Navigating church, faith and race

Two Presbyterian pastors discuss what they’ve learned about leading intercultural congregations

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Hannah Busing on Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Born in 1946, the Rev. Nibs Stroupe, now retired after serving for 34 years at the intercultural Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, grew up “in a totally segregated society” in Helena, Arkansas. He said he saw Black folk “all the time” while growing up, but “they didn’t feel like people” until he did some work in Brooklyn, New York as a young adult.

A member of Generation X, the Rev. Adriene Thorne, now pastor of an intercultural congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland, leaving the Roman Catholic church of her birth for about a decade because of “the hypocrisy” over race and LGBGQ issues.

How these two intercultural leaders came to be where they are now is the subject of a 76-minute workshop aired during the Intercultural Transformation Workshops, which concluded last weekend. Listen to their conversation with the Rev. Samuel Son, the PC(USA)’s manager of diversity and reconciliation, on “Navigating Church, Faith and Race,” by clicking here.

After Thorne returned to the church following college, her mother, “an incredibly wise woman,” reminded her daughter that “all people in church are hypocrites. We’re all trying to do the best we can.”

“I credit her for having the faith I have,” Thorne said. “She is still a staunch Catholic, even though people refused to pass the peace with my mother because they didn’t want to shake her Black hand. She’s considered one of the pillars of the church and she stayed with the community that rejected her when she first arrived.”

Stroupe said his father left his family when he was a young boy. “The church understood the huge pain of missing my dad,” he said. Men from the church would take him to baseball games. “I felt like I really like this stuff,” he told Son and Thorne. He said he told God, “I just want (faith) to stay uncomplicated. Just let me believe in you like I do now. You’re my father in the sky.”

He said he had a break with the church when he realized people of color “were human beings like me.” Church people told him they wanted to hear about his eye-opening experiences in Brooklyn. “I did that, and it was met by stony silence,” he said. “Another person had gone up north and been Yankee-fied. I said, ‘I’m outta here.’”

The only time he returned to the church for years afterward was to speak in Memphis churches during the garbage strike the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had helped organize shortly before he was assassinated in 1968.

“We would interrupt worship in white churches. We were universally rejected,” Stroupe said.

Later, Stroupe gave up his draft status and dropped out of seminary. “The Draft Board was happy to draft me,” he said. Rather than fight in Vietnam, he became a conscientious objector, running a halfway house in Nashville from 1970-72 for men coming out of prison. “It was an eye-opener, this parade of Black men going into prison,” he said. “They were all poor people. There were no rich people I ever met in prison.”

He got married and finished seminary. He and his clergywoman spouse accepted a call to a mission church in Norfolk, Virginia, ministering to a large apartment complex of low-income people living in what was formerly Navy housing.  It was here he had another awakening.

“I had in my heart there was something wrong with gays and lesbians,” he said. The church was set to nominate a woman to become a ruling elder, but she told Stroupe she couldn’t because she was a lesbian. “I thought, I can’t believe that. You are married and have kids,” he said. Then Stroupe had another thought: “If Alice was going to be excluded by God from the beloved community, definitely none of us were in,” he said. “I thought, this is a learned behavior. I’m going to unlearn it.”


The Rev. Nibs Stroupe is retired after 34 years of ministry at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. (Contributed photo)

“If I have to chose between church and the humanity of others,” he said, “I’m going with the humanity of others.”

Before pastoral ministry, Thorne had a career in the performing arts. “Artists to me are the prophets of today,” she said. To see and hear “artists show their faith in what they were painting, dancing or composing got me thinking differently about theology.” During the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, she began volunteering with the organization God’s Love We Deliver, which provided meals to patients homebound in the City of New York.

“When I chopped pound of onions for hours, contributing by making good nourishing food for people who may not be there next week, it was humbling,” she said, and therapeutic as well.

A theater person helped her return to the church, and she began attending all manner of worship. “I befriended people of different faiths,” she said. Now she serves a congregation with significant Black, Latinx and Asian-American populations.

The Rev. Adriene Thorne is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn in the City of New York. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church)

“It’s not just Black and white,” she said. “The struggle for Black Americans is an important conversation, but it intersects with others.” First Presbyterian Church celebrates a variety of cultural events. Thorne said she remembers one year working with LGBTQ+ parishioners in the lead-up to Pride Month. She told them: “With all this amazing energy and different backgrounds, would you be willing to bring this same energy and creativity to other celebrations?”

“They said yes, because they have friends who are these people and they work well in groups,” Thorne said.

A rabbi friend once told her that mission-driven organizations like churches and synagogues are places of tension “over how we will achieve the mission, and we have to accept that tension,” she said. “If we try to enlarge the frame or stretch the table, it will create tension. What are churches if they are not mission-driven organizations? We are not all going to agree, and we are not all going to get on the same bus. When you free yourself from that (thinking), you will sleep better at night.”

“A gift of the intercultural church,” Stroupe said, “is you learn to play a different song, like jazz, where you add notes. You’ve got to practice a lot and you’re going to make lots of mistakes, but once you do, like Paul, you are not ashamed of the gospel. Like jazz, you begin to hear a different song in a different way, different melodies not over against, but adding to. That’s a metaphor for intercultural ministry.”

White churches, he said — and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remains 89% white — “need to be thinking about what God looks like. Do I really believe in the God who loves me and loves others?” White worship, he said, “must be welcoming” to people worshiping from other cultures.

“We are going to be making lots of mistakes” moving to an intercultural model of being the church, Stroupe said. Presbyterians could well be like the ancient Israelites, “moaning and groaning and wishing we were back at grandmother’s church.” But “emerging leaders will help us out … We are trying to build a community that reflects the God of all people. In the end, if you work on it and seek to be a child of God, you will hear a whole different song.”

And if building a diverse community isn’t going as fast as you’d like it to, “there are ways to bring in other voices, theologians who don’t look like you,” Thorne said. Listen to podcasts and sermons from sources you don’t agree with, she suggested. “Often there’s something that is useful and encouraging,” she said. “It’s good to mix it up to make sure the voices in your head come from a variety of people.”

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