Here's a Place to Start
|RUF-USM Group at MS State Conference|
At its General Assembly last week my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, considered a personal Resolution from two Mississippi Teaching Elders (Ministers) on Civil Rights Remembrance (which was not adopted but deferred for perfecting till until the next General Assembly). The Resolution noted that...
...last year and this year mark significant anniversaries in the Civil Rights movement: 2014 was the sixtieth anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education and the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and Freedom Summer, and 2015 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the Selma-to-Montgomery March...It acknowledged that...
... many of our conservative Presbyterian churches at the time not only failed to support the Civil Rights movement, but actively worked against racial reconciliation in both church and society...And that...
... our denomination’s continued unwillingness to speak truthfully about our failure to seek justice and to love mercy during the Civil Rights era significantly hinders present-day efforts for reconciliation with our African American brothers and sisters...
...the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize and confess our church’s covenantal and generational involvement in and complicity with racial injustice inside and outside of our churches during the Civil Rights period; and...
...the General Assembly urges the congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America to confess their own particular sins and failures as may be appropriate and to seek to further truth and reconciliation for the Gospel’s sake within their own local communities.
There is not the slightest doubt that the Resolution is well-intentioned and that it genuinely reflects the good hearts of its authors. But a number of honest questions do arise regarding what it would have meant for conservative Presbyterian churches, officers, and members to have supported the Civil Rights Movement. Should Presbyterian Ministers and church members have engaged in acts of peaceful civil disobedience along with Civil Rights leaders? Should Ministers have participated as Ministers in the Selma March? Were church Sessions and Presbyteries obligated to endorse the Civil Rights Act? Should churches have conducted drives to register Black Voters? Is the doctrine of the spirituality of the church a doctrinal error or heresy and itself a sinful doctrine that prevented Ministers, Sessions, and Presbyteries from speaking against racial sins, from participating in protests, and from endorsing the Civil Rights Act? Then there is the question of whether repentance means accepting a particular narrative of the African American contemporary circumstances and the way white people need to respond. These are questions that perhaps will be addressed during the perfecting process.
Having lived through it, I think the great church sin of the era was the intentional (and sometimes official policy) practice of church segregation and churches forcibly preventing Blacks from attending services of worship. There are Ministers, Ruling Elders, Sessions, church members, and perhaps a few Presbyteries that need to say they were wrong.
The Resolution itself is rather general and vague. It does not address some of the practical questions of what should have been done during the Civil Rights era or what should be done now. In light of that, I would like to propose something concrete and practical the brothers in Mississippi might take up as one part of their repentance.
I was a Campus Minister at the University of Southern Mississippi from 1977 till 1984. When I began, the work had the name of the old PCUS ministry, Westminster Fellowship, which tenuously and temporarily held together local PCA and PCUS congregations in support of the work. Soon, however, the PCUS congregation withdrew, and the work became known as what it really was, Reformed University Fellowship under the auspices of Reformed University Ministries.
Our group compared to the RUM works on other Mississippi campuses was small. Today that era RUF-USM is not much of a blip on the radar screen compared to the huge RUM works on campuses. Despite its relative weakness in numbers the group was strong in students taking the Bible seriously, growing in Christian discipleship, and becoming prepared to take their places as Christians (and some as leaders) in church and society.
Over time, because of invitations given by white students in dorms, Black students became involved in the ministry, attending the large group and small group Bible studies. Eventually at least (memory a little dull here) three Black male students became leaders as they became members of our student Core Group. RUF-USM was the only "integrated" RUF group in Mississippi and was the group that "integrated" the statewide Mississippi RUM student conferences. The RUF-USM students were very happy to be part of a group that included Black students. I have no knowledge of a single student who ceased involvement because the group included Blacks.
This "mixed" ministry was not without its problems. At that time only one of the local PCA congregations was ready to have Black students from the RUF group attend, and Black students did participate in worship services there. One of the congregations supported the ministry but was not happy that it did not see more practical return on its financial investment in the form of students becoming involved in the church. I was asked to meet with a group of church members to hear their concerns. When the matter of student involvement came up, I said that, if I extended an invitation to students to attend, that invitation would be extended to the whole group, including the Black students. That, as the saying goes, was the end of that... not of the unhappiness, but the pursuit of the subject. The students themselves, both white and black, suffered from the attitudes of local Presbyterians.
On another occasion, a local church was looking for a part-time afternoon secretary. I was provided by the University (it was a different time and place) with an office and meeting room on campus, and I was asked to place a notice of the position on a bulletin board on the floor where my office was. But the person who approached me pointed out that the particular (and most open) church was not ready for a Black to be hired. When it was pointed out that it might be against the law to discriminate in that manner, that statement was not welcome.
By far the biggest complication came when a Black student and a white student began to date. Those who may think, "What's the big deal with that?" reveal how far the South has come with regard to interracial relationships. This was a VERY BIG DEAL. It caused family turmoil of tremendous proportions, consternation among local Presbyterians, and hostility toward the campus minster who took the position, not of urging the relationship on, but merely that it was not forbidden by the Bible. That relationship was one factor, among others not related to race, that undermined support for the ministry.
After many twists and turns the couple, both of whom had been members of the Core Group, one of whom went on to begin a military career and the other who remained in Hattiesburg, became engaged. By who would marry them? The campus minister was the obvious choice, and he expected that at some point he would be asked. However, a RUM leader went secretly to the couple and told them that "for the sake of the ministry" they must not ask the campus minister to marry them. So they were married by a military chaplain with whom they did not have the very close relationship they had with their campus minister.
About 30 years later, I saw the couple at the funeral of another RUF-USM student's father, and the husband reminiscing about our time together in the ministry, said, "We were ahead of our time."
Here is a place to begin. It involves the easiest sort of repentance. It requires no more than to say to that couple and to the students of that era, "I/we were wrong. I/we are sorry."