews, you can read it online.
Fifth Avenue was the first stop on a journey to five different large, growing, vibrant, and urban churches where we will ask questions of their leadership around mission and vision to understand what strategic choices they made to proclaim Christ in the middle of the city.
Home for the Roosevelts and a host of other dignitaries, Fifth Avenue is a grand church with a grand history: excellence in worship and preaching, innovative education (the idea of Sunday School, or “Sabbath School,” originated from a member of the church, Joanna Bethune, in 1816), and advocacy for the homeless. We learned a lot and gleaned a number of good ideas around our questions, yet what struck me in our visit was the importance the church placed on being invitational.
Being an invitational church was the first plank on Fifth Avenue Presbyterian’s strategic plan.
Fifth Avenue differentiates “welcome” from “invitation.” Being a welcoming church is wonderful – but it is also passive. Being welcoming doesn’t call for the congregation to move beyond the walls of the church to reach the city around them.
Being an invitational church calls for members of the church to engage: at work, at school, at the little league field in the stands.
There are lots of reasons why Fifth Avenue is a church of 2,500 members – with growing numbers and diversity and budgets and vision. Clearly, the Holy Spirit is at work. But one particular reason why Fifth Avenue is so vibrant is that they take seriously their mission to tell the people in their neighborhood the good news of the gospel. They don’t wait for people to come in the doors and figure it out…they invite them to come in!
Last Sunday Dr. Rodney Sadler made me squirm. I don’t like being made to squirm or feel uncomfortable, but that’s exactly what he did.
Speaking to a group of members from First Presbyterian and First United Presbyterian churches, Dr. Rodney Sadler described how the church has actually contributed to the perpetuation of racism.
This is the seventh year that Christian brothers and sisters from our two churches have engaged in joint conversations. Over the years we’ve discussed Bible passages, social issues, and a variety of subjects. But it has taken us seven years to name the elephant in the room: racism. This year’s theme, United by Faith, Divided by Race, faces it head on. While we share a common belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we have allowed racial differences to create and maintain divisions among us.
Dr. Sadler began by looking at various Bible passages that have been used in times past—even by prominent theologians and seminary presidents and Presbyterian pastors—to justify racial division. That’s when I started squirming, not because I think he’s wrong, but because I know he’s right.
There was more squirming to come. Next Dr. Sadler went to one of my core beliefs: salvation by grace. He said that this cornerstone doctrine of our Presbyterian tradition has often given people—especially people in positions of privilege and power—permission to protect the status quo and do nothing. Dr. Sadler asked us to listen to the words of Jesus. Jesus told the rich young ruler “sell all you have and give to the poor” (Luke 18:22). In Matthew 25, after telling his followers to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick, visit those in prison, Jesus says, “Whenever you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.” Jesus pushes his followers to let their faith be not only than words, but also actions.
Rev. Tony Campolo has formed an organization called “Red Letter Christians.” Perhaps the Bible you have on your nightstand has the words of Jesus written in red letters. Tony Campolo calls us to focus especially on those red-letter words of Christ. And when we do that, we hear Jesus calling us to action—to care for the poor, to reach out to those who are not like us, to move outside our comfort zones. Yes, to squirm.
Maybe squirming a little bit is what it’s going to take for us to start tearing down the walls of division that separate us and build a community that is truly united in faith.
– Chuck Williamson
(The final session of United by Faith, Divided by Race, will be on Sunday, June at 12:15 p.m. at First United Presbyterian Church, 201 E. Seventh Street, when Dr. Sadler speaks on Dream the Impossible Dream. Details here.)
In May, I attended the first two sessions in a learning series, “United by Faith, Divided by Race,” hosted by First Presbyterian Church and one of our neighbor churches, First United Presbyterian Church, a historically African-American congregation.
I’ve been the pastor of First Presbyterian for about four years and knew my congregation has shared history with First United Presbyterian. The predecessor congregation to First United dates back to 1866 – a date that is not lost on someone who was born in the South and has relatives who served in the Confederate Army.
In May, however, I was confronted by the details that I had previously not known of the relationship between First Presbyterian and First United Presbyterian.
For years, leading up to 1866, African-Americans worshipped at First Presbyterian. Many of those African-Americans were slaves; some were free. They were baptized at our baptismal font. They attended Sunday school classes – which was against the mandate of the Presbyterian Church at the time, because those classes about the Bible also served to teach literacy to African-American children who had little other access to education. But they were always “they.” African-Americans were not allowed to sit in the main floor of the sanctuary. They were not allowed to be officers of the church.
Eventually, the African-American group within First Presbyterian’s congregation developed a worshipping community who were told they could meet – not on Sunday – but on Monday. And they could meet not in the sanctuary, but in the basement.
Sometime during the Civil War, the Session of First Presbyterian Church voted to expel this worshipping community from the premises. After this vote, a few leaders in the African-American community met with the pastor of First Presbyterian to help them charter three new congregations: the Colored Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn Presbyterian Church, and Seventh Street Presbyterian Church. In the middle of the last century, this constellation of churches became First United Presbyterian Church.
History is a funny thing. It’s rich. It’s complicated. It’s messy. And sometimes there are parts of it that we wish we could forget. When I heard about this part of my church’s history it made me queasy. I wish that the Session of First Presbyterian Church hadn’t taken that vote, a vote that clearly violates the commandment Jesus gave us: “to love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.” But I also know that that Session was a product of its time. In the mid-1800s a number of both Elders and Ministers at First Presbyterian Church owned slaves.
As a person with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in my family tree, I wonder how I would have voted if I were around that table at the Session meeting?
Being confronted by a history in which you did not participate doesn’t change the fact that history shapes the reality of the world in which you do participate. That’s the place where I so often get stuck. So in our class, it was helpful when our teacher, Dr. Julia Robinson – a history professor at UNCC and an ordained minister – encouraged us with these words: “when you know this kind of history, it is easy to allow yourself to get swallowed up in either guilt (if you are white) or anger (if you are black). Instead, as people of faith, these are the moments when we need to turn to Jesus.”
I want Jesus to walk with me…with us, actually…as First Presbyterian and First United Presbyterian continue to grapple with what our shared history means for our shared future.
– Pen Peery
(The final two sessions of “United by Faith, Divided by Race,” will be on Sundays, June 5 and 12, at 12:15 p.m. Details here.)
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.”
Doubt … can easily be overcome through full attention to God’s voice. And it was on the peak of the mountain in Costa Rica that I realized that I have been blessed with an amazing family and godly friends and an almighty God who is willing to stand beside me and encourage me up the hardest part of my mountain. Ann Mariah Burton
Our youth lead worship on Sunday, April 17, at 9 and 11 am, and we will celebrate our 8th-grade confirmation class at the 11 am service. Join us for worship and stay afterward for food a food truck lunch and games on the lawn! All are invited to this special day as we give thanks to God with our youth and for our youth.
On that day, I saw God when I was being taught the beautiful but very challenging art of Nepalese dance. I saw God when a resident gardener plucked his first tomato off of the vine of the plant in his box garden. I saw God when a young girl joyfully leapt onto my back from a picnic table. Stuart Ayer.
For the next few days, we will publish excerpts from the meditations that our youth will share on Sunday. This is the first, from AC Keesler.
Focusing in on the limitations of my concussion had allowed me to look out on the gifts that lay underneath my athletic abilities, those of compassion, maturity, and most of all leadership. It was through this experience that I learned, truly, “what my Father has given me is greater than all else,” and it was through vulnerability that this was exposed.
Join us on Youth Sunday, April 17, 9 am and 11 am worship. Stick around for food trucks and games on the lawn!
Dancing to Israeli folk music while on a boat in the Sea of Galilee.
Reading Matthew 6 (“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow not reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them.”) while sitting on the hill where Jesus shared the Beattitudes.
Spending 15 minutes in silence in the garden of Gethsemane.
Singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” on a hilly field outside of Bethlehem.
Remembering the pain of a people who withstood an attempt to exterminate them.
Experiencing the dissonance of Palestinians who live as separate (but not equal) in the land.
Feeling the tension in our shoulders while walking through the chaos of the Temple Mount.
Bombarded by the sounds of minarets calling Muslims to prayer, of Jews reading the Torah at the Western Wall, and the bells of the Church of Holy Sepulchre ringing in the hour.
Realizing that spirituality is impossible to separate from the reality of politics, that faith is impossible to disentangle from conflict, and that hope almost always grows from the ground of despair.
This has been our experience in a land we hold to be holy.
And not just us.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart…Bind them as a sign on your hand. Fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
It has been almost a week since we embarked on this experience and so the novelty of saying “today we go to Bethlehem” has slightly lessened but still I was looking forward to this day as much as any. We crossed the border into the area governed by the Palestinians and met our Palestinian Christian guide, Eilas, who would take us through the sites of Bethlehem.
Highlights of Bethlehem: Jill Olmstead reads Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus while shafts of light stream through the dome of the chapel at Shepherds’ Field, much like the shepherds may have seen the light of the star; our group offers “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” We slowly journey through the Church of the Nativity, ducking through the four-foot Door of Humility, waiting for our turn before descending into the grotto where we place our hands on the fourteen-point star marking the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.
Back in Jerusalem: we make our way to the Upper Room, curiously decorated by Arabic markings from the time the building was a mosque – so emblematic of the mixed up history of Jerusalem. The room is crowded with groups, one singing Amazing Grace, one reading scripture in Italian, while we read about the Last Supper and sing “Let Us Break Bread Together.” We view Jewish, Armenian, and Christian Jerusalem all within steps of each other as we make our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Sandie Barnhouse, our Catholic representative in the group, helps us to understand the Stations of the Cross and we view the “traditional” spot where Jesus was crucified and buried, along with pilgrims of many countries and beliefs. As we place our hands in the spot where the cross may have stood or rub the stone upon which Jesus’ body may have been placed after death, His presence in this place feels very real.
While we long to lose ourselves in the life and ministry of Jesus in beautiful Galilee, Jerusalem awaits to finish the story of terrible death but glorious resurrection. The city still holds this painful/beautiful contrast in balance and I am so thankful to experience it all.