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Celebrating a late great presbytery

Presbyterian Foundation, Presbytery of Charlotte team up to produce a new video explaining the importance of Catawba Presbytery

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Ed Newberry

LOUISVILLE — Fresh off his appearance in a 12-minute video explaining the historical importance of Catawba Presbytery, the Rev. Dr. Ed Newberry told “Leading Theologically” host the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty he’s been enjoying his retirement in part “to have the leisure time to explore what I’ve been curious about.”

Newberry, who retired in 2016 after serving as pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, for some 38 years, and the Rev. Dr. Jerry L. Cannon, Vice President for Ministry Innovation with the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), are the main speakers in the video produced by the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbytery of Charlotte. Also making brief appearances are Cannon’s mother, Corine Lytle Cannon, and the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Charlotte.

Watch Wednesday’s edition of “Leading Theologically” here or here.

Catawba Presbytery, an all-Black presbytery in portions of North Carolina and South Carolina, was in existence from Oct. 6, 1866 — the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War — until Dec. 31, 1988, five years after the northern and southern Presbyterian churches reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after splitting in 1861 over slavery and other issues. Cannon, the brother of the late Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, was the last pastor ordained by Catawba Presbytery just three days before it was no more.

“To understand how important and unusual Catawba Presbytery was, you need to know its history,” Cannon says during the informative and lively video, “The Legacy of Catawba Presbytery.” Enslaved Africans freed following the Civil War left plantations “with only the clothes on their backs. They had to start their new lives without the benefit of an education, without a dime to their name and without property,” Cannon says. “While they would be tolerated in their former masters’ churches, it would be only under restricted conditions and inferior status. This was not acceptable. Former enslaved people needed entire new systems to support their lives.”

“Very little was done by states to educate children,” Newberry says. “Some states didn’t do much to educate even white children. They certainly didn’t have any interest in educating Black children for many reasons,” including maintaining “a kind of dependence so people wouldn’t get beyond a certain level of knowledge.” Initial efforts to educate children after the Civil War “really belongs to the churches.”

Cannon notes that three white pastors — the Rev. Samuel C. Alexander, the Rev. Willis Miller and the Rev. Sidney S. Murkland — “stepped in to help” because they were “disillusioned with the treatment of African Americans by leaders of Presbyterian churches in their region. These men were called by God to serve former enslaved persons.”

Once it formed in 1866, Catawba Presbytery continued to grow, and had 49 churches in its bounds by 1927. “The presbytery was powered by volunteers who tool on vital roles,” Cannon says.

“That’s one thing I like about the Presbyterian Church,” Grace Solomon says during the video. “They believe in education. You were not asked to take a position without training.”

“The focus was to prepare people to become preachers and teachers,” Newberry says. “The ‘preacher’ part of it had to do with the assumption that the church and Christian faith were essential for the well-being of people.”

Following reunion in 1983, presbyteries were given six years “to work out new arrangements, reshape their boundaries and decide which presbyteries would join which ones,” Newberry says. “The question was, what will be the relationship between the formerly all-Black presbyteries and the white presbyteries? Some people hated to lose the identity of being Catawba Presbytery.”

“It was fraught with tensions, but we finally brought it about,” Newberry says. “The unity of the church was a big issue pushing reunion. How can we proclaim reconciliation to the world when we can’t even get together ourselves?”

The Rev. Dr Jerry L. Cannon

“Admittedly, it was sad for those who were part of Catawba Presbytery to join a much larger organization where their voices would be a minority,” Cannon says. “They had understandable questions: How would reunion provide for the full participation and representation of minorities in the life and leadership of the church? And when?”

Cannon’s sister, the first Black woman to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church, wrote these words about four decades ago: “Reunion will provide more flexibility and placement for seminarians and indeed for all of us. Although I have apprehensions about specific aspects of the plan, I again affirm reunion, for it will provide a greater unity and mission with our Black colleagues” in the southern church.

“Voices like Katie’s,” her brother says, “were important in passing the vote in favor of reunion.”

“Anytime you make a change that drastic, you have to think about what you’re leaving behind,” Corine Lytle Cannon says during the video. “We had pleasant memories of Catawba Presbytery. In other words, we did it our way … Everybody felt a part of it.” However, she adds, “you don’t hold back progress.”

“You can see the influence of Catawba Presbytery throughout Charlotte and the PC(USA) still today,” Jerry Cannon says. “There are pastors raised in Catawba Presbytery churches who are serving throughout the denomination and far beyond.”

The Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston

“Just the history of the leadership that came out of Johnson C. Smith and Barber-Scotia College ­— it’s the PC(USA). It really is,” Edmiston says, adding she once wrote down “who I consider to be the most powerful people in the PC(USA) right now. The great majority of them are African American men and women” who attended one of those institutions or were impacted by them. “Catawba Presbytery’s story is one of the richest stories in our whole denomination, and certainly in our presbytery,” Edmiston says. “Those are stories we don’t want to lose. We want to keep telling them.”

“Knowing the story of Catawba Presbytery is to better understand the PC(USA),” Jerry Cannon says. “It helps each of us understand each other and approach the relationships in our connectional church with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. May we continue to grow together as a family of God.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

As Hinson-Hasty told Newberry at the conclusion of “Leading Theologically”: “The gifts you bring are right at the heartbeat of who the church is. Thanks for who you are and what you do. Blessings on you these days and for many more.”

The next guest on “Leading Theologically” will be Dr. William Yoo, Associate Professor of American Religious and Cultural History and Director of the MDiv program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He and Hinson-Hasty will discuss Yoo’s most recent book, “What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church.” The broadcast is set for 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, March 1. It will be available here.

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