On January 14, 2008, I began my ministry at First Presbyterian Church. When I accepted the call to be your Associate Minister for Pastoral Care, I told the members of the APNC (Julie Caldwell, Bruce Grier, Jane Ives, Mike James, Mary Margaret Porter, Woods Potts and Hank Ralston) that I intended to be here for a long time. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant and couldn’t have known what that would look like. But I knew that I was excited to be a part of what God was doing in this place.
This month, I celebrate ten years as one of your pastors.
These past ten years have been rich, both professionally and personally. Many things have changed, and in reflecting upon some of those things, I wanted to share a few of them with you.
In the time since my ministry here began,
Charlotte has had 7 mayors.
The Panthers have had 2 head coaches and 3 starting quarterbacks.
Wachovia became Wells Fargo.
The Bobcats became the Hornets (again).
The landscape of uptown has changed, with numerous new buildings, restaurants, and a professional baseball stadium
I have worked with 10 pastors (Bill Wood, Katie Crowe, Jim Miller, Wes Barry, Kirk Hall, Roland Perdue, Pen Peery, Chuck Williamson, Erika Funk and Katelyn Cooke).
Almost the entire staff has turned over, with the exception of William Andrews, Willie Atkins, Donna Dendy, and Milton Kidd, all of whom have served this church far longer than I have.
My title has changed. Twice.
I have participated in eight congregational retreats, ten PW retreats, one handbell tour (to Scotland), one mission trip (to Haiti) and one youth ski trip.
I have officiated 27 weddings, 71 baptisms, and 97 funerals, and preached 86 sermons.
Three of the most significant experiences of my life have happened—my marriage to Bill, the birth of our daughter, Caroline, and my mother’s illness and death.
What I have also realized in reflecting upon this time is that, while much has changed, much has also remained the same. This church is as committed to being for Christ in the heart of Charlotte as it was ten years ago. The care, compassion and commitment to the gospel that drew me to this place are as vital and central to your mission as they ever have been. This remains a community grounded in faith, full of love, and committed to service, and it remains my privilege to be in ministry with you all.
Over the course of ten years, I have gotten to know you as individuals, families and a community. I have shared in your joys, grieved your losses, and journeyed with you through ordinary time. I have seen you at your best, and at times I’ve seen you at your worst. And you’ve seen the same of me. I have made mistakes and I’ve learned many things about myself, about ministry, and about this extraordinary community. You have taught me more than I can ever express about love and faith, grief and loss, perseverance and forgiveness.
It is one of the richest gifts of my life to navigate the joys and challenges of these years with you all, and I can honestly say that I am stronger and better for the time I have shared with you. Through the highs and the lows of these past ten years, I have grown and developed a great deal as a person and as a pastor, and I have been challenged in ways I never could have imagined. Whether you’ve been here for all of it or some of it, you are a part of this community, a part of the history of this church, and a part of my life, and I am so grateful to be in this with you.
As someone who loves words, and for whom words are an integral part of my daily work, I struggle in this moment to find any words that feel adequate to express my gratitude to you for being the church you are in this place and at this time. Please know that I love you all and am deeply grateful for the countless ways you have modeled faith and servanthood to me. It is a joy to be on this journey with you, and I look forward to whatever is to come.
On Sunday, November 13, First United Presbyterian Church–our sister church in Center City–celebrated its 150th Anniversary with an uplifting service that remembered, rejoiced and rededicated. FUPC traces its roots to the black parishioners who left our church in 1866, after the Civil War.
Below is a letter written by our Session and read by the Reverend Erika Funk during the service. After you’ve read the letter, you may want to visit our Facebook page and browse through the photo album from the day. Even if you aren’t a member of Facebook, you should be able to follow the link and view the photos.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The pastors, officers and members of First Presbyterian Church Charlotte rejoice with the pastors, officers and members of First United Presbyterian Church on the occasion of your 150th anniversary. We recognize the significance of this milestone, and thank God for sustaining you as a congregation. You serve as a shining example of servant leaders in Christ—a beacon of grace, perseverance and warm welcome to those who pass through your doors and enter into worship with you. Despite the many challenges you and your forebears have faced over the past 150 years, you have stood strong in the Lord and in God’s mighty power. You have forged ahead in the face of uncertainty and difficulty. Thank you for being a witness to and for the love, the power and the faithfulness of God. God has been faithful—and so have you.
We are grateful for the growing bonds of friendship and the deepening relationships that are forming between our churches, especially in the past six or seven years. We are hopeful that we can foster deeper connections and strengthen the ties that connect our congregations to each other.
Even as we celebrate the faith, dedication and love that have sustained First United Presbyterian Church for 150 years, we acknowledge that there have been acts of racism, prejudice, indignity and indifference perpetrated by members of our congregation, acts that contributed to the separation of our two congregations. We recognize that the separation still exists in the present day. We apologize for all that we have done, and all that we have not done, that has given rise to and perpetuated division between our two communities of faith. We humbly pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us to true and complete reconciliation.
As you look toward the future God has for you in building God’s kingdom here in Charlotte, we commit ourselves to pray for you and we hope there will be many opportunities for us to work alongside you in your ministry, here in the city and beyond.
May God continue to richly bless and prosper your ministry and your entire congregation, and may you have many more years of worship, growth and service—all for the glory of God and the furtherance of the work of God in the world.
Grace and peace to you all.
– Brent A. Torstrick, Clerk of Session, First Presbyterian Church, Charlotte
The FUPC/FPC Partnership Ministry Team, a group of 16 people from both churches working toward reconciliation between our churches, wishes to thank everyone who participated in this historic event.
It seems that lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 1800s.
First, I’m in a book group that just finished reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (on which the hit Broadway musical is based). And second, out of curiosity, I’ve been rummaging through our church’s archives, reading Miss Madeline Orr’s history of FPC, as well as our Session minutes from the 1850s.
Yes, I’m a history nerd.
Spoiler alert: Alexander Hamilton dies in the end. Here’s how Chernow describes Hamilton’s last hours. He says that Hamilton, who late in life found faith in God, was “preoccupied with spiritual matters.” From his death bed, he asked that someone call the Rev. Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity Church, to bring communion. When Rev. Moore arrived, he refused to comply with the request because Hamilton “had not been a regular churchgoer.” In desperation, Hamilton then turned to a friend, John Mason, who was a Presbyterian pastor, and made the same request. Rev. Mason also refused because “private communion” was against Presbyterian polity.
Something about this scene makes me very sad. Here was a man seeking comfort and an experience of God’s grace in his dying hours, and pastors refused because Hamilton did not come up to their standards, didn’t meet their rules.
I would like to think that incidents like this were rare, isolated. But it seems that was not so.
In 1855, the Session of our church called “Mr. _____” to appear before the Session to give answer to a charge of the sin of “intemperance.” The accused appeared and acknowledged the sin, “expressed a deep feeling of sorrow and penitence on account of it, and a firm determination in dependence upon divine aid to abstain from that vice hereafter.”
The minutes of the meeting continue: “The members of the Session urged on him the importance of living a consistent Christian life and attending regularly upon the ordinances of God’s house. The Session then, on account of the recency and notoriety of the offense, advised the accused to absent himself from the communion table on the following Sabbath.”
This member came before the session with a penitent heart, seeking forgiveness. What he got instead was judgment. Apparently, the Session was not willing to forgive the offence because of the “notoriety”, which meant that people might think them soft on sinners. So they temporarily excommunicated him.
There was a time in our church’s life when, in the days before communion was to be celebrated in worship, elders from the church would visit the members and examine them on their faith and practice. Those members who were found worthy would be given a communion token, and on the following Sunday only those with a token were permitted to take communion. No token…no communion.
I’m glad those days are gone. Yet there are still so many times that we let our judgments of others keep us from reaching out to them and welcoming them and caring for them.
I ask God for forgiveness for those times when my judgments of others create a barrier. And I pray that God will show me how to knock those barriers down.
While the reunion of the 1974 youth mission trip to Haiti received attention last Sunday, a more quiet reunion was also taking place—a reunion that contributed to the selection of one anthem the choir will sing during worship on July 3.
Former choir member Amy Gray, who left for seminary in Washington, D.C., in 2009, was back in the choir loft last Sunday for the first time in eight years. While in Charlotte, Amy also visited with Director of Music Ministries Will Young to tell him her history with the hand-painted harpsichord in the Lema Howerton Room.
A graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design, Amy’s passion for art had been sidelined when she injured her drawing hand during her senior year. She had turned her attention to music, another gift she had practiced since childhood. She moved to Charlotte, started singing in the choir at First Pres and took up the harp in 2003. At the choir Christmas party that year, then-choir director Bob Ivey approached Amy with news that an anonymous donor had given funds to build a harpsichord for the church.
He wondered if Amy would be interested in hand-decorating the harpsichord.
Amy had been seeking clarity in her prayers about whether it was time for her to take up art again, despite her fears of re-injuring her hand. This request, she thought, might be the answer to her prayers.
The donor had requested that Psalm 150 be incorporated into the design, so Amy used language from the psalm along the exterior of the harpsichord: Praise God in His sanctuary with the lute and harp. On the interior, she included an image from her favorite psalm, Psalm 84: Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself.
“Working on the harpsichord was my first experience practicing art as conscious prayer,” said Amy, who is completing her MFA, with a focus on making art as a spiritual practice.
During their conversation, Will and Amy discovered that her favorite arrangement of Psalm 84 was the very arrangement Will had come across a few hours earlier when searching for music for this Sunday’s service—Psalm 84/Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Faure, arranged by Hal Hopson. Amy finished the conversation happy to recognize a small bit of synchronicity at First Presbyterian, where her spiritual journey had blossomed.
“The Cantique was the reason I didn’t leave the choir loft at times in my life when I was struggling,” Amy said as her visit to the church drew to an end on Monday afternoon. “The hardest part of leaving Charlotte was walking away from First Presbyterian Church. Every time I’m here, there is connectivity, synchronicity. This place is magical for me.”
This Sunday during worship, we’ll recognize a dozen people from around the country who were part of the first international mission trip for youth in 1974—a trip to Haiti so profound that participants have traveled from across the country for a reunion during worship here on Sunday.
“It was eye-opening,” said Ben Williams, who celebrated his sixteenth birthday during that mission trip. “Our senses came alive to the plight of this poverty-stricken island.”
You can watch video from that trip more than 40 years ago, a mission trip that continues to echo for Ben and the other participants who are gathered in Charlotte this weekend, including Nel Hobbie (Hill), Eve Baker (Bennett), Elizabeth Barefoot (Vinson), Betsy Barry (Dreier), Charlie Durham, Jeff Gaines, Tom Higgins, Kathrine Horn (Coggins), Amy Petris (Capps), Dick Ridenhour, Ken Roberts and Kay Sullivan (Johnston). Dorathy Stewart (Link) will be unable to attend.
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.”