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Facing the ‘unpretty things’ about our country’s history

Predominately Black and white churches move closer to reconciliation through ‘Bending the Moral Arc’ conversations

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

PRINCETON, New Jersey — Less than a mile apart in Princeton, New Jersey, Nassau Presbyterian Church and Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church   have a long history as PC(USA) congregations in this historic community.

In Nassau’s beginning in 1776 as First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, enslaved and free Black Americans worshiped in segregated seating. In 1840 they formed their own church on Witherspoon Street.

“Our churches are joined together by a really long and frequently troubling history,” said Nassau member Pam Wakefield, “but churches are working actively to find solutions to problems together as Christians.”

As members of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and Nassau Presbyterian Church worked together on projects like building a Habitat for Humanity house, relationships and friendships were formed, bringing the congregations closer together. (Photo courtesy of Jock McFarlane)

At various times pastors of the two churches — and lay leaders as well — kept the congregations working toward reconciliation. A year-long celebration of the 250th anniversary of Presbyterianism in Princeton in 2005 attracted participation from both congregations. As the congregations worked together on projects, including building a Habitat for Humanity house, Wakefield said a partnership between the churches was formalized.

“A group of us began to meet regularly,” she said. “The day we really shifted gears was right after George Floyd died.”

Pamela Johnson, a member of the Witherspoon Street church, remembers that emotions were running high following Floyd’s murder. Conversations that had been relatively easy to have suddenly became more difficult.

“I didn’t have words,” she said. “The race difference became the elephant in the room.”

Barbara Flythe of Witherspoon Street said she couldn’t deal with her feelings of pain and anger. But she recognized everyone in the room felt the same way.

Witherspoon Street’s Denyse Leslie hopes the churches’ discussions on race will lead to action that kicks a hole in the infrastructure and does the work that bends the moral arc toward justice. (Photo by Mike Fitzer)

“We expressed how hurt we were watching that video,” Witherspoon Street’s Denyse Leslie said. “The face of the police officer, he just looked like he knew, ‘Nothing’s going to happen to me. I can do whatever I want to this Black man whose neck I have my boot on.’”

According to Leslie, the trauma experienced watching George Floyd die was like “going to an execution.”

“Who wants to go to an execution and see someone alive and then there’s no breath anymore?” she said.

Pamela Johnson of Witherspoon Street felt like white people in their group were really ready to listen, to face things that aren’t pretty about the nation’s history. Prior to that, she said, there was a sense that, “well, it’s not always about race.”

“I thought I understood the depth of the problem until I saw someone kneeling on someone’s neck with impunity, knowing he was being recorded,” said Nassau’s Claire Mulry. “It just blew my eyes open.”

Out of those conversations Witherspoon Street and Nassau launched Bending the Moral Arc conversations. Two groups of five members from each congregation decided to meet weekly to talk about race and social justice.

Cam Stout is a member of the predominately Black Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Mike Fitzer)

“I’m a white guy honored to be in a church that’s predominately Black,” said Cam Stout of Witherspoon Street. “That experience has opened my eyes to some issues. It’s so important for us to learn about one another.”

In their conversations, Flythe expressed how years earlier, in 2013, she was driving in her car when the news came on that George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

“I pulled over and it was like I had a stake in my heart,” she said. “For the first time in 50 years, I no longer trusted the American justice system.”

At times over the past year, Witherspoon Street’s Audi Peal — who emigrated from Libya to the U.S. — has started to wonder whether people really value him.  “Do white people (here) have a problem with Black people?” he asked.

‘The race difference became the elephant in the room.’

For Stout, the notion of a predominately Black church and a predominately white church getting together — and seeing them learn from one another — has been transformational. He believes Bending the Moral Arc is producing a ripple effect that will inspire other people of faith to begin or continue on with this kind of conversation.

For Leslie, it’s equally important for individuals in small, rural white churches to reach out to people that are part of Black communities in urban centers.

“Why?” she asked. “So that we can learn from each other.”

Leslie has seen how the more time that people spend together working on projects — which is what Witherspoon Street and Nassau have been doing over their long history — the more love, trust and faith is exchanged.

“That’s what Matthew 25 is all about,” she said. “It’s a discussion group but it’s also one with the intention of doing something and being active, to kick a hole in the infrastructure and actually do the work that bends the moral arc toward justice,” Leslie said.

Join in the Bending the Moral Arc: Courageous Conversations on Race and Justice webinar at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Nov. 30. Register here.

For resources addressing structural racism, visit 25.

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