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Matthew 25 congregations in the PC(USA) take action against structural racism


Peace & Global Witness Offering supports pastors’ efforts to confront North Carolina’s racist legacy

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Stephen Herring is pictured with Trell, at left. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — When God promised to be present through life’s floods and fires, the assurance was of little comfort to Trell, whose house burned to the ground in March.

And, to make matters worse, after all of Trell’s earthly belongings had gone up in flames, when he sought refuge in his car, he discovered that it had a flat tire.

That was when the timely intervention of a local pastor, the Rev. Stephen Herring — known more familiarly in Tarboro, N.C., as Pastor Steve — made God’s presence real to him.

Herring, who in retirement serves two small churches — Nahalah Presbyterian Church in Scotland Neck and Cobb Memorial Presbyterian Church in Tarboro — also runs Creative Salvage Designs with his wife, Cathy, and son, Peter, which does primarily junk removal and property clean-outs.

As the owner of this unique business, coupled with both his commitment to peacemaking and the Matthew 25 charge to dismantle structural racism, Herring was uniquely positioned to lend Trell a hand.

“What he went through,” said Herring, “now that is stress! Your stuff all burned up, no place to stay and a flat tire! We lent him our portable air compressor to get him back on the road. His smile and thanks brought tears to my eyes.”

Herring, who lives in Tarboro and has business interests in neighboring communities such as Princeville, is all too aware of the environmental racism that affects the people — like Trell — in these flood-plain cities, which have been devastated in recent years by the ravages of climate change.

Princeville, whose unique history has been all but wiped off the map, is the oldest U.S. town founded and settled by free African Americans after the Civil War.

Herring’s call to be a peacemaker — including pursuing pathways of peace by working to address structural racism and mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate change in his home state of North Carolina — is made possible by gifts to the Peace & Global Witness Offering, traditionally received on World Communion Sunday, which this year falls on Oct. 1.

The Peace & Global Witness Offering is unique in that half of it is directed to peacemaking and global witness efforts at the national church level to address critical issues around the world. Twenty-five percent is retained by congregations for local peace and reconciliation work, and 25% goes to mid councils for similar ministries on the regional level.

“Creative Salvage is a key point of intersection with the impoverished African American community here in Tarboro,” Herring explained. “Due to the need for cheap rent, it helps that our building is located in the poorest part of Tarboro. This allows for continuous intersection with and outreach to those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.”

Herring’s ongoing work in Princeville, which is contracted by the town, has mainly been to deconstruct and extract resources from its flood-damaged properties. He then demolishes and reconstructs them in order to show — and save — the town’s heritage.

Preserving Princeville’s history has become even more challenging since its residents, already marginalized due to the dual impact of structural racism and systemic poverty, have been steadily migrating outward since 1999 in the wake of the unprecedented destruction caused by Hurricanes Floyd, Matthew and Ian.

One of Herring’s longtime ministry colleagues, the Rev. Willem Bodisco Massink, a member of the Peacemaking Network of the Presbytery of New Hope and a parish associate at the Kirk of Kildaire in Cary, was similarly determined to show Presbyterians and others that climate migration was not some faraway problem but right in North Carolina’s own backyard.

“Last fall, when our presbytery hosted Maina Talia, an international peacemaker from Tuvalu [a small country located roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia], I talked with Steve about taking Maina to Princeville, because Princeville is one of those communities that is inundated, just as Tuvalu is drowning,” said Bodisco Massink. “When Steve and Maina had lunch in Princeville with its mayor and other town representatives last year, they heard directly about the problems that village has with flooding of the nearby Tar River after excessive rainfalls.”

The intersection of several of the most persistent, prevailing and pressing challenges for Presbyterian peacemakers today, namely poverty, racism, climate change and immigration/migration — as seen in Princeville — are also among the primary concerns of being a Matthew 25 Church.

“The Matthew 25 movement presents us with this invitation of ‘What are you doing for those in need among us,’ not just our neighbors in our subdivision or on our street, but our geopolitical, global neighbors,” said Amy Lewis, mission specialist for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. “Because their needs are increasingly being brought to our attention through advances in technology, we can no longer just bury our heads and pretend that these things aren’t happening all around us. We must continually ask ourselves how we can participate in this work of God in the world.”

Although Bodisco Massink and Herring were quick to commend the presbytery’s “beautiful work around disaster relief,” both agreed that structural racism is a more complex — and more insidious — problem to tackle.

“Structural racism requires a different kind of experience and a different kind of dialogue and conversation,” said Herring. “It’s much more difficult to get a church or a session to come on board to organize it institutionally.”

In advocating for peace with the Kirk of Kildaire — which regularly receives the Peace and Global Witness Offering every fall — Bodisco Massink said that he has seen some steady progress. The church recently developed a relationship with the State and now has a distribution program every other week, through which they provide some 250–400 boxes of food and household items to community residents. The people who participate in helping on Saturday mornings are from the local community.

Despite ongoing efforts by many Matthew 25 congregations to work toward dismantling structural racism, Bodisco Massink said that he is constantly astounded by the barriers that have been raised over 300–400 years of colonialism.

“There are churches in our denomination who are doing excellent things, but it is not enough to make a dent,” he said. “Read the Sermon on the Mount! We have to look at this alternative plan of Jesus, and Matthew 25 is a part of it. Are you willing to go to prison to visit people there? Are you willing to spend Saturday mornings in a food distribution meeting with people who don’t speak your language?”

As both longtime peacemakers continue to advocate for deeper engagement at the congregational, mid council and national levels, Herring said that the Church is called to do more than just believe.

“We Presbyterians have a history of salvation by grace through faith, where all you have to do is just have faith and any problem we have will be remedied,” he said. “This is the core of what I have uncovered in the New Testament: It’s about doing. It’s about making a switch to action. It’s about pragmatic, practical problem solving here and now.”

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to continue the valuable ministry of the Peacemaking Program.

Click here to watch an announcement about “Between 2 Pulpits,” from the Office of Special Offerings, becoming a podcast this fall!

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