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‘A place, a face, a story and a voice’

Michigan congregation draws on Pentecost Offering and Matthew 25 to confront structural racism

by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Engagement & Support | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Andriana Schneider, at left and Imani Williams, a junior and a sophomore, respectively, at Siena Heights University, model their black blazers. (Photo courtesy of Siena Heights University)

LOUISVILLE — When it comes to addressing the injustices and disparities experienced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in the United States — laid painfully bare by the nation’s double pandemic of COVID-19 and racial unrest — the Rev. Cathi King knows one thing for certain. And that is, she knows nothing for certain.

“All these conversations for justice can be overwhelming, and churches can feel like they don’t even know where to start,” said King, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tecumseh, Mich. “And the answer is, we may not know where to start, but our partners in the community, our siblings of color, have been at this work for decades. So we start by coming alongside them, owning what we don’t know and listening to each other.”

For King, who has just begun her eighth year at First Presbyterian following her previous pastoral position in Ann Arbor and 11 years in corporate management, the impetus for the newest chapter of the congregation’s mission and outreach was a spring 2019 pilgrimage to Montgomery, Ala., to explore the country’s history of racial injustice.

The Rev. Cathi King is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tecumseh, Michigan.

“Thirty of us, including several Adrian Dominican Sisters and a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in our county, took a bus trip to Montgomery, where we visited the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice,” said King. “We came away from that experience moved and convicted.”

Another experience that informs and contributes to the church’s call to advocacy is a painful schism 10 years ago.

“Because many in the church understood how it felt to be marginalized, they are deeply committed to giving voice to people that were held in the shadows,” King said. “It’s a part of who we are as a resurrected church, to be deeply committed to inclusion. Our mission statement honors every person as having a place, a face, a story and a voice.”

The group’s return from Montgomery also providentially coincided with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 invitation, which launched in April 2019 with the threefold goal of building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.

“Our congregation joined the Matthew 25 initiative in July 2019,” said King. “I believe that our embracing this invitation and working toward racial justice comes out of recognizing that there are voices of people who have been long silenced that we want to hear and amplify. So we chose ‘Dismantling Structural Racism’ as our first Matthew 25 plank, and began to explore what this could mean.”

Following the session’s vote to become a Matthew 25 congregation, the church hosted several book studies focusing on the history of racism in the U.S., how to be an anti-racist, the role of the church in fighting systemic racism and how to raise children with healthy racial identities.

“While the book studies were critical to our learning, there was a growing desire to do something on the ground that would be meaningful and faithful to this initiative,” said King. “At some point you have to put the book down and practice building relationships.”

And that’s just what the session did. It voted to use the local portion of its 2020 Pentecost Offering, which amounted to just over $500, to seed a new ministry in Lenawee County for the advancement of BIPOC youth and young adults.

The Pentecost Offering, one of the PC(USA)’s four Special Offerings, benefits children at risk through the “Educate a Child, Transform the World” national initiative as well as the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program and the Presbyterian Youth Triennium. A unique feature of this Special Offering is that 40% of the amount received is retained by the individual congregation for local ministries while the remaining 60% is used at the national level to support at-risk children, youth, and young adults through ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“We’ve been very clear from the beginning of this endeavor that we needed more voices at the table — our church is predominantly white,” said King. “We are interested and passionate about this work as allies, advocates, collaborators or whatever word you want to use, but certainly not as people who want to drive the conversation or define the needs. We’ve been really clear up front that we want to be helpful, breaking down barriers where we can but not overstepping, not presuming.”

Expanding upon its existing relationships with such organizations as the Catherine Cobb Safe House for women and children surviving domestic violence and the Bethel AME Church, the church developed a new partnership with a local college, Siena Heights University, home to the Adrian Dominican Sisters.

The team convened and conversations began. When a woman of color on the team expressed the need for professional clothing for young, local BIPOC women for job interviews, the church’s session decided to use the seeded money from the 2020 Pentecost Offering to purchase black blazers.

Sharese Shannon Mathis is director of Diversity and Inclusion at Siena Heights University.

To move the project forward, Sharese Shannon Mathis, the college’s director of Diversity and Inclusion, reached out to her childhood friend and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sister, Jasmene Bowdry, founder and CEO of SHIFT StyleHouse, an Atlanta-based, Black-woman-owned “fashion apparel and lifestyle brand that serves a mission to empower women with confidence, class, and style.”

“I had followed Jasmene’s work over the years and thought of her when we wanted to order blazers for the women,” said Mathis. “Knowing that the organization was focused on BIPOC women, I connected with Jasmene for a special order. I explained to her what we were doing, and we both agreed that it was an important endeavor. I knew that the blazers would be high quality and bring confidence to the women. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we weren’t able to initially get them to the women as early as expected.”

The blazers, which were just delivered to the college last week, were greeted with excitement by the student recipients.

That was only the beginning. As the team continued to meet, talk and explore the issues together, Mathis voiced her observation that the county can’t seem to retain any gifted people in leadership roles from non-dominant populations. “From there, we thought of crafting an internship for a college student to explore the reasons why,” King said.

To help fund the proposed internship at a $2,500 stipend level, First Presbyterian applied for and received a $1,000 grant from Maumee Valley Presbytery, a Matthew 25 presbytery. Because additional funding will be needed, the church is considering the use of its 2021 Pentecost Offering. It may also apply for a grant from the Synod of the Covenant.

The Rev. Dr. Matt Meinke is general presbyter at Maumee Valley Presbytery.

“In Maumee Valley Presbytery, we have been planting seeds of Matthew 25 through Mt 25 Mission Grants, daring congregations to lean into the discomfort and wrestle with those challenging projects by helping fund new initiatives,” said the Rev. Dr. Matt Meinke, general presbyter. “First Presbyterian Church Tecumseh is one that took that dare, and with their BIPOC intern program they will help others of us to dare bigger and better.”

The internship is targeted for the fall semester and will include research and data collection across a variety of sectors as well as peer mentoring to learn about the lived experiences of BIPOC young adults in the county. It will conclude with the student presenting to the community and presbytery through
the church.

The BIPOC mission team is also walking alongside several young women of color in need of additional support in the AME congregation, survivors of domestic violence who are moving into transitional housing and seniors from the college preparing to graduate. These relationships continue to grow.

Reflecting on their journey as a Matthew 25 church, King observed that many of their new initiatives have flourished during the global pandemic of 2020. Being unable to do hands-on mission as they had in the past opened the opportunity for them to explore new ways to engage in connectional ministry.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to participate in the PC(USA) Special Offerings,” King said. “For the first time ever, we went ‘Four for Four’ [receiving all four Special Offerings] and we’re going to do it again this year. It was an educational opportunity for our church, too. What is the Pentecost Offering? What are each one of these Special Offerings? How are they different from each other? What are they focusing on? It was a great year for us to expand our reach and join Presbyterians across the country in faithful service.”

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