Churches take on racial injustice

A moment becomes a movement

By Cindy Corell | Presbyterians Today

When participating in Black Lives Matter protests, the Rev. Carl Hilton VanOsdall of First Presbyterian Church in Barre, Vt., holds a sign up inviting people who oppose the protests to talk. To date, no one has taken the pastor up on his offer. Courtesy of Carl Hilton VanOsdall

The Rev. Ashley Drake Mertz wished her Weatherford, Texas, congregation were face-to-face when she preached her sermon online in early June. She had something important to say about the worldwide rallies for racial justice that were taking place in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. And the pastor wasn’t going to mince words.

Months into a pandemic that had closed workplaces, overwhelmed medical facilities and paralyzed communities, police killed another unarmed Black man in America. Floyd’s death on May 25 reignited long-burning embers of systemic racism and injustice. By early summer, the clarion call for justice in Floyd’s murder had erupted into rallies and protests. Pastors quickly prepared to fold the cry for justice into prayers and sermons.

Mertz’s congregation at Grace First Presbyterian Church was not surprised that their relatively new pastor would tackle the subject head-on. She had been clear with the nominating committee during her interview in mid-January 2019 that she was not going to “shy away from the issues in the world.”

The Rev. Dr. Alex Evans of Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Va., takes part in a movement to dismantle a statue of Robert E. Lee, for which the church he serves was instrumental in raising funds generations ago. Courtesy of Alex Evans

“We are in the midst of a moral revolution,” she preached. “It’s going to be long, and it’s going to be hard, requiring us to truly examine ourselves individually and institutionally, but it is necessary, and it will bring healing and wholeness. It will bring us closer to God’s kingdom.”

Mertz also called out a tradition in the church to keep a wall between church and state, calling it an “excuse to live out lives of privilege and ignoring our compliance with oppression.”

“But, friends, the church is the very place where issues of morality should be encountered head-on,” she said. “And this should not be done solely from the pulpit. It should be done in conversation — in relationship with one another.”

She then called for the congregation to participate in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, hosted by Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. The challenge was designed by Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., founder of America & Moore: Diversity, Education, Research and Consulting. In a church with about 100 people in attendance on average (before COVID-19), 20 signed up to further their understanding of power, privilege, supremacy, oppression and equity for 21 days through articles, podcasts and videos.

“The hope in having people participate in the 21-day challenge was to have people begin engaging in a very difficult conversation and to begin learning together healthier ways to talk about race and racial inequities through creating a safe space and encouraging thoughtfulness in the dialogue,” Mertz said.

Confession and cultural change

In Richmond, Virginia, which was the second capital of the Confederacy, the Rev. Dr. Alex Evans of Second Presbyterian Church knew he would be planning Moses Hoge Sunday on June 28, honoring the church’s first and longest-serving minister. What he didn’t realize was how closely Hoge’s service to church and community — from 1845 to 1899 — would be tied to the coming protests.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wasted little time joining nationwide calls for the removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the city’s famed Monument Avenue. Evans’ predecessor, the Rev. Dr. O. Benjamin Sparks, shared with him that not only had Second Presbyterian under Hoge’s leadership been a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, the congregation, along with First Presbyterian Church, which is not far away from Second Presbyterian, had raised funds and helped dedicate the famous monument to Lee.

“We confess that our forebearers had worked to put the monuments up,” Evans told a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We are confessing that and working to bring them down.”

A sign created by a member of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church for a recent racial justice protest. Courtesy of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church

Standing in the pulpit where Hoge offered the Word of God for so many decades, Evans acknowledged Hoge’s deep ties to the Confederacy that fought to keep humans in bondage. It’s a peculiar dichotomy, uncomfortable and chafing, but it requires examination.

“It is estimated that as many as 100,000 soldiers of the Confederacy heard the gospel from Hoge’s lips. But did they hear the gospel? Or did they hear some cultural interpretation of the gospel?” Evans asked.

Evans admits that had he been Second Presbyterian’s first pastor rather than its 12th, he, too, might have fallen into the culture of the Confederacy as Hoge had.

“The pull of culture in our time is as strong as it was in Hoge’s time, and in order to make the powerful, long-lasting change to nullify racism, we must change our culture,” Evans said. “We have to be intentional in how we have lived, how we live.”

Willa Jacob, who has attended Second Presbyterian since the mid-1990s, said she is drawn to the church because, in spite of its complicated history, it has a strong bent toward justice and mission. When protests erupted after Floyd’s death, Jacob said she was hoping to hear the topic addressed by her church. She was not disappointed.

Evans’ sermon that Sunday was from Mark 8:22–26, where Jesus’ healing of the blind man had to be performed twice before he was able to see.

Evans pointed out that that’s not unlike how we as a society have waited decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to take to the streets to cry out for justice for people of color.

“Jesus asks if we can see clearly. Are we seeing, and then finally finding ourselves enlightened? Or are we not really seeing, with clarity, with conviction, as God’s people?” Evans preached. Soon after hearing the sermon, Jacob had a conversation with a young woman who was feeling hopeless and offered these words: “Perhaps it is the quest for enlightenment that matters?”

How long, O Lord?

At Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Rev. Dr. Byron A. Wade, soon to be the general presbyter of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina beginning Oct. 1, is accustomed to preaching and teaching social justice. The church was established in 1868 when destructive remnants of the Civil War still were raw in southern states. First as a church school, then later as a church known for its music and community service, Davie Street Presbyterian has been a beacon for the faithful for generations. And speaking out against racial violence has long been a theme of its messages.

Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, N.C., recently created a Racial Equity Task Force to educate — and mobilize — its mostly white congregation in taking action to fight injustices. Courtesy of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church

After Floyd’s death, Wade’s congregation, like those in so many Black churches, felt the ache of injustice once again. “We are in a season of, ‘How long, O Lord, will you turn away from us?’” Wade said.

With a son beginning college, Wade said he feels the fear personally. “My biggest challenge is not to get too mad,” he said of the sermons he writes and delivers. “You have to be able to control your emotions. I keep my feelings in check, and I try to focus on the good news.”

Indeed, in a recent sermon from Psalm 13, he highlighted verse 6: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me.”

The global outpouring of support for all people of color facing discrimination has surprised — and encouraged — Wade. “In order for equality and equity to go on, we can’t do it alone. We need the white people to come along beside us,” he said. “Just to see the level of people coming to an awareness is amazing.”

Preach from a place of witness

Forming relationships with people who are different is crucial for delivering an authentic sermon message on racial justice. There is great power in preaching from a place of witness. “Really examine what justice and oppression look like in the Bible in order to engage in the world,” Wade said. “We altogether are called by Jesus Christ to work for those who are oppressed.”

For the Rev. Dr. Marian Taylor, pastor of South Frankfort Presbyterian Church in Kentucky, bringing a gospel message on the brutality of racial oppression means educating herself first — and continually. She studies documents, but most importantly, she enters into relationship with people who are different from her. A year spent in Haiti showed her the ways these friendships deepen her personal journey.

While studying for her doctorate in political science from Harvard University in 1986, Taylor spent a year in Haiti researching her dissertation on community development. Learning the language and working in a rural community, she relied on local people.

“In Haiti, I could only succeed if I learned. I could only learn if people wanted to teach me,” she said. “I could not succeed if I did not have Haitians to teach me.”

Taylor says drawing on relationships helps relate tough topics like racism and oppression to her congregation. In her community, Taylor works closely with a diverse ministerial association. Before COVID-19 forced churches to meet online, she and about two dozen other white clergy began studying and meeting with Black clergy. The study groups met in person four times, pausing for the pandemic and then began gathering online.

“They were very rich conversations,” Taylor said, “even for an old journeyman like myself. These were new insights, new horizons.”

Taylor also has found a richness in partnering with Black churches, even informally, and being open to ways congregations can join in learning about different traditions and cultures.

“It’s about respecting other people’s expertise,” she said.

We are called by Jesus Christ

The Rev. Laura Viau had preached only four Sundays at Shallotte Presbyterian Church in southeastern North Carolina before the pandemic closed churches in March. When America’s racial justice protests erupted after Floyd’s killing, though, Viau, an interim pastor leading the congregation in its search for a shepherd, began sharing her views of antiracism and white supremacy on social media. “In these times, it’s just too important,” she said.

But from the pulpit, Viau was careful with her words. The congregation was not accustomed to social issues in sermons, she says, and the lack of in-person connection slowed her natural inclination to speak as boldly as she felt.

“After George Floyd, I didn’t go into [racial justice] directly. I would have come in with both guns blazing, like a whipsaw. I don’t know if that would have been helpful, though. I don’t know that it wouldn’t have been heard,” said Viau.

As part of a community prayer vigil, members of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in North Carolina created balloons bearing the names of Black lives lost to violence. Courtesy of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church

Shallotte Presbyterian is overwhelmingly white, a mostly retired congregation with some members from local Coastal Carolina, and other retirees from elsewhere. They are a mix — from conservative to liberal. Viau said members have considered some racial equity work around local history. Wilmington is 45 minutes away, with a deep and long-lasting history of violence against Black people.

Two decades after the Civil War ended, Wilmington was a progressive community with Black city council members and Black people serving as magistrates and police officers. A Black middle class was thriving there, with dozens of doctors, lawyers and other professionals. But by 1898, white resentment, which had been festering since the 14th Amendment passed decades earlier, boiled over. That amendment assured former slaves all advantages of citizenship with equal protection under the law. In November, white supremacists attacked Wilmington, burned Black businesses and forced Black people out of positions of power. In the weeks after the coup, 2,100 African Americans fled Wilmington. The white press referred to the attack as a race riot begun by African Americans. White supremacy spread from Wilmington throughout North Carolina. More recently, the Wilmington Police Department fired three officers after they were inadvertently recorded complaining that police should take a harder line against people protesting violence against Black people.

“How does that shape us?” Viau asked, adding, “I think for a long time, pastors didn’t want to get into these conversations, but I think people are more open [to learning] than we give them credit for.” The goal, she said, is to be able to be in conversations in love and respect. “Walking through these times in community is what we are called to do,” she said. “These are God’s beloved children crying out for justice. We are God’s beloved church.”

A northern perspective

Since the 2016 U.S. Census revealed that Vermont is 95% white, the Green Mountain state — known for Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — added being the “whitest state” in the country to the list of things it is known for. Still, the census showed the number of Black Vermonters doubling, with diversity increasing in the state among residents 18 and younger.

And signs of its growing diversity are literally being seen with “Black Lives Matter” signs peppering the rural roads of little hamlets such as Rupert, in Vermont’s southern tier.

In the small city of Barre, Vermont, racial justice rallies have been active, but they haven’t drawn big crowds, says the Rev. Carl Hilton VanOsdall. And when the occasional motorist drives by, shouting discouraging remarks like “All Lives Matter!”, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church holds a sign that reads: “Talk for 5 minutes?”

“I haven’t had anyone take me up on it yet,” VanOsdall said.

While VanOsdall’s congregation is predominantly white, mirroring Vermont’s demographic, it hasn’t ignored what is happening in the world. Through its involvement with Vermont Interfaith Action, the church has participated in the Poor People’s Campaign, responding to issues of poverty, homelessness and access to education. Building on priorities set by his predecessor, VanOsdall and the session introduced the congregation to the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge hosted by Myers Park Presbyterian. From a church that usually (before COVID-19) draws 45 to 50 members on an average Sunday, 20 people signed on for the challenge.

“It’s encouraging,” VanOsdall said, noting that a recent newcomer to the church was impressed by the social justice conversations there. “People want to do something more than talking about it.”

Talk gives way to action

At Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, members were fed up. They had heard the news of the violent deaths of so many Black men and women. They had prayed. And they wanted to do more. It was time to act.

“We were tired of lamenting,” said the Rev. Mary Katherine Robinson. And so, the Racial Equity Task Force was created.

The interest in such a task force started with a Sunday school class exploring issues of narrative and race after the Charlottesville, Virginia, riot in 2018. The task force came into being in 2019.

Black Mountain is a mostly white community, but there have been prayer vigils and marches in response to Floyd’s death. The Presbyterian congregation showed up at one such vigil intent on listening to Black voices. The church also supported Black leaders in their community by holding a prayer vigil where volunteers inflated black balloons and inscribed them with the names of slain, unarmed Black people such as Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Terence Crutcher and Demarcus Semer.

“We want to listen and learn from Black leaders in our community. We don’t have the answers on how to fix these issues of race, but it’s time for us to do the difficult and painful work of digging deep and seeing how we are a part of the problem,” said Robinson, adding that task force members also advocate for changes within their community by writing letters to local government leaders and pressing the local police to budget for diversity training.

As a PC(USA) Matthew 25 congregation committed to dismantling structural racism — one of the three focuses of the Matthew 25 invitation — this year’s summer worship series was on creating the “beloved community,” a term coined by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The first two sermons of the series coincided with the riots in Minneapolis. The series started off with Robinson preaching on the politics of love and delved into issues of race, identity and belonging.

Black Mountain Presbyterian also signed on to Myers Park Presbyterian’s 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, which began in early June with Zoom conversations hosted by Black Mountain Presbyterian’s Racial Equity Task Force co-moderators, Lisle and Paul Gwynn Garrity. About 60 church members participated. “Members were able to express their complex feelings,” said Robinson. “We worked in small groups to process videos and articles on race, and members delved deeply into how the Holy Spirit was transforming their hearts and minds.”

The 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge reminded Robinson of an experience with Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta when she was a seminary student. Several Presbyterians spent a night sleeping outside among the homeless people of the city. “God’s spirit was present in palpable and transformational ways,” she said. “I feel that same fire today. All of this work is giving me a new commitment.”

That commitment can be seen clearly in the last paragraph of the statement of the Black Mountain Presbyterian Racial Equity Task Force that speaks not only of its quest to become the beloved community, but also captures a growing movement in Presbyterian churches across the country: “We are beginning this journey in our own congregation. We do not have answers but intend to start asking questions.”

“We are not the beloved community yet,” said Robinson. “But we are getting a glimpse of what we want to be.”

Cindy Corell is a mission co-worker serving in Haiti, currently living in Virginia during the pandemic. She is a former journalist who began mission service in 2013.


Suggested reading for congregations

The following is a list of books suggested for congregations to read on their own or as part of a study group:

  • “Good White Racist? Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice” by Kerry Connelly (March 2020)
  • “For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World” by Michael W. Waters (coming in September 2020)
  • “Ten Essential Strategies for Becoming a Multiracial Congregation” by Jacqueline J. Lewis and John Janka (March 2018)
  • “Brian the Brave” by Paul Stewart and Jane Porter (children’s book, August 2019)
  • “No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice” by Shannon Craigo-Snell and Christopher Doucot (October 2017)
  • “Preaching About Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders” by Carolyn B. Helsel (December 2018)
  • “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism” by Carolyn B. Helsel (February 2018)
  • “Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds” by David Maxwell and Otis Moss III (May 2016)
  • “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” by Debby Irving (January 2014)
  • “Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor” by Layla F. Saad (January 2020)

Learn more

The PC(USA) has compiled an extensive list of helpful resources for congregations.

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