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.

3 replies
  1. Rev. Dr. Felipe Martinez
    Rev. Dr. Felipe Martinez says:

    Thank you for this reflection. Do you know where one could read more about the way in which reunion decimated the African American institutions. A google search didn’t turn up much, so perhaps there is a book / article somewhere. Again, thanks!

  2. Heath Rada
    Heath Rada says:

    As an “older” member of the Presbyterian Church (I was raised in the PCUS Church), I am often having my awareness of racism enhanced and confronted. A white male, I have realized, cannot fully “get it” – even if in his heart he wants so badly to do so. Thus I continue to repent and ask God for clearer vision and understanding, as well as for the opportunity to use my white and male privilege to make a difference.
    What I CAN see and value immensely, is the integral part which my African American sisters and brothers play in the PCUSA. J.Herbert Nelson and Diane Moffett occupy two of the most strategic and important roles in our church as our Stated Clerk and the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Paul Roberts and Brian Blount are remarkable leaders and valued scholars as they serve as presidents of two of our ten seminaries. And there are many others from different cultures and races whom I claim as friends, and as my guides and mentors as I grow in my faith. Our immediate past co moderator Denise Anderson, has also been a significant voice in calls for justice and human rights in the name of Jesus.
    What I do not know is how often many of these outstanding leaders are victims of racial profiling, of name calling, of dirty looks. Are they stopped for traffic violations which have not been committed? Are they watched by a store manager as though they were thieves? Have they been denied services I would have received because of their skin color? I know they do experience such hostile and horrendous, and inexcusable treatment and much more.
    As white people we must continue to be open to the fact that our lives have been different from these sisters and brothers, in ways most of us find hard to imagine. The recognition of this, the elevation of people of color into positions of leadership are steps on the ladder, but we have a long way to climb in order to reach the goal.
    Kerri Allen is another whom I claim as a friend. She is unapologetic in her quest to help us find ways to reconcile and repent. She is passionate about these matters in ways many find uncomfortable. And she often says and exposes behaviors which she believes to be not only inappropriate but basically sinful. Having such behavior called out, can be an aide for those who cannot see. Whereas we white people have caused the conditions for racism to grow and fester, and MUST recognize our role in doing so. We must also recognize that in times or reparation, the ones who first caused the pain will have to experience pain too. So let us affirm Kerri’s call to responding to basic, loving theological and Biblical premises for confession and forgiveness – and move to action. No matter our race or background, this is a message we all need to understand and affirm. But let us all be careful – for assuming a position of judgement rather than love – even tough love, is not our responsibility. Whether white or black, when we see people from another race acting in ways we believe, or actually know, to be wrong our responsibility is not to judge but to help others learn how to live as Christ has modeled and asked of us. Not an easy task, but who said it was ever going to be easy to follow Jesus? We need to keep on trying, with God’s help. We will fall, but we must get back up. May God lead us all.

  3. Heidi Vardeman
    Heidi Vardeman says:

    Hooray, Kerri! I am so tired of Presbyterians just politely ignoring this stuff. I write this posting from my home the Twin Cities Area presbytery and am remembering that Kerri’s home church, Dayton Avenue Presbyterian, has just sold its building but will continue to journey on in its ministry of justice and peace. Kerri is part of its legacy and we are grateful for her. It takes a lot of time and energy for white people even to recognize privilege much less confess it. We have a long row to hoe.

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