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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.

Holding Tight to the Rhythm of Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elise Neal

It was a blessing to grow up as a native West Virginian with small town roots and a sense of community. In my hometown of Philippi I was baptized and confirmed and ordained — all in the Philippi Presbyterian Church. This church took its baptism vows seriously and helped to nurture my faith that has led me to be an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the past 9 years. But ministry looks a lot different now in West Virginia.

Photo from First Presbyterian Facebook page

Currently I serve as the pastor the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont, West Virginia. It too is a small town by today’s standards — but it’s much larger than Philippi where I grew up. In 2015 this congregation celebrated 200 years of ministry and in 2016 they celebrated 100 years in their current building, but these celebrations come with much sadness. As with many of our congregations, membership has shrunk, but in West Virginia the numbers are staggering. My current church was built 100 years ago, during the industrial age, and this congregation had more than 1200 members. There were three worship services and educational opportunities for everyone. Many of my members remember these glory days of times past, when the church was the center of both the community and of social life. They were children during this time and they long for those days to return. But the reality is that this will never be. As the need for coal decreased and the railroads moved west, so too did companies and industries. The jobs and people followed.

The current economic state in West Virginia has only continued to diminish as companies continue to leave the area — and nothing takes its place. So the congregation that was 1200 members is now 150. My home congregation, Philippi Presbyterian Church, has 12 members where there used to be more than 100. Those that stayed owned local businesses or worked as teachers, doctors, professors at local colleges, coal miners, and in local government. These people are the members of our churches. They grew up with the traditions of the church and hold tight to the rhythm of ministry that they remember from years past.

The challenge for these churches moving forward will be to embrace a new understanding of ministry in rural Appalachia. Will they be able to move towards new ministries the reach people in their local communities, communities that are vastly different today? Most of these churches won’t be able to make the shift and will not survive. It is a story that is far too common in West Virginia and it’s sad to say, the little church that I love, the little church that nurtured and raised me will likely be one of those that doesn’t make it.

But there is hope! With every death there is a new life that arises. There is always the opportunity to grow and nurture relationships in community around West Virginia. In the future it may mean that these groups form around music gatherings or at a little diner for a weekly meal. Regardless of where we meet, ministry will continue to take place as God strengthens our faith and relationships with others. The big question is — who will we invite to join us?


Elise Renee Neal is a native of Philippi, West Virginia, and has served the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont for the past seven years. She recently accepted a new call to serve as the pastor of the Northminster Presbyterian Church in San Antonio Texas.