Confronting History is Messy, Complicated

June 1, 2016

pen_newIn 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.”

Indeed.

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.)