Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Black history all year round

Two churches bend the moral arc to move the community forward

by Gail Strange and Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The lives of Barbara Flythe, left, and Pam Wakefield have changed as a result of conversations around Bending the Moral Arc. (Photo by Mike Fitzer)

LOUISVILLE — “How Long, Not Long” is the popular name given to the speech delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery on March 25, 1965. King delivered this speech after the completion of the march from Selma to Montgomery. When asked how long it would take to see social justice, King replied, “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In an ongoing effort to address one of the three foci of the Matthew 25 invitation, dismantling structural racism, which calls for individuals and congregations to advocate and act to break down the systems, practices and thinking that underlie discrimination, bias, prejudice and oppression of people of color, Barbara Flythe of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and Pam Wakefield of Nassau Presbyterian Church, both located in Princeton, New Jersey, share how the two churches — one predominately Black, the other primarily white — have come together to bend the moral arc toward justice.

The two churches share a history dating back to 1776. In an interview with Presbyterian News Service, Flythe and Wakefield discussed the impact of the conversations of the two churches’ Bending the Moral Arc conversations.

When asked why they chose the phrase “bending the moral arc” for their work, Flythe replied: “I think we chose it because it’s kind of an organic phrase. It has movement, it has an assumption that there’s work involved, that what we’re doing is moral for us — it’s ethical. And it’s a part of who we are as Christians. One of the people in our group said that to bend the moral art there’s activity involved; you’ve got to bend. So, all that helps me understand that there’s something that we must do. And, it seems to me, that any work you do involving bending is very helpful if you’re doing it in community.”

In her response to the same question, Wakefield said, “After George Floyd was murdered and the congregations were meeting together, we were speechless. We just said, ‘We have to do something.’ Within hours, we were putting together the concept of the conversations. And then we asked, ‘How do we describe it?’ It turned out to be exactly the right title. There’s hope that the bend happens.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo by Unseen Histories via Unsplash)

In a conversation crafted around King’s book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Flythe and Wakefield were asked to respond to this passage from the book: “The Negro obviously needs organized strength, but that strength will only be effective when it is consolidated from constructive alliances with the majority group.”

Is the partnership between these two churches the type of constructive alliance needed to move the country forward? Wakefield replied: “I wish we had a magic wand to make what is happening with our two churches available and understood by so many people who would really share the gifts that we have gained from it. Yes, this is a very, very constructive alliance.”

Flythe said if she were writing a recipe for building constructive alliances, she would be sure to include small groups as a key ingredient. “I would say folks who come with intention and are willing to commit to the groups must be respectful and really listen to each other. As an African American, I cringe at the statement that ‘I never see color.'”

Flythe no longer jumps up and down as she did when she used to hear that statement, because she was instructed to listen and then push back by saying, “Could you tell us about that?”

‘Any work you do involving bending is very helpful if you’re doing it in community.’

“We have the statements that come up that really put your teeth on edge,” she said. “We have used them to push people and it pushes us as well to hear them and to understand how they shape their thinking. Much of it has to do with the way people were raised, their values and beliefs and the how and what families already did, their environment and their education. There’s always a reason.”

Wakefield’s recipe would include the incredible sense of trust, respect and friendship that already exists within the group. While they talk about matters of color and social justice, what happens, she says, is that each person experiences what the other people in the group have experienced as part of their lives.

“We walk in their shoes, we hear them. We hear when they talk about their sons, their mothers, their brothers, their husbands, everybody shares those relationships,” she said. “The impact is so strong that we can’t go backwards. Once we’ve seen it and been there, we simply can’t unsee it or unknow it.”

‘The golden thing about this is one group can be in Mississippi and another in Alaska.’

The Bending the Moral Arc project was originally planned for eight weeks. But according to Flythe, at the last meeting as they were getting ready to say goodbye to each other, someone in the group said, “We need to talk more.”

After about a year of meetings, participants are questioning what the next steps are for Bending the Moral Arc. Group members feel a sense of urgency they didn’t feel before they started meeting and talking.  Organizers suggest the group might work to end voter suppression, a favorite cause of both Flythe and Wakefield, or police brutality. Both Flythe and Wakefield say they must turn what they have heard and learned into action.

When asked how other churches could replicate their churches’ efforts, Flythe noted, “We have several white congregations, including some from the webinar earlier this year, who want to partner with African American congregations. However, because of a history of mistrust, lack of communication and other issues between Blacks and whites, it’s very hard to get African American congregations on board.”

In addition to Black churches, the partnership could include congregations in the Latino, Korean or any other community of color, Flythe said.

“The golden thing about this is one group can be in Mississippi and another in Alaska,” said Flythe. “It’s all virtual and it should continue to be virtual because the gift is that we can meet people wherever they are. They do not need to be in close proximity to be in partnership.”

To assist others in creating race and justice ministries in their own communities, a small-group manual containing sample conversation and other resources and tools has been produced.

 It came out of a partnership among Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, Nassau Presbyterian Church  and Theology, Formation & Evangelism, part of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

You can find the small group manual, a webinar featuring Bending the Moral Arc participants, and a video about their courageous conversations here.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.