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Buried in the church columbarium


By confessing the story of a racist gift, a Cincinnati congregation takes the first step in dismantling structural racism

August 19, 2021

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One hundred years ago, Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati accepted a racist gift which aided the church in constructing its new building. The will from a woman who wanted to be buried in the walls of the church said the gift was to be for “a church of the white race only.” (Photo by Mike Fitzer/Film 180)

The gift of $22,000, which after legal fees would be worth around $250,000 in today’s dollars, was given to Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati exactly 100 years ago to aid the congregation in constructing a new church. But according to Knox’s pastor, the Rev. Adam Fronczek, there was “some lore” in the congregation about the gift, which came from a woman who wanted to be buried inside the walls of the church.

Hearing that there may have been a racist component to the gift, Knox’s session went into the historical archives and found the person’s will. There they saw the request and the explicit language from the woman, who’s buried in the Knox columbarium. Her gift was to be “for the white race only, for a church of the white race only.”

Fronczek said his body “tightened up” when he saw that language.

“We as a present-day congregation are continuing to benefit from the wealth we were given in this gift,” he said. “That is structural racism. And that is what we’ve got to stop and confess and lament.”

Learning the truth that the church accumulated wealth in this way, Knox’s session committed the church to a new racial justice ministry that has a three-part mandate: to listen, to learn, and to act. As a part of that mandate, the session added $50,000 to the church’s annual budget to support the work of racial justice, which is just beginning.

“It was our feeling if we tried to make this payment a one-time commitment, we might fall into the trap of saying, ‘OK, we did this, so we’re not racist anymore,’” Fronczek said.

According to ruling elder Maggie Gieseke, it was important to Knox’s Racial Justice Task Force to begin working toward dismantling structural racism, one of the foci of the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 vision, into the fabric of the congregation. So, instead of giving a bunch of money and then walking away, they asked each other, “How do we make this part of our church?”

And when it came to the action part, she said, the session decided to share the story with the entire congregation to help members and friends understand how they had benefited from this act of racism a century ago.

“This is how we were able to build this congregation and have all of these blessings and gifts,” Gieseke said. “And it isn’t right. Racism is not a Christian act. We benefited from this anti-Christian act.”

The fact that the church accepted the gift without question was “very, very disturbing” to ruling elder Kerry Duke. He’d always thought of himself as a non-prejudiced person who wasn’t racist. But as he started to do some head work around that, he and other Knox members attended the 2019 NEXT Church conference in Seattle.

“That conference showed me that wasn’t quite enough. Some heart stuff needed to be worked on as well,” he said.

Some of Duke’s “heart learning” comes from just observing Knox’s 20-year relationship with a largely Black congregation, Third Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, and noticing the inequities in the two churches’ neighborhoods.

When Third Church’s ruling elder, Rodney Christian, got the news about the gift Knox had taken 100 years ago, he said he was “a little bit sad.” But as president of the East Westwood Community Council, Christian felt confident about the long-term relationship he has had with Knox over the years.

“So that just overrides a lot of things,” he said.

Christian said that Knox’s relationship with Third has impacted not just the congregations, but also the East Westwood community, including its children. Many who are adults now developed relationships with Knox volunteers at the tutoring and feeding ministry he runs out of Third’s basement. Knox also worked closely with him on a neighborhood community garden and new basketball court and playground.

“What we have to do to make it better is to start performing love and tenderness on every one of the stages God has given us,” he said. “We have to let people see us doing things together out in public. We got to go outside these walls.”

Paul Seebeck, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Dismantling structural racism

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Manuel Silva-Esterrich, Manager, Call Process Support, Ordered Ministry & Certification,  Office of the General Assembly
T. Clark Simmons, Senior Church consultant, Atlanta GA, Church Engagement, Board of Pensions

Let us pray

Loving Spirit, you bind us to yourself and to one another. Send us into this world joyfully proclaiming our risen Savior, that the world might know your boundless love as it is lived out in us. Amen.