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Running the race on a ‘stony road’

A Presbyterian Center celebration of Black History Month

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

Sterling Morse preaches at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

LOUISVILLE – Sounds of the Black National Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing permeated the chapel at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Center as employees celebrated Black History Month during today’s chapel service.

Sterling Morse, coordinator of the African American Intercultural Congregational Support Office in Racial Ethnic & Women’s Ministries of the PC(USA), preached from “the book of faith,” Hebrews 12:1-3 titled “Faith on a Stony Road.”

Morse reminded the audience, “For over 400 years, African Americans have been forced to run this race on what James Weldon Johnson called a ‘stony road.’ It is a metaphor for running at a disadvantage. This metaphor was accurately portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures, as Katherine Johnson had to carry her workload literally to the restroom in another building, in the rain, several times a day, and still meet deadlines. No president in the history of the country ever had to walk the road Obama walked. The stony road is a road of trials; a series of tests that the person must undergo on the journey to wholeness and transformation.”

He went on to tell those gathered, “As I reflect on the initial verses found in chapter 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews, as a card-carrying member of the African experience in America, roughly from 1611 to now, I find comfort in the very first word — ‘therefore.’”

Morse pointed out that the writer of the passage refers to the journey as a race and was “very intentional about connecting the past to the present, and helping readers to see that they are not operating in a vacuum, that the conditions and situations that lie before them are not merely random occurrences, but that they are part of a historical faith journey.”

The comfort, Morse said, “comes in knowing that, on the road, we are not left alone to work out our salvation by ourselves, but that there is a cheering section, in heaven and on earth, a cloud of witnesses, whose testimony will provide us with the spiritual capacity to run the race.

When asked if the race referred to in Hebrews is still relevant to African Americans today, Morse, a graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary — the only Black Presbyterian Seminary — said, “If you have ever stepped on a stone while walking or stubbed your toe on a rock, you know the discomfort and agony involved. Now, think of walking on stones as your norm.”

“Traveling on a stony road is painful and slow,” he said. “James Weldon Johnson’s use of the word ‘trod’ in Lift Every Voice and Sing is significant. ‘Trod’ is the past tense of ‘tread,’ which means to press or crush under foot.

“The road for African Americans has been disdainfully cruel and harsh; having to make the barefooted journey against the pitfalls of Black Codes, the rocks and rills of Jim Crow, and plodding along the blood soaked ground of lynching trees. The African American’s race required enduring the hurdles of discrimination, the snags of systemic oppression and the snares of police brutality.”

Ending his remarks on a hopeful note Morse said, “No matter what the world may say or do, African Americans keep pressing on, with our eyes fixed on Jesus. We look to a place and time in this country where justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. We look to a place where all voices are heard and all votes means something and the socio-economic playing field is level.”

The African American Intercultural Congregational Support Office assists the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in addressing the needs of African American Congregations. It works in partnership with mid councils to nurture conversations and facilitate ministries that will transform African-American congregations into more vibrant and healthier congregations.

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For more information on some of the historical and present day outstanding African-American Presbyterians, click here.


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