Building a Wailing Wall

Presbyterian national staff repents of sin of racism by writing prayers of lament

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Samuel Son and Bridgette Lewis speak during Wednesday worship in the Presbyterian Center Chapel in Louisville, Ky. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — Worshipers at the Presbyterian Center Chapel created their version of the Wailing Wall Wednesday, repenting from racism and committing to embark on the new life promised by Jesus in the gospels.

Having candidly shared their experiences with discrimination and racism more than a year ago while completing a confidential race audit, Presbyterian Mission Agency staff concluded an hour-long worship service by writing prayers of lament, leaving those prayers along the chapel’s two long walls for additional prayer and reflection.

Among their expressions of lament:

Worshipers wrote prayers of lament, which they laid against two long walls in the Presbyterian Center Chapel. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Oh my! My heart continues to break over the ways I’ve been part of this devastating history. May I continue to die in my baptism.”

“I agonize for my children and grandchildren, for nieces and nephews of color in this world.”

“Revive my strong walk. Let my thoughts gravitate towards your mind and will.”

“How long, O Lord, will we hear the cries of the oppressed and refuse to act?”

“Grant us peace and discernment and the courage to challenge and dismantle unjust systems.”

“We pray for honest, transparent communication that leads to reconciliation.”

“Forgive us our sins of complicity in injustice. Empower us to keep moving forward to build your kingdom.”

Phillip Morgan, director of music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, led music during Wednesday’s worship service. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, PMA’s president and executive director, said the agency’s leadership is eager “to begin formally working on a response” to the race audit. But before that work begins, it was important to come together for worship, she said.

“Everything we do — especially changing our perspectives and changing our hearts — has to be undergirded with prayer and worship,” she said.

The race audit is remarkable for its candid responses, said the Rev. Samuel Son, PMA’s manager for diversity and reconciliation.

“People courageously trusted this would move us forward,” he said. “Historical and societal context does matter, because you don’t put things away when you come to this building.”

Microaggressions may be seen as small acts, he said, “but the impact is great, because they trigger experiences people have had.”

The Rev. Denise Anderson, coordinator of racial and intercultural justice for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, used the Belhar Confession to help worshipers call themselves to new life during Wednesday worship. (Photo by Rich Copley)

As worship leaders discussed U.S. history frequently marred by racism — including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the quadrupling over the last 35 years of the number of imprisoned African American men, and the internment of about 117,000 Japanese Americans during World War II — snippets of race audit comments were displayed on a screen hung across the chapel’s large window:

“You ask me where I’m from. I tell you, ‘New York,’ and you ask me, ‘No, where are you really from?’”

“I don’t think they understand discrimination. We live this life being black every day.”

“Colleagues criticize my accent.”

“It doesn’t matter if we recruit people of color if we are going to treat the people of color the same way.”

“Discrimination is under-reported because people of color are afraid of losing their jobs. We have families to feed and bills to pay.”

“Being black and male, people feel they are not safe in my presence. They walk the other way to avoid me.”

“I heard colleagues making fun of different languages and words.”

The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III, director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism, told worshipers that even after decades of ministry, “my life continues to change because of the gospel.” (Photo by Rich Copley)

“My life continues to change because of the gospel. I’m thankful to be on the journey with you,” said the Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III, director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism. “You have been a crucible for me of life-changing gospel, of dying and being reborn. That’s my hope for all of us, to be on this journey of dying and being reborn.”

Staff will continue follow-up work on the race audit on Sept. 24, when they’ll participate in a Blanket Exercise, a witness to the injustice suffered by Native Peoples. On Dec. 5, PMA and Administrative Services Group employees will spend their staff development day with the Racial Equity Institute.

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett delivers the benediction at the close of Wednesday’s worship service. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Moffett said that she, Jones, Human Resources Manager Ruth Gardner and Acting General Counsel Mike Kirk “will continue to work” on the environment at 100 Witherspoon Street, the Presbyterian Center’s address, “as we see the walls of discrimination and bias and bigotry come down, so that we will truly represent the Church and be the body of Christ on this side of heaven.”


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