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.
Sometimes this seems to be the progression of our feelings about injustice, suffering and generally the things make God weep. Feeling sad can’t be enough, can it? What else are we to do? What else is possible?
For context, comparison and contrast, please read Isaiah 58:2-12 and Luke 13:10-17
What do you think most breaks God’s heart in this world?
26 From one ancestor, he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Question: Does God Love People Who Say They Don’t Love God?
Yes. Of course.
We will use Acts 17:16-34 for context.
But how should the church engage those people who say they don’t love God…or don’t care about God? Should we write them off? Shame them? Welcome them? How do we do that?
Our youth spent at week in Montreat at the “Rooted and Reaching” retreat. These are their observations from five days of worship, prayer, fellowship and discussion as they grew closer to one another and to God.
Day 1: Hello First Pres Family. You’ll be happy to know that we had a wonderful first full day at the Montreat Youth Conference. We started off our day with a great breakfast provided by our awesome first pres parents! We moved on to the Keynote led by Jarrett McLaughlin, who did an excellent job starting to convey the theme of “Rooted and Reaching.” We explored this theme in depth today by focusing on the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13 1-8). We further discussed this in our small groups where we met people from all over. Everyone is looking forward to continuing to build relationships in their small groups.
We ended the day with a worship service led by Christopher Edmonston. He did an excellent job of laying the groundwork for the week by focusing on “our soil” and how we need good soil to put down our roots and begin growing. Overall it looks like we are setting up for a great week in Montreat and growing closer to God.
-This is H-Money, Studawg, and the Glontzinator signing out. (Harrison Ferone, Stuart Ayer and Alex Glontz)
Day 2: Our morning started similar to Monday. Today’s scripture was a story of Ruth and her loyalty and love for Naomi. Small groups were fun! For dinner, Christopher Edmonston and his son, Gabriel, joined us. It was great to reconnect with him and his family. At worship Christopher did an amazing job on connecting scriptures, thoughts and personal stories to tackle the question of who our people are. We are hoping to have a good free afternoon in Asheville and a great rest of the week. Signing off – G-daddy and La Luc (George Valaoras and Lucinda Bond)
Day 3: Keynote with Jarrett this morning reminded us that God is always with us. No matter what, God will always love us. Worship with Christopher explored the question whether or not we can be forgiven, redeemed, saved and renewed. YES!!! Good news, YES we can! Christopher further explained how God still appears in the worst of our days. God never abandons us. Worship closed with hand washing and showing us that our cleansed hands can be used to serve others and model the service that Jesus did with his disciples when he washed their feet. Thanks be to God for this day! – Signing off JPro and Dave the wave (Jackson Proctor and Davy Rayner)
Day 4: Today, Jarrett shared a powerful message in keynote about Gods ability to reshape us through pruning. Over the course of this week in Montreat we have witnessed ourselves
coming closer together forming a family of god. As a group we hiked Lookout Mountain continuing to bond as a group and experiencing God’s beauty. Christopher wowed us again with another amazing sermon. He helped us understand how it is good to let go, always remembering that he never abandons his garden of people.
– Signing off – A mili, A2, E- train (Amelia Keesler, Alex Ayer and Emily Orrell)
Day 5: Throughout our week at Montreat, we have explored the theme of rooted and reaching in regards to our connection to God. Through this theme we have experienced a growth in our faith as we discovered what it meant to surround ourselves with people we believed would help us become better versions of ourselves. We examined our roots and our basic connections to God in hopes of pruning our rough edges. Together we have made new friendships in our small groups that helped nourish our faith. We also had the pleasure of forming unbreakable bonds with our back home group. We are blessed to have such a wonderful program at First Presbyterian of Charlotte. Today we focused on two questions to take home with us: how can we reach and what is our story. Both services focused on this internal reflection and offered us advice on what to think about once we left Montreat. Finally, after the last worship, we had a candle light ceremony around Lake Susan to wrap up everything we had done this week. In our back home group we reflected upon our wonderful week here at Montreat and what we hope to take from it. We cannot wait to come back next year! – Signing off – Adrienne, Vamanos and Wood (AJ Sellers, Abigail Justis and Woodson Dudley)
When do we notice God’s presence? Looking back at our lives, where have we experienced the love of a God who promises to never let us go?
It is normal and important to wonder where God was in the unresolved and difficult passages of life. It is just as important to lift up where God is – that becomes the fabric of our testimony…a testimony that can encourage and invite those who hunger and thirst for a relationship with Christ.
For context, we look to Psalm 13 and Matthew 14:22-33.
What do you you think? Where is God in your life and the lives of others?
In this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells his followers that they must “become like children” in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. In a world that values advancement, education and progress, these words are hard for us to hear. We love children, but we don’t necessarily want to be children again.
As we begin our summer sermon series, “Questions of Faith,” we will look at some questions asked by children of our congregation and consider what it might mean if we were to look at our own faith through the eyes of a child.