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Beyond Black and white biases

Two Matthew 25 churches in the Presbytery of Philadelphia are learning how to get past their differences

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — This story is about two churches in the Presbytery of Philadelphia who answered the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation to focus on racism and poverty, a decision that has increased congregational vitality in both churches.

Bethel Presbyterian Church, a predominately Black church of 45 members in Philadelphia, was already doing gospel work when it became a Matthew 25 church in 2019. Church members and friends prepared weekly food bags for their community and also served a community meal twice a month.

 Grace Marable, mission coordinator at Bethel Presbyterian, said when Bethel started feeding people in their neighborhood, it was cold outside.

“In the wintertime I’d make a big pot of soup, and then we would let them come in and sit in the sanctuary,” she said. “One day a girl who was hungry got her bag, sat down right on the pavement and started going through it.”

Doylestown Presbyterian Church began its Matthew 25 work in 2020 by learning about its own history — including the church’s segregated cemetery. (Photo by Mike Fitzer)

 Meanwhile, Doylestown Presbyterian Church, a predominately white church of about 1,500 members about an hour north of Bethel Presbyterian Church, joined the Matthew 25 movement in 2020 — and is just beginning its work.

Bev Jewusiak, moderator of the Doylestown church’s Matthew 25 task force, said the church’s members and friends needed to learn about their own community — and their own relationship with racism. Few people at Doylestown Presbyterian Church knew that the church’s founding minister, the Rev. Uriah DuBois, was involved in the anti-slavery movement in the early 1800s. He also had a school to help educate Black people.

“There are pieces of our history that aren’t written in the official church history books,” says DPC’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. John Willingham.

Lydia Keene Williams lays a wreath at the grave of her great-great grandfather, who is buried in Doylestown Presbyterian Church’s cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Doylestown Presbyterian Church)

The church has a segregated cemetery.  In February, as part of its first ever Black History Month celebration, the congregation held a gravesite ceremony, placing wreaths on the graves of those long forgotten buried there, saying their names and telling their stories.

Lydia Keene Williams lives in the Doylestown area. She felt wonder that day as she visited the grave of her great-great grandfather, Peter Jackson.

“I can’t describe it to know that in Doylestown, it’s mainly white community that I didn’t even know all these other African Americans were here,” she said. “We’ve seen people don’t want to acknowledge the history that is part of our community. But our history can’t be erased.”

‘We’ve seen people don’t want to acknowledge the history that is part of our community. But our history can’t be erased.’

Initially, Bethel Presbyterian Church thought its Matthew 25 work would center on poverty. But during the pandemic, when attention turned to police brutality toward Blacks and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, race became an important part of their work.

Bethel is in a community with a lot of poverty, and around Philadelphia there’s been racial discomfort and tension.

Valeria Harvell leads a prayer at Bethel Presbyterian Church’s weekly food and clothing bank giveaway. (Photo by Mike Fitzer)

Valeria Harvell, moderator of Bethel’s session, said being a Matthew 25 church deepened the congregation’s roots, giving members and friends the biblical focus of what their ministry has been.

All [of us] can say holy, holy. You know, that’s the easy part. Living it is something else.”

According to Willingham, when DPC talks about issues of racial justice, some people are pretty far along in their own discernment and what they see the church should be engaged in. Many other members are still in a state of trying to understand. As a result, the congregation has been doing a great deal of reading, reflecting and listening, Willingham said.

“The consistent theme I’ve heard being articulated is, ‘I just didn’t know.’  They just didn’t know,” he said. “They just didn’t know.”

Erin Rizk, director of mission and community outreach at DPC, would like to see the church become more active in the community as a voice of partnership with the Black community. She also wants to take the congregation into Philadelphia to find partners who are doing Matthew 25 work in their communities — where Doylestown members can join in the gospel work.

‘All [of us] can say holy, holy. You know, that’s the easy part. Living it is something else.’

“I think anyway that a white community and a Black community coming together to work as one is a way we can start to break down the barriers that exist in our society,” she said.

Doylestown Presbyterian has supported Bethel financially for nearly 40 years, but it’s always been a more of helping relationship, instead of working together side by side. Both congregations want that to change.

Now they’re doing a Matthew 25 Bible study together. They’re learning to trust each other by getting past their differences and their values based on how Blacks have had to live, which has been different than how white people have had to live.

Bethel’s Brenda Tucker-Boykins says the Matthew 25 Bible study with Doylestown Presbyterian is helping both congregations trust each other. (Photo by Mike Fitzer)

For Bethel’s stated clerk, Brenda Tucker-Boykins, people who truly believe in Jesus Christ are willing to become open, to deal with spaces and hurts — and with those things have divided Blacks and whites.

“These biases we have — one thing Matthew 25 has helped us do, as we relate to each other, is to learn to kind of turn those barriers down, to be honest with each other,” she said. “Those involved with us on the Bible study are willing to be vulnerable, willing to listen, to share their feelings. And so, we are too, saying what we feel — and how we feel.”

By relating with each other, they’re learning to break down barriers by being honest with each other — and by being willing to become open to dealing with the hurt spaces that divided them.

“Those involved with us on the Bible study are willing to be vulnerable, willing to listen, to share their feelings,” she said. “And so, we are too, saying what we feel — and how we feel.”

Lewis Dacosta, an elder at Bethel, describes what his congregation has with Doylestown as “extremely important.”

“It goes beyond whether we’re Black or whether we’re white,” he said. “It’s not a Bible study with Bethel and Doylestown. It’s a Bible study with disciples of Jesus Christ.”

After seeing her ancestor buried under a tree in the prettiest part of the cemetery, Keene Williams said she hopes that people who go to DPC will recognize they are learning something new and that they will take it to another family member or another church so that there will be “a ripple effect.”

The Rev. Dr. John Willingham serves as pastor of Doylestown Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Mike Fitzer)

Willingham hopes that too for both those his congregation — and those in the community, that as people listen to the Matthew 25 conversation they will see what it really means to allow oneself to be transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ — and that those watching somewhat suspiciously or skeptically might want to learn a little bit more about Presbyterians.

 If we don’t come together, we won’t be a nation. We have to understand that we need each other, that we can’t make it without each other,” Tucker-Boykins said. “And I truly believe that God is in the midst. I may not be living to see it, but I think it will comeThat is the message of Mathew 25.”

For resources addressing structural racism visit pcusa.org/Matthew25.


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