Two PC(USA) churches in Charlotte are resolving the past while celebrating the risen Christ
by Ken Garfield | Special to Presbyterian News Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In this season of resurrection, two congregations are sharing an expression of renewal and reconciliation.
Back before the Civil War, members of First Presbyterian Church who owned slaves would often bring them to worship on Sunday. Masters and slaves would sit together in the pews of the uptown church, which was founded in 1821. As war loomed and tensions deepened, the slaves were relegated to the balcony, then to the basement.
In 1866, the Confederacy having surrendered the year before at Appomattox, those slaves believed it was time to be free. They left First Presbyterian and helped form their own house of worship a half-dozen blocks away. This new church, First United Presbyterian, was a partnership of three African American churches — Seventh Street Presbyterian, Brooklyn Presbyterian (named for the nearby African American neighborhood) and The Colored Presbyterian Church of Charlotte. That’s where “United” comes from.
Today, in the shadow of Charlotte’s gleaming skyscrapers, members of First Presbyterian and First United Presbyterian continue to praise God. Only now, on many Sundays and during Holy Week, they do it together. Among the worshipers are Black descendants of slaves and white descendants of slave masters, all praying that this coming together helps heal a nation still divided 155 years later.
“It is a holy expression of being the church,” says the Rev. Pendleton Peery of First Presbyterian Church.
“It is an acceptance, an embracing of our past,” says the Rev. Lorenzo R. Small Sr. of First United Presbyterian Church. “The way to healing is not hiding our past.”
Holy Week has offered a golden opportunity to be the church, as Peery says. On Palm Sunday, Perry and Small each delivered homilies at a joint online service. On Maundy Thursday, the two congregations will join in a drive-through Communion open to the community. On Good Friday, an online Tenebrae service will bring the two congregations together. On Easter Sunday, the two congregations will each return to their own sanctuaries for a live service with limited attendance.
The first steps toward this reconciliation were taken several years ago — a meal here, a Bible study there. But as Peery acknowledges, “Being able to worship together is a different relationship than sharing a cup of coffee.” Two modern-day tragedies deepened this effort to heal racial wounds. In 2016 in Charlotte, the shooting death of an African American man, Keith Lamont Scott, by an African American police officer sparked riots and led to one civilian death. In 2020 in Minneapolis, the death of an African American, George Floyd, at the hands of police officers triggered worldwide violence. The murder trial of one of those officers is under way now.
Peery says the two episodes forced his congregation of 2,000 to take off its rose-colored glasses. “It demanded that we have a conversation about race. We opened our eyes and acknowledged our history.”
First, after studying its past, the session of First Presbyterian Church sent a letter of apology to First United Presbyterian, whose congregation numbers 160. The letter confessed to acts of racism, prejudice, indignity and indifference. Out of that came a plan to share worship twice a year, once at each church.
Then when the pandemic struck and most churches nationwide went virtual, Peery and Small agreed to lead one online worship service — together. What better time to seek healing than during a pandemic? Symbolically, and also practically, it was a profound act. First Presbyterian’s service is televised live each Sunday at 11 a.m. on WAXN-TV in Charlotte. Some 20,000 or more households tune in each week, meaning this partnership resonates far beyond the two congregations.
Members of the two congregations are proud to play a role in reshaping a legacy. “There’s not a lot that is unanimous in church,” Peery says, “but there has been unanimous support for this.”
Julia McLean, 74, is an eighth-generation member of First Presbyterian Church. While not sure whether her father’s descendants owned slaves, she says members of her mother’s family in Texas were slave owners. More than 150 years later, she feels remorse for what happened generations ago. She also feels led to stand up against prejudice in her own lifetime, recalling the whites- and Blacks-only water fountains that existed when she was a child growing up in Charlotte. Then and now, McLean says, “It’s wrong.”
This Holy Week, two churches in Charlotte celebrate a new day.
“God’s ultimate plan and joy,” says Perry, “is bringing about wholeness and healing. These moments are evidence of the providence of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit.”
Ken Garfield is a freelance writer/editor in Charlotte, N.C., focusing on faith, values and charitable causes. Reach him at email@example.com.
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Categories: Racial Justice
Tags: easter worship, first presbyterian church charlotte north carolina, first united presbyterian church charlotte north carolina, george floyd, holy week, joint worship, julia mclean, Keith Lamont Scott, ken garfield, letter of apology, rev. lorenzo r. small sr., rev. pendleton peery, tenebrae service
Ministries: Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice