In the midst of this Labor Day weekend, I was reminded of a piece I wrote for my church’s newsletter last year after a trip to St. Louis and thought I’d share it here.
Normally my Labor Day weekends are pretty non-eventful and I use the extra day to catch up on rest, reading or household projects. But this past Labor Day weekend busted that mold. I travelled to St. Louis, MO to attend the Leadership Development and Resource Weekend. LDR, as it’s commonly known, was started by a group of African-American students in conjunction with mentors at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN, a church of the PCA. The gathering has grown over the years into a multi-cultural representation of PCA members and friends to consider ways in which the church can address areas of disparities.
This year’s theme of the conference was Orthodox Activism: the Church in Pursuit of Social Justice. Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, crafter of the resolution on civil rights that was presented at the 43rd General Assembly, gave the first plenary address and what rousing presentation. Dr. Lucas examined the doctrine of the spirituality of the church as cited in our WCF 31.5 calling for the church, “not to meddle with civil affairs . . . unless by way of humble petition, in cases extraordinary.” Throughout the history of American Presbyterianism, the doctrine of spirituality had been used selectively as the basis for uninvolvment in matters of social affairs, most notably civil rights. However, Dr. Lucas pointed out that the doctrine had been inconsistently applied and exhorted the hearers to consider ways in which the church should rightfully engage in matters of social justice for the cause of the gospel.
The weekend drew to a close with an apropos visit to one of St. Louis’ oldest Presbyterian churches that had great significance for the work of the church. Memorial Presbyterian Church, as it is now named, was established in 1868 as a gospel experiment that began a few years prior, in 1864. While the Civil War was headed to a close, some Confederate and Union soldiers wanted to test the biblical call for unification of the body of Christ comprised of radically diverse people without any preference to race or political sympathies. Imagine that! At a time when a war was fought in large part over the outcome of it’s black citizens, most of whom did not even share equal citizenship, racial and political lines were set aside for the sake of the gospel.
Even more amazing, is that a domestic cook and former slave by the name of Mary Jane Townsend was very instrumental in the development of this gospel-centered work. Ms. Townsend developed Memorial’s Leonard Ave Mission, which significantly contributed to the establishment of this church. She later founded Berea Presbyterian Church in in 1887.
Naturally, there were tensions that the church needed to overcome especially in light of the cultural tone of the day. The church was not without struggle in this regard. As noted on the church’s website, “Overcoming racism inside and outside the church, Ms. Townsend established Berea Presbyterian Church out of Memorial thirty years later, saving her wages to pay the $3700 for a manse to attract an ordained minister for her black congregation.’
Yet, the effort to transcend the natural inclinations towards division of races is prominently displayed in this 1877 letter from the Session to the congregation;
It was distinctly understood at the time of our organization, that we would know in the house of God, no political parties or sectional sympathies, and the assertion was made good by the election of Ruling Elders and Deacons of opposite political sentiments, some being in favor of the North, and some wishing the success of the South, in the war that was then hastening to it’s close. More colored persons were members of this church . . . than any other congregation . . . in this city, and the applicants for admission into our communion were constantly received without the slightest reference to nation or race or politics.
While on tour in the archive room in the basement of the church, senior pastor, Greg Johnson explained that the ellipsis represent areas where the label “white church” had been used as the standard, which inadvertently had the impact of subordinating its black congregants. But the work this church established given the culture of it’s day, extraordinarily reverberated the call to live as a body where members are considered equal in Christ.
Reading this portion of the Session letter reminded me of two things: 1) it takes a concerted effort of the whole church to embrace the biblical call for reconciliation where divisions are likely to occur and 2) we don’t overcome prejudices simply by brushing them away. It takes confrontation with tendencies towards any biases that exist.
This account of this congregation’s efforts drew my attention to Gal. 3:27-28, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Memorial Presbyterian demonstrated that the grace of God can bring races together in unison. This is the work of the church displaying the glorious appeal of the gospel to live as equal heirs to the promise.