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Struggling to right the wrongs of slavery


A ‘justice audit’ puts church on a hopeful path

March 31, 2020

church congregation standing during worship

Worship at Caldwell Presbyterian Church Courtesy of Caldwell Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, N.C.

At Caldwell Presbyterian Church, the walls of our sanctuary talk. The voices are those of enslaved African Americans owned by the Caldwell family on a plantation north of our city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Before emancipation, their forced labor, blood, sweat and tears created the fortune that was later given to this church to build its sanctuary in 1922.

Today, the walls of that sanctuary cry out for justice with the prophetic words of Isaiah 58:6: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”

After almost closing its doors in 2006 due to dwindling membership, Caldwell Presbyterian has come back to life as a 350-member, diverse and missional faith community. As an almost entirely new congregation, learning the hard facts of our church’s connection to slavery triggered a long, somber season of study and discernment. We studied how so many southern U.S. churches used Scripture to justify slavery and dehumanize people of color.

We’ve also talked openly, across the diversity of our congregation, racial and otherwise, about how Caldwell’s history makes us feel about the church’s past as well as our present life together. Those conversations are ongoing because they shouldn’t be rushed. These hard truths deserve deep thought and prayer as well as lots of conversations rooted in relationship.

But those voices in the sanctuary walls also call us to act. So, we are asking: How can we tilt the scales away from simple charity that leaves in place oppressive systems in favor of efforts that advance justice?

In 2019, we began examining everything we do in Christ’s name for our neighbor. You might call it a “justice audit.” We are asking new questions of ourselves, such as: How do we understand our identity as servants of God? What are our personal motivations for getting involved in missions work? What perspectives of privilege do we bring to this work that create blind spots for how we view those we seek to help? Are we willing to listen and learn, to let go of ill-informed notions about the causes of our city’s woes? Are we willing to be uncomfortable?

This hunger for justice will have us reassessing all we do. We will educate ourselves about the root causes of local social challenges and how they can best be reversed. We will assess our mission partners for how they view and treat their clients. Do they treat them as partners in the process of their rebound and recovery?

We still bring canned food on Sundays for the food bank. We still make sandwiches for the hungry. We still spend nights with our homeless neighbors at seasonal shelters. Those needs don’t go away. But while doing these things, we are looking to further help, such as using our greatest asset — our real estate — against our city’s affordable housing crisis. We will remodel our 12,000-square-foot education building into studio apartments for those earning less than 50% of the area’s median income. We will put our new neighbors, long on the outside looking in, at the center of defining what community looks like.

We will not stop listening to those other voices, those in the walls of the sanctuary, those forced to labor in the fields to make the Caldwell fortune. We know their names: William, Umphrey, Plum, Cyrus, Phyllas, Caleb, Lethy, Hannah, Henery, Nancy, Custis, James, Sucry and … Easter.

They continue to talk to us — and, as people of faith, we pray that we hear.

John Cleghorn, Pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church; Helen Hull, Elder and Chair of Missions and Justice; Lori Thomas, an Ordained Minister, Member of Caldwell and Director of Research at the Urban Institute at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Today’s Focus:  Right the Wrongs of Slavery

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jeffrey Arnold, Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities
Molly Atkinson, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Lord, give us courage and patience as we become the people you need us to be. Amen.

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