by Holly Haile Thompson

I honor Green Rainbow, Uncle Louis Mofsie, Ho-Chunk/Hopi; Teacher of Culture to many generations, whose songs and dances echo all around the world and who models for us a dignified Elder. Tabutne… While we mourn 1,160,000 human beings, the number of worldwide deaths caused by Covid-19, November 2020.

“Ken kup-pe-andam-ouch wunnannum-monat neg samp-shanon-cheg wame neetomp eog. I pray that you bless and guide those who lead. A-hau. Tabutne.”

– A Shinnecock prayer

During my final year of seminary we were asked to write our own obituary. I’ve never forgotten that exercise, nor the humbling feeling of seeing one’s own life reduced to 5 or 6 sentences. It was a stark reminder that ‘from dust we have come and to dust we shall return.’ What happens in the meantime, the events themselves and – most meaningfully for me – our response to these things hopefully constitutes a worthy epitaph.

The ways in which we will live out our ministry can be unforeseen in the midst of our training, but I learned from examples set by the likes of Bartolome de Las Casas, The Rev. Samson Occom, Dr. Vine Deloria, Jr. and The Rev Dr. Katie Cannon, what we commit to paper may be the most important thing we can do with the witness that is given us. During the times when I’ve been “between churches” my ministry didn’t strictly reflect that for which I’d been trained, it manifested more copiously and broadly but with much less security and much more uncertainty; that freedom meant I was often unable to feed and house my family, yet that freedom offered me the undeniable opportunity to preach as if I weren’t worried about losing my job – and to do so far and wide.

How blessed are the poor – and the meek? How blessed are those who mourn and who go without? Are they cowered? Or are they emboldened to seek justice for their kindred? Must they be satisfied with a promised grand-reversal theology or might they be empowered to help usher in a divine corrective among the economically and politically disenfranchised? The five ‘wise and pious’ were unwilling to share their oil with the other five devout… yet those who refused to share were rewarded; the enslaved individuals were promoted or penalized by mimicking (or not) the questionable business practices of their Master. The goats’ calculated implementation of mercy has landed them in dire straits, while if a disciple’s understanding of ‘salvation’ doesn’t have them on sentry duty then outer-darkness may be in their future; this month’s lectionary includes Matthew 25, the hope of the PCUSA.

Several of my Native American colleagues suggested that each of us reflect upon Matthew 25 from our Indigenous perspectives, an exercise I enjoyed.

This is the 400th anniversary of the landing of the English refugees on Wampanoag land in what is now Massachusetts; 20 years hence other English arrived in the land of the Shinnecock where they were welcomed, fed, sheltered and provided with a place to live where they could hide from the Dutch who pursued them on the shores of Long Island. Surely this is the kind of discipleship and hospitality of which the Good News speaks, and obviously it wasn’t news to Nowedonah the Chief of the Shinnecocks at that time. In spite of his having traveled to Connecticut in 1637 to see first-hand the result of the massacre of the Pequot village led by Captain John Mason, our people “ministered to” the early strangers who almost immediately penned the first Deed forever dispossessing us of ‘Olde Towne’ in Shinnecock Territory.

So one Native American interpretation of the meaning of Matthew 25 is, and I paraphrase:

  • do what you were doing before the Whites came and stole your land, built fences, outlawed your spiritual practices and your language, polluted your water, began ‘family separation’ by taking children from their relatives and sending them off to Carlisle and Thomas – Residential/Boarding Schools to endure all manner of violence against their bodies, minds and against their culture, and
  • remember that we are Caretakers of our Mother the Earth, continue to practice hospitality and maintain your matrilineal and egalitarian societies wherein everyone eats when the whale is hunted, and
  • every Tribal Nation has woodland and waterfront that hunting and fishing is respected in each territory. and
  • beware of those who would prevent you from, “…being a free [person], free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my [parents], free to talk, think and act for myself”, as Chief Joseph eloquently stated

My Shinnecock reflection on Matthew 25 also requires the smallest observation of the place that punishment and punitive threats seems to play in the whole darn thing – “You did what!?!? Then damn you forever.” “You didn’t do what!?!?” Then damn you forever – again.

It takes nothing from me to declare to all of my siblings, Black Lives Matter; I speak against no one. It takes very little from me to occasionally recommit to walking with the PCUSA – even as they are among the last of the major protestant denominations to study, repudiate and discontinue the deadly, heretical, and inherently violent characteristics of the Doctrine of Discovery. This international doctrine of Christian domination wrongly codifies false religious/spiritual superiority, European and White privilege, justified the enslavement of human beings and murder; justified theft of land, water, timber, minerals, and murder; it justified centuries of family separation and, apparently, provides a lasting license to claim “humble-sheep” status among a world of wicked goats.

How much will engaging the world as a church newly committed to addressing and ending systemic racism, addressing and ending poverty bring a new vitality to our congregations, families and communities? It is exciting to know that we might build a new society that truly remembers how to include, respect and honor all of God’s children. This is all I have to say. Tabutne.

The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on indigenous theology and the lectionary.

Welcome to the Future

by Catherine Neelly Burton

I began this blog series with a working hypothesis: I live in the future of the PCUSA. What’s happening in southern Kansas is where the national church is headed. My conversations over the last five months haven’t entirely proven this as true, but there’s more data to support my hypothesis.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Presbytery of Southern Kansas declined in total membership by 25%. In that same period these presbyteries based in large metropolitan areas declined as well:

  • Mid-Kentucky (Louisville) – 20% decline
  • Heartland (Kansas City) – 17% decline
  • Charlotte – 11% decline
  • Greater Atlanta – 10% decline

I did not contact every presbytery in the PCUSA, but of the ones I contacted, none are growing. Yet, there is still this myth that success equals growth. This myth is particularly detrimental to our rural communities. We know that every year fewer and fewer Americans go to church. If churches in growing cities are in decline, our small shrinking communities have almost no chance by the metric of growth.

In 2009 the PCUSA launched the “For Such a Time as This Initiative.” This program took applicants through at least 2013. According to PCUSA literature the program was “designed to renew and grow small churches and help them to become healthy, missional congregations. The program pairs small, underserved congregations in rural, small town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates for a two-year pastoral-residency relationship, during which they are supported and guided by a cluster of pastor-mentors.”

On one hand I applaud this initiative because the PCUSA tried something new and creative. On the other hand, anyone who looked at the data for rural churches from the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s could have told you that numerical growth in churches in rural and small towns was nearly impossible. This initiative frustrated me because it set churches and pastors up for failure. I’m sure good things came from this initiative, but in the end, the church in my presbytery that had this program was back where it started and maybe even more defeated.

I appreciate the shift in conversation that our national church has made from growth to vitality with the Vital Congregations Initiative, but we’re way behind. The initiative will benefit the churches that participate, those with presbyteries who could staff the initiative. In general though, I think we’re headed for four distinct church models. My hypothesis continues.

The first model is that of the called and installed pastor. It will continue for churches that can afford it. As more and more urban congregations shrink, they’ll move to part time or bi-vocational models for pastoral leadership but (likely) still expect the same work out of their pastors. Because a lot of pastors choose to live in urban areas (for good reasons such as jobs for spouses and community) they’ll (likely) keep doing the work. The Board of Pensions recognizes this and is doing more for part-time pastors. This part-time or bi-vocational structure is model two and is what we’ll continue to see in big cities where there are more pastors than available calls.

In smaller cities, like Wichita, those churches that might get a part time pastor in a larger city like Atlanta, will close. We closed five churches in the city of Wichita between 2014 and 2019. This is model three, let the churches die. It happens in cities, towns, and rural communities.

My hope is that other cities and towns like Wichita, without seminaries or big draws for pastors, will fall into model four. Model four is let the people lead the churches. Several of the churches I got to know in this blog series are doing model four.

There aren’t a lot of pastors interested in moving to small Midwestern towns to be, perhaps, a congregation’s last full-time installed pastor. I don’t blame them. I don’t want that. I serve a church with an amazing staff in a lovely small city. My husband’s vocation means we’ll never live in a rural community. I’m not pointing fingers.

If these small and/or rural churches won’t have full-time installed pastors, what’s left? What’s left are the people, the people of God. What’s left are the people in Chase, KS, who supplement monthly food for 20% of their town. What’s left are commissioned ruling elders who figure out how to get trained despite no guidance and manage to capably lead congregations. What’s left are churches who band together to share resources and serve their communities. What’s left are the people who pray for one another and learn to preach and lead worship.

We don’t lack motivated, called people who love Jesus. We lack care about God’s people who live in small towns and rural communities. Fortunately, many of them haven’t waited for permission from the PCUSA, or presbyteries, or big churches. They’ve gone forward to be the church. With a little help, more could do the same and could teach the rest of us. Otherwise, we are the ones who get left behind.

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

Coffeyville, Kansas: Population 9,481

by Catherine Neelly Burton

Unless you’re looking for Coffeyville, Kansas, you’re not likely to happen upon it.  It’s located in southeast Kansas, a mile from the Oklahoma border.  I drove to Coffeyville on a hot June day.  What I saw as I drove through downtown was not much different than many small towns in Kansas: signs of new life and possibility mixed in with lots of empty storefronts.

There’s a museum dedicated to the Dalton Gang, many of whom were killed or prosecuted in Coffeyville.  There are a few new loft-like buildings that look like they could be in a much bigger city.  

Then there are the churches.  Shells of American Christendom line the downtown streets.  Enormous buildings bearing signs that read First Methodist, First Baptist, and the First Christian Church are a stone’s throw from each other on South Elm Street.  One quick turn takes you to First Presbyterian, equally as large. 

Photo by Josh Redd on Unsplash

As a community, Coffeyville has had a rough go of it.  In 1999 Amazon built a warehouse there and provided a lot of jobs.  Unfortunately for Coffeyville, people in cities want same day delivery, so in 2014 Amazon left as it moved warehouses to big city suburbs.  In 2007 a nearby river flooded.  The flood waters ravaged a third of the city, and even worse than that, a local refinery flooded, mixing oil with the river water.  Homes were lost forever.  

The town could use some wins.  Still, they have kept their community college and hospital.  Keeping the hospital is no small feat as hospitals all over Kansas have closed due to lack of funds tied to the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid. 

In 1999 the First Presbyterian Church had 193 members.  In 2019 the number was 75.  This 20-year decline is not much different than what I see elsewhere in our presbytery.  However, a church of 500 that drops to 250 can still support a pastor.  The Coffeyville church can’t, at least not a seminary trained, ordained, and installed pastor.  

The church in Coffeyville continues to be active in worship and ministry because in 2008 they called a Commissioned Ruling Elder (or Commissioned Lay Pastor as we said back then).  Pastor Diane Massey served churches for many years as a Director of Christian Education.  In 1999 she approached the presbytery of Southern Kansas about the Commissioned Lay Pastor program.  There was no program, so they gave her a stack of books to read and assigned her a mentor to meet with once a week for three years.  After that time she was commissioned to the church in Cambridge, KS.  

In 2008 she was ready to retire when Coffeyville asked her to come help them out for a one-year contract.  This turned into 12 years.  Every Wednesday and Sunday, Pastor Diane drives more than an hour each way from her home in Dexter, Kansas, to Coffeyville.  She and the session continue to renew her contract because the sense of call for Diane and the church is great.

As I think about what is next for the PCUSA I’m amazed by people like Diane, and I’m floored by how little we’ve invested in the Commissioned Ruling Elder process.  The good news is that there are a lot of people like Diane who love Jesus and love the Presbyterian Church, and who are gifted and capable leaders.  The future of the church, not only in Southern Kansas, can’t continue to rely on a model of MDiv pastors.  It is by God’s grace that Coffeyville has Diane, and I think the PCUSA could be more vibrant in small churches if we not only received God’s grace but also responded to it and empowered more leaders.

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

Chase, Kansas: Population 436

by Catherine Neelly Burton

By any standard, Chase, Kansas, is small. The 2018 census estimate put the population at 436. Of those 436 people, 13 are members of the Community Presbyterian Church which sits at the corner of Oak and Grove streets in the middle of the 186 acres that is Chase.

Photo by Kealan Burke on Unsplash

Chase was always small, but there was a time when small towns thrived. Fifty years ago, Chase had a movie theater, restaurants, and a hotel. Those things are long gone. There’s still a school and one gas station where you can get a burger. There’s also a part-time bank, a post office, a senior center, and the co-op, but you can’t buy groceries in town or see a doctor.

This scenario plays out again and again in Kansas and other parts of the country. Migration from small towns is not new. Nothing about this is remarkable. What’s remarkable is the impact that the Community Presbyterian Church continues to have.

The name of the church is important. Over 80 years ago members of three churches in Chase united and formed a community church. They wanted the structure of a denomination, and since none of the three were Presbyterian, they decided to become Presbyterian so as not to favor one of the three. The important thing was to be a community church, and in 2020 they are that more than ever.

  • A few years ago, the congregation bought the house next door to the church, gutted it, and turned it into a community food pantry where they serve about 30-40 families a month, or about 25-30% of the town. They fund this with donations, grants, and church resources.
  • Any time the school social worker needs shoes for a student, the church buys them.
  • The school social worker gives the church a list of gifts needed for children each Christmas. The church buys and delivers the presents.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The people in the church love God and love their neighbors, and they want to show God’s love. The church is fortunate to have money, not tons, but a steady source of income in addition to tithes and offerings. Years ago, a church member left some land to the church. The church gets money from an oil pipe that goes across that land and money from someone who farms on part of it.

For a long time, church members insisted on saving the money. When “the Depression era” generation gave up power to those who currently lead (now retirees), they started investing the money in the community and in keeping up their facility. They put an elevator in at their church, so the building is 100% accessible.

When a woman who grew up in Chase moved back home, she tried to start Sunday School for children. She knocked on every door in town, and no one came. Not deterred, she adapted and created a Wednesday after school program, advertised at the school, and kids came. The children are fed, they play games, do crafts, and learn Bible stories. As the elementary children aged out of the program the church started a middle school youth group on Sunday nights. The church started paying for these children to go to the presbytery camp each summer. This year 26 children and youth were registered before camp was cancelled.

How do 13 people do this? They don’t do it alone. They pull in their friends and neighbors, continuing the mission of the community church. They do worry about what will happen when they can’t continue, but for now they keep going.

I asked if they had ever had conversations with the town 12 miles away, which has a part time PCUSA pastor, about a yoked pastorate. They wondered aloud about what a pastor would do. The pulpit is filled by church members, retired pastors, and commissioned ruling elders, and they – the members and community – do everything else.

It struck me that most of the conversations I hear around rural churches circle back to a clergy shortage. Chase hasn’t had an installed pastor since the 1980’s and has done quite well. Perhaps it’s time that the broader church stop centering itself around pastors and instead center itself on mission like they’ve done in Chase, though if a pastor were fortunate enough to serve in a place like Chase, I think they’d have a lot of fun.

Chase, Kansas, is in Rice County, which as of June 1 has four confirmed cases of Covid-19. The people in Chase deal with problems of the world such as poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, and lack of opportunity, but the news cycles around the pandemic and protests seem very far away. I visited Chase (with my mask – good grief, I didn’t want to be a virus carrier from the city) on May 22, before any of us knew the name George Floyd, so I can’t speak to how the news resonates there.

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

I’m Rooting For Everybody Black!…. I Think?

by Whitney Fauntleroy

I spend a significant amount of time on Youtube every few months watching writer/producer/actor/model/unrequited BFF Issa Rae do press and various interviews. I was deep in one of these YouTube rabbit trails not too long ago and ran across her interview with a correspondent from Variety. The same correspondent to whom she told her now famous line on the Emmys red carpet in 2017, “I’m rooting for everybody black!” What a line, what a statement, what a vibe (as the young folx say)?  The film and television industry has historically been a very white industry where privilege and nepotism reign supreme. I know another mammoth institution that can claim this history, do you?

Photo by Panos Sakalakis on Unsplash

I have always thought I was a prophetic pastor. But I also recently read Jeremiah and was thinking up “hard pass.” I also really liked to be liked. Maybe more than I like speaking truth to power but maybe I am just insecure. Insecure about what? Insecure about the pressure of tokenism. Yes, there is some pressure in being one (or one of few) to represent your race, ethnicity, gender expression, or sexual identity. I grew up being called an “Oreo” and told “I was acting White” from late elementary school until maybe yesterday? And you know what the crazy thing is? I started to believe it. So if I believed I was an Oreo how could I speak for a people for whom I wondered, all too often, if I was one of them? What a quandary of insecurity and internalized oppression? So as I sit here in my favorite Quarantine spot (my couch) trying to introduce myself to my soon to be tons of readers (so many I hope that I get the aforementioned Issa Rae’s attention), I wonder what frame of reference I will speak from.  I am black and southern and I have grown to love being both. I have been Presbyterian since 1996 when I was confirmed but am informed by a cloud of witnesses of Unitarian Universalists, Methodists, Baptist, and Catholic as well as Yo MTV Raps!, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the lyrics of the profound yet problematic John Mayer.  

Like the career of Issa Rae in the television and film industry, lately it has been a kinda decent time to be a person of color or historically muted voice in the mainline church. So thus this means it’s a great time for me, someone who on the low enjoys writing but never does it and has been for over 20 years in this place of tokenism and otherness in the PCUSA, to figure out what it means to tell this story of recovering Oreo and aspiring Kingdom Bringer with a penchant for 90’s R&B and hip hop, Moana, and a repeated Dave Matthews Band concert goer and to figure out what I can say. So now that, after so many years in a time where the house is divided (if it is standing it is surely on shaky ground).  In my mid-30s, I am ready to figure out what this means for me, perhaps not to speak on anyone else’s behalf but myself. 

So I am indeed rooting for everybody black unless they produce something that is utter trash. But then again those that have been systematically and strategically left out of this elusive Grand Narrative be it Hollywood or The Church should be allowed to make mistakes, right? Real privilege and real equality might just be the ability to mess up and try again.

Rev. Whitney Fauntleroy is a North Carolina native. Now in her sixth year of ordained ministry, Whitney is grateful to have experienced ministry in many contexts. Whitney has served as Director of Youth Ministry at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, a Designated Solo Pastor at Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC. In the Spring of 2017, she began serving as Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Whitney is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and her writing focuses on the intersection of pop culture, identity, and theology.

Ad Astra Per Aspera – To the Stars Through Difficulties (the Kansas state motto): a portrait of rural ministry

by Catherine Neelly Burton

I am not a native Kansan, but after nearly 10 years here I claim it as home. Coming from the Southeast it took a few years for me to appreciate the beauty of open space. Now I treasure drives through the Flint Hills where the tallgrass goes forever. When my family drives west for Colorado vacations, I far prefer the southern route through small towns and farmland to the quicker (but boring) drive on I-70 across northern Kansas.

While it took time for the geography to grow on me, I was drawn to the people immediately. Kansans are good people. Sure, that’s a generalization, but it proves true time and again.

I serve as the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Wichita. Wichita is a city of about half a million people and Grace a church of about three hundred and fifty. Most of Kansas is rural, and many in the congregation I serve have roots in farms throughout the Midwest. If they did not grow up on farms, there’s a good chance that their parents did. No matter how many advanced degrees they have, or office jobs, or fancy titles, the Midwest farm spirit is part of them. In church life, this plays out as a lack of pretension and a willingness to do most anything to help.

Wichita is in the Presbytery of Southern Kansas, which stretches for four hundred miles, east to west. There are no installed Teaching Elders/Pastors in the western 175 miles of our presbytery. This does not mean there is no leadership, but it looks different than it does in the church I serve.

One of those churches in Western Kansas will likely call a pastor in the next year. There are a few Commissioned Ruling Elders (CRE’s), and a few ordained Teaching Elders who serve in different capacities. Then there are the church members, whose leadership makes all the difference.

I moved to Kansas from Atlanta where, when a PCUSA church closed, while sad, it often meant financial gain and opportunity for the presbytery. If the building was somewhat maintained it could be sold and the money could start new ministries. That doesn’t happen in places where the towns are dying too. The reality in many of these small towns in Kansas isn’t just dying churches, it’s communities with maybe one physician, and a thirty to forty-minute drive for groceries.

I sometimes tell colleagues that I live in the future of the PCUSA, which is to say that the greater church needs to pay attention now to what’s happening in rural America. Conversations at the national church level about bi-vocational ministry, adjusted Board of Pensions rates with Pathways to Renewal, and even encouragement for clergy to go rural are important, but they don’t fit out here. Out here those conversations needed to happen twenty to thirty years ago.

A church with 30 members in a town of 400 people will never install a full-time pastor again, and I can’t imagine anyone moving to rural Kansas for a quarter time call. Still, that church created a food pantry to feed their neighbors, and they send children in their town to camp each summer. Churches like this need a different conversation, and they can be leaders in it.

Churches in southern Kansas have recreated themselves to be the church in their communities, and I want to tell you their stories. Each month I’ll visit (Covid-19 allowing) a different church and highlight the ways they are very much alive and active. I look forward to you joining me.

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

Black Congregations Matter

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gregory Bentley

A high school classmate and clergy colleague of mine, Reverend James Ross, argues that the African American experience can be seen through the lens of five ‘Ps’: property, problems, performers, purchasers, and paranoia.

  1. Property: For 250 years African Americans were seen as chattel and worked from “can’t see to can’t see” to enrich the slaveholding class in particular and the nation in general. This is the foundation, along with the genocide of the Native people and the theft of their land, for the wealth of America and its super power status today.
  2. Problems: After Emancipation, what do we do with these four million ex-slaves? Houston, we have a problem, so let’s enact Black codes and vagrancy laws, keep them in their place with terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and return them to a form of neo-slavery called sharecropping.
  3. Performers: Well, they sure can sing and dance and play ball. So let’s use them as entertainers for our amusement.
  4. Purchasers: Some of them have some money and want badly to spend it with us, so let’s do away with this pesky thing called segregation so that we can have unfettered access to their pocketbooks.
  5. Paranoia: Y’all see racism in everything. If you learn how to follow the rules, work hard, and be people of high character, you will make it in America. Stop blaming everything on racism. Y’all have had enough time to get your act together.

These five ‘Ps’ still persist in our day and time and are seen in the dynamics of the various responses to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and many others like it. It seems that the legacy of another legal case associated with Missouri – the Dred Scott Decision, which essentially concluded that no Black person in America had any rights which any white person had to recognize – still haunts us to this very day. So what is the Good News in light of this persistent and pernicious reality relative to the PCUSA? Is there a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole? Is there a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul? Yes there is! That balm is love and the application of that balm begins with affirming that BLACK CONGREGATIONS MATTER!

This love of Black congregations must be expressed in concrete, tangible ways in every council of the church from session to presbytery to synod and General Assembly. These councils must be intentional about serving as “Paracletic ministries” to come alongside Black congregations to equip and empower them to be the mission stations and face of the PCUSA in our local communities. And yes, that means putting the critical question to struggling Black congregations that Jesus put to the man at the pool of Bethesda: “Do you want to be made well?” Those who answer “Yes,” let’s put every resource available toward that end. Those who answer “No,” allow them to die with dignity so that we can focus all of our energy and effort on those who will and not those who won’t. The challenges facing our communities are too daunting and dreadful to be preoccupied with a self-referentialness that doesn’t allow us to see clearly what is right in front of us. Another way of putting this is that we’ve got to love our communities more than we love being Presbyterian.

I believe there is still a vision for the appointed time if we would but summon the courage to see and to seize it. The choice is ours and I hope we move forward with the spirit of an old hymn of the church, “A Charge to Keep I Have”:

A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify
A never dying soul to save and fit it for the sky,
To serve this present age, my calling to fulfill,
May it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.

Gregory J. Bentley has served the Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama since January 2012. When not juggling one of his many roles in local political and civic affairs, he enjoys good music, reading and playing chess. Rev. Bentley lives in Huntsville with his wife Diann and his daughters Miriam and Johari.

Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kerri N. Allen

It is often the case that General Assembly resolutions do not feel connected to our local congregations. As much as anything, that is because resolutions are statements about our life as a corporate body. This resolution is about how our larger denomination relates to Black Presbyterian congregational ministry and, as such, I believe that it can only go so far to address the challenge of being Black and Presbyterian. Black congregational instability is only one issue that is facing Black Presbyterians, and in 2018, I dare say that it is not the most significant. The challenge of being Black in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not about decline. It is about racism.

Recently, I heard a preacher say that racism was not a stain on the American flag, it was the thread that sewed the flag together. The challenge of being Black in the PCUSA mirrors the overall challenges of being Black in the United States. That thread of racism that exists from the earliest days of European colonizers is embedded throughout every corner of this nation and, as such, is part of the very ethos of the PCUSA.

I know this from my own painful personal story on the “challenge of being Black in the PCUSA” that I shared publicly a few years ago. This experience resonated with many and I heard from close to 40 other ministers of color (including many Black Presbyterians) who thanked me for sharing a narrative that is all too familiar. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. Camille Dungy wrote about the challenge of being Black in the PCUSA from her view from the pew.

As Christians, we should understand that racism is a sin. Sin demands a theological response of confession and repentance. While a generalized, sanitized lip service of “racism is bad” is commonplace in the PCUSA, explicit naming of the structural sin that permeates the life and history of the denomination has failed to occur.

When we are able to be honest about the Southern Presbyterian slaveholder money that built institutions, congregations, and denominational relics – many which are used for good – we will begin some real work of confession. When Northern Presbyterians recognize that many of their good intentions in “reunification” that led to the creation of the PCUSA also decimated the infrastructure of Black Presbyterian institutions, we can claim that we have made some honest progress toward confession.

From confession, the real work of repentance can take place. Real, biblical repentance is the only faithful path. Genuine biblical repentance is what Jesus shows us in his encounter with Zacchaeus. It goes beyond apology and requires actively turning away from previous actions, acknowledging the good pain and even anger that exists by those who have been wronged, and actively committing to do better. Biblical repentance is costly and uncomfortable, and it is the only path to reconciliation.

When those of us who claim to follow Jesus begin to take seriously theological imperatives that bring about justice and reconciliation, the frustrations that are expressed by Black Presbyterians will be addressed because there will no longer be excuses in addressing them. It is from that place that we can see real progress and wholeness in our relationships with one another.

Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed and womanist theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain. Originally from St. Paul, MN, when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

National Words for Local Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cecelia Armstrong

Let’s get this straight. I am a cradle Presbyterian, which means my church membership has only been in Presbyterian churches all my life. I happened to be raised in a congregation that eventually identified as a Black Presbyterian congregation. Yet, my experience as a cradle Presbyterian from Detroit, Michigan is totally different than my current experience as the associate pastor of the largest Black Presbyterian congregation in the denomination. In this congregation, a cradle Presbyterian falls short in status. For example, one of the very active children in the congregation acknowledges herself as a 4th generation Presbyterian. So, yes, she is a cradle Presbyterian but so is her mother, her grandmother, and so was her great-grandmother. In this environment, as I suspect in other traditionally Black Presbyterian congregations, there is more to existing than the standard stamp of being Presbyterian.

Photo from St. James Presbyterian Church Facebook page

In these historically Black Presbyterian churches, there is a culture that guides, governs, and determines the future for the survival of these congregations. The Black church of the PCUSA is steeped in rich tradition that seemingly gets lost in translation when being acknowledged at the national level. It is obvious that there is a reduction of Black Presbyterian congregations across the denomination, but it is also true that most Black Presbyterian congregations are buried so deep in tradition that it hinders the potential for some of them to survive. Sadly, the drastically needed support for the Black Presbyterian congregations comes with the risk of losing the rich tradition that made them who they were in the first place. This dilemma cannot and will never be resolved at the national level. Yet, the valiant efforts in the production of resolutions offers a glimpse of faded hope since the corrective issues may very well lie within the congregations themselves.

Here is what I mean:

  1. There was a resolution offered at the most recent General Assembly that stated that there are over 400 Black congregations and 80 percent are without a pastor, mainly because they are unable to support one. Yet the qualified pastors who are willing to serve with the minimal amount of support are usually not African American or are discounted because of their age and/or gender. Now neither of these criteria are legally binding deal breakers, but for a traditional Black congregation, these attributes are usually not sought to fill the pulpit. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  2. Most pastors who are selected to provide pastoral leadership fitting the desired criteria (based on tradition) are not traditionally Presbyterian. Furthermore, it seems that there is an unwillingness to seek the necessary credentials or the congregations are not willing to enforce the issue at the risk of losing the pastor. Those Black, relatively young, usually male, eligible pastors are bi-vocational, which impedes their ability to attend traditional seminary and complete the 18 required steps to be fully ordained in the PCUSA. Sadly, there are congregations who are willing to set this standard aside to embrace having the presence of a pastor at the cost of Presbyterian identity. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  3. There are far too many qualified Black female candidates who are deemed ready to receive a call who are continuously overlooked merely because of their gender, age, or lack of experience. Sadly, there are congregations willing to receive Black female clergy as pastor if she fulfills the duties of a hospice chaplain. These are congregations willing to die because they have given up hope to capture the prize young Black male candidate. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.

I agree with another member of our denomination who said, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level.” Being a part of the Black church of the PCUSA has peaks and valleys. My encounter with the peaks and the valleys were based on traditions and not resolutions. My challenge to any reader is to revisit the many traditions that have gone unchallenged and see if there is room for actions to actively resolve resolutions made for Black Presbyterians.

Cecelia D. Armstrong, an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church (USA), serves as Associate Pastor of St. James PCUSA, Charleston, SC.

A Butterfly Beginning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Antonio Lawrence

I have come to appreciate something that has become extremely critical in my personal and spiritual development. Any organization that is entrusted to the hands of humans will be flawed and will deal with issues that will keep it from being at is best. The church, especially the Presbyterian Church (USA), is an exception to the rule.

As a Teaching Elder (Minister of the Word and Sacrament) I have seen the church at her best and even at its worse. I have seen the church at its best when she lives her mission to protect and nurture the most vulnerable people in society. A church that has shown the ability to respond to the natural disasters of the world, and working towards long term recovery goals. I have seen a church stand for immigration reform for our sisters and brothers seeking a better life desiring to live out the American Dream. The very things that the church strives to be the best at are many of the same things that make us flawed. This church who actively seeks do justice outside the church must engage in redemptive reflection that seeks to address the suffering of those inside of our church that keeps us from living into the beloved community that we strive to be.

We must learn to wrestle like Jacob at Jabbock with our intersectional sins, known as race, class, and gender, that keep us from seeing the humanity of the individuals for whom we took a constitutional oath to call colleague. If the church is become the loving community God created it to be, we must allow ourselves to embrace the beautiful, yet never ending, struggle of becoming our better selves. In his book Illusions, author Richard Bach whom my late father challenged me understand, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly beginning.” The simplicity of the quote nearly masks the profoundness of its meaning – that all of God’s creations are destined to struggle as they try to fulfill their purpose. My desire is for the church to press through the safety and comfort of its chrysalis, much like the caterpillar does as it becomes a butterfly.

I want to see a church that is not afraid to wrestle with the uncomfortable realities of this world, even as we grow in our faith in life everlasting. A church that speaks out against injustice, looks out for the marginalized and disenfranchised, and tries out new ways to embrace our journey through Jabbock. Once the church embraces its butterfly potential, all perspectives and priorities will change. As a church, our vantage points will be more encompassing because we will be able soar to new heights and in different directions. We will impact more lives, save more souls, and be more like Christ. We will no longer be bound to the earthly injustices. As a church, we will be able to do more, because we’ve been able to experience and know more.

The metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly is filled with difficult days of struggle and change. Are we, the church, in for difficult days ahead as we struggle? The answer is a resounding, “YES”! And yet, we must take advantage of this golden opportunity. The chrysalis of the church – the thing that is keeping us earthbound – is our inability to be fearless in our pursuit of becoming. As I continue my transformation by tackling injustices large and small that keep black and brown bodies outside of the arms of liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness. I know that if I start there, I can help others to soar as I go on to reach new heights on my own Christian journey.

My own transformative journey was shaped by an Eastern, North Carolina community that now calls me Pastor. The Rev. Dr. Michael C. Franklin calls the church an “anchor institution that is the bedrock of society” and, “a church that affirms the humanity of people that the world has given up on”. I have grown to value of what Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert calls a “relentless hope for the church”. It is a prophetic hope that names the reality of where we are, and points with an ethological hope towards a beautiful future. I still have hope. Do you?

Antonio M. K. Lawrence is the Senior Pastor of the Faith Presbyterian Church in Goldsboro, NC. Under his leadership with the help of the Lord, Faith Presbyterian Church has become one of the fastest growing racial ethnic churches in the Presbytery of New Hope. He is a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and Princeton Theological Seminary