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Questions Unanswered

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Melva Lowry

To write about power in light of the recent passing of Rev. Robina Winbush sparked me to think about the ways she and the late Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon stood in the fullness of their power, while serving in predominately white spaces. In Dr. Cannon’s 1988 womanist ethics dissertation that she presented to a mostly white and male audience at the American Academy of Religion, she posed two questions that have yet to be answered by the Church, specifically the white Christian church. Dr. Cannon asks: “How long would the white church continue to be the ominous symbol of white dominance—sanctioning and assimilating the propagation of racism in the mundane interests of the ruling group?” Dr. Cannon also presented this question: “How could Christians who were white, flatly and openly, refuse to treat as fellow human beings Christians who had African ancestry?” 1

These two questions presented in a time where Black women and men were still becoming the first to breakthrough barriers of a systemic past seems understandable. Being given the stage to ask colleagues why the world was the way it was is, shows the deep gravity of the work Dr. Cannon and other womanist scholars were introducing. The power of these questions to still hold relevance 31 years later is why the white Church must give a response. The fact that I was about 8 years old when these questions were presented and the fact that as I enter ministry now can see these questions have yet to be answered is troubling but gives me an understanding into the power of the white Church to ignore the probing questions that could bring about the reconciliation they preach and pray for.

I have worked with and known Dr. Cannon and Rev. Winbush, who worked in ecumenical ministry after beginning ministry by serving the local church in New York; these two African-American women stood and worked in spaces where their power was held to the standards of white Christians who whether they saw them as fellow human beings and valuable to the work and ministry of the church toiled with grace and persistence. I just recently reconnected with Rev. Winbush at the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis. I was leaving the main plenary after a riveting back and forth on the floor about the financial implications of making information available to those who do not speak English as their first language. In quiet black woman understanding we communicated the power being displayed to slow down the forward movement of the denomination because it was not financially in the interest of the dominant majority. “How could Christians who were white, flatly and openly, refuse to treat as fellow human beings Christians who had African ancestry?”

At this point in time we know that the ancestry extends beyond the African diaspora and includes anything non-European. Rev. Winbush, whose work has taken her beyond the limits of Christian engagement to the table with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist and Jews to name a few, understood that it is in our best interests as Presbyterians (USA) to work as if we are answering the question Dr. Cannon posed and not appear to want absolute power and dominance unto ourselves.

What is power? Who has and who gives power? A seasoned saint would answer, “God! Of course,” but the reality of power for Christians rests in the ways we have existed and used our understanding of God’s power over the centuries. I participated in NEXT Church’s community organizing training this past October and I remember many of my white colleagues expressing their trouble with claiming the power the systems of this world have given to them. I wondered, is it power they have trouble with or is it the fear of acknowledging that they have even tried to take God’s power away by denying others to flourish? Recently, I have begun to hang on to the verse of scripture in Luke 12:48, that “[to] whom much is given, that much more [shall] be required” as a reminder that every time I am able to flourish, I have a responsibility to create an environment for others to flourish as well. This does not seem to be the case for some of my fellow white colleagues of faith. If God has granted us the ability to become, to flourish, and to withstand the daily moral trials of life, then who are we to dictate another person’s value and access to the power of this land? When will the White church answer Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon’s questions?

Cannon, Katie G. Black Womanist Ethics. Susan Thistlewaite ed. “American Academy of Religion Academy Series” No. 60 p.1, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press. 1988.


Melva Lowry (Mel) is a ruling elder in the Greater Atlanta Presbytery and is currently serving as a Hands and Feet Fellow through The Center, a mission-oriented arm of the Presbytery of Baltimore. The Hands and Feet Initiative started by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk for the Presbyterian Church (USA) seeks to get local Presbyterian churches engaged in their own community’s grass-roots movement and be the hands at feet that God has called us to be in the world. As a Fellow, Mel helps The Center provide hands on mission experiences throughout the Presbytery of Baltimore so individuals and groups can see the different and creative ways God is working in communities similar to their own.

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

I Can’t Breathe

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 Kelle Brown

We are the church that is becoming, the church that is and will be. The church and all of her people are in the hands of the Maker God, who never has stopped the act of creation, and who is never disinterested or disconnected in God’s creation. God’s love and presence flows. Pours. Showers. Floods and splatters. For this, we give thanks.

In lieu of this assurance, I support the words of a fellow Presbyterian concerning the limitations of the resolution regarding the Black church and its connection and support, or lack thereof. The colleague shared, “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. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of Black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide.”

Photo from the Plymouth Church Seattle United Church of Christ Facebook page

The tide has not been stemmed, and African American churches are ceasing to exist because of it. I resist saying dying, because Black churches are more rightly succumbing to the institutional supremacy that is pervasive without much challenge. The theology of the African American Presbyterian church is strong and life-giving. The people of the churches are as faithful as ever they’ve been. The intelligence, deep wisdom, willingness, and energy are all in place. Yet, no church is an island unto itself, and the best sense of our connectional covenant binds us together for the sake of our shared faith and sustenance. The PCUSA is gifted by the presence of all its peoples, and is blessed by its churches of color — not simply to fulfill some quota of diversity — but so that God can forge and knit us together as a vision of the Beloved Community.

While the acknowledgement of the larger church by way of the resolution is necessary and in many ways hopeful, we must acknowledge that it is a particular privilege to lament, assess, and consider while the most vulnerable congregations struggle. Black churches have been sharing for many years the disparity and being treated less-than-equally. Strategies are dreamed, and curricula are created, and prayers for reconciliation go forth while the systems of oppression churn along unhindered. Often, there is collective jubilance that comes too easily. Many celebrate the agreements of process that may one day down the road lead to equity. In the meantime, another church has died.

The slow pace of “justice” and creating inclusion in itself is an injustice. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” We have waited and watched, and this kind of church is exhausting and debilitating when the realities of the world call for the church to be a place of refuge and respite. It’s like taking the time to debate oxygen’s worth and efficacy while holding the hose and watching a person gasp for air. We have to become more spiritually agile and open to God’s movement when folks whisper, “I can’t breathe.”

In essence, the trickle down concept of which the quote references is a problematic American norm, and the myth of its effectiveness is perpetuated again and again, all while knowing that the paradigm is not infused with spirit, equity or justice-making. Reconciliation and healing don’t happen in a vacuum. Repair isn’t begun with thoughts and prayers, when clergy of color are often culled rather than cultivated. Repair in this sense has to be dedication to the clergy of color who dare to remain a part of the church. Repair must be dismantling systems of oppression, and acknowledging the present trauma of participation. Repair must be authentic discipleship, journeying alongside one another in courageous and liberative ways.

Let us honor the African American church and her resilience which is often the needed authentic voice in the world, and thank our Creator that God is endowing us grace to move forward. Let us believe that our collective right action will grow and sustain all of our churches. And let us endeavor on until we have stemmed the tide, and joined in the vision of Amos where God justice rolls down like a mighty stream upon us all.


Kelle Brown is the current lead pastor of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ. She is a recent graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, completing her D. Min, and is involved in justice work and reframing church as it pertains to systems of oppression and authentic welcome. She enjoys writing, singing and loving life with her daughter Indigo and grandmother Dorothy.