Letter to a Church Examining its Racist Past

What is a church to do when it starts examining the way that race relations have played out in its history? Or what happens when the local community points out names of buildings that have racist associations?

I recently had the opportunity to share some thoughts on this topic with a church I have previously been associated with. As they seek to understand their past and present as relates to racism, and as they seek to move forward into the future in a manner in keeping with unity and love, they asked for prayer and advice from their community. This blog post is based on the letter I wrote to this church, though I have adapted it to be more generally applicable, addressing it to a fictional Committee for Community and Racial Relations made up of church leaders of a historically and predominantly White, Presbyterian church in the American South.

To the Committee for Community and Racial Relations:

I grew up in a Presbyterian family and have attended various theologically-conservative churches throughout my life. As a missionary kid, I’ve lived in Asia and four southern U.S. states. In recent years, while in Mississippi, I’ve taken the opportunity to learn more about the history of African Americans and race relations in the United States and the church. One specific resource that was especially formative for my thinking was the book Divided by Faith by Smith and Emerson, which provides a great overview of the various ways that race, racism, and American evangelicalism have overlapped and interacted throughout American history.

I am very interested in this committee and its work to tell the truth about the past and present of your church and make plans for moving forward in a way in keeping with love and unity. I have some thoughts and ideas I wanted to share. Thank you for your openness to hearing them.

First of all, to those of you on the committee, thank you! This is an important work you are undertaking. I know that many of you are well-respected elders and leaders in the community. I am thankful for the first steps this committee, as well as the pastor, has taken on these matters.

Second, I see that there are only men on this committee. I would love to see women included as well. Since we believe that God made men and women different, having different experiences and different things to offer, including women on the committee would be beneficial. Additionally, especially because this committee is examining issues related to race and racism in America, I would love to see several African Americans on the committee or at least heavily relied upon by the committee in conducting their research and in making plans.

Third, race relations and racial reconciliation are complex and important topics, and there are many experts on these topics within the Reformed and Presbyterian community. I would love to see the committee have ongoing connections with some of these people. Some suggestions of people to approach for consultation or resource suggestions are:
– Randy and Joan Nabors, PCA
– Reverend Elbert McGowan, Redeemer PCA Jackson, Mississippi
– Drs Mika and Christina Edmondson, OPC
– Phillip (RTS) and Jasmine (author) Holmes
– Dr Carl and Karen Ellis, RTS
– Dr Anthony Bradley, King’s College

You may also want to check local colleges or universities for professors of African American history who may be able to provide helpful historical context for understanding race relations in your local area.

Fourth, in seeking information on the present and recent past of your church, I suggest having a website that allows people, particularly African Americans, the opportunity to share their experiences of racism as relates to your church and/or provide suggestions for improvement and growth; it’s important that there be the option of anonymity. This opportunity should be made available to African Americans who attend or have attended, are current or former members, are community members or leaders, and are current or former employees; they will be able to offer specific and invaluable insights into the practical outworkings of the church’s beliefs and attitudes regarding race. Local African American pastors may also have valuable information, insights, resources, or suggestions that they might be willing to share with the committee.

Fifth, as past or present sins (or patterns of sin) come to light—whether they are by individuals, groups, or the church as an institution—it is important to offer public and/or private apologies from the church and/or individuals (as is appropriate to the situation), offering restitution where applicable. This repentance should include: naming the sin, explaining why it was wrong, detailing the effects it had on those who were sinned against, expressing grief for the sin and its effects, listing efforts towards restitution, and charting a new path forward to avoid these sins in the future.

Sixth, I want to offer encouragement. From your sister in Christ, I want to say that it is worth it to tell the truth, to do righteousness, and to love. There is power in the gospel to walk in the humility and confidence it takes to admit wrong and change, even when it is painful. Possible discomfort and disruption are worth it if the result is a truer and deeper peace and unity for Christ’s church. In other words, this season is a beautiful opportunity for the church to be purified and to be a witness before the watching world.

And finally, I want to commit to pray regularly that God will give you (and all of us in the church community) strength, wisdom, humility, provision, and boldness to walk in truth, love, righteousness, and unity as we look at the past and present and move intentionally into future.

Thank you for your consideration and for this beautiful work you are doing. May God give you grace for your tasks!

Blessings,
Hannah Conroy