Let’s Talk, a new racial unity initiative, takes evangelical leaders on tour of Black history

Let’s Talk, a new racial unity initiative, takes evangelical leaders on tour of Black history

Visitors with a Let’s Talk initiative pose together at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Sept. 13, 2022, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

 

WASHINGTON (RNS) — For missionary Doug Gentile, it was seeing the “shackles for tiny children” used during American slavery.

For seminary professor Darrell Bock, it was confronting the specificity of the list of “Black codes” that restricted the lives of Black people after slavery ended — mandates in many states, for instance, that they sign annual labor contracts on pain of arrest.

These revelations, and many more, came out of an early morning tour Tuesday (Sept. 13) of an otherwise empty National Museum of African American History and Culture for 42 Black, white and Asian American evangelical Christian leaders, sponsored by an initiative called Let’s Talk, which aims to foster racial unity among evangelicals.

“A lot of folks had some real eye-opening moments at the museum,” said Bishop Derek Grier, founder of Let’s Talk, the day after the tour.

The visitors, who included Council for Christian Colleges & Universities President Shirley V. Hoogstra, public relations executive and longtime Billy Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross and National Association of Evangelicals President Walter Kim, followed a museum guide, most listening silently, past Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, a dress made by Rosa Parks at the time of her bus protest and an exhibit about the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which occurred 59 years nearly to the day before the tour.

Their guide explained that enslaved Blacks regularly attended “what could be called church” secretly in brush arbors, because it was illegal for them to preach or gather during the time of slavery.

But there were other lessons about how the slave experience formed the basis of what some view as racial injustices today. “Most people did not realize the economic impact slavery had on the founding of the United States of America and one of the plaques said something along the lines of 60% of the U.S. economy was based on slavery,” said Grier, who is Black.

The initiative comes in answer to the rejection by some evangelicals of the idea of systemic racism. A 2019 survey found that, when asked if the country has historically been oppressive for racial minorities, 82% of white evangelicals did not agree.

Gentile, founder of Alexandria, Virginia, nonprofit James 2 Association, said the tour bolstered his organization’s goal “to use the Bible to fight back against these white-rage, rear-guard attempts to cancel discussions of racial history and racial justice in the public schools.” 

Pastor Lee Jenkins, the leader of the nondenominational Eagles Nest Church in Roswell, Georgia, and co-chair of the regional organization One Race, said he appreciated how some white visitors to the museum were affected by what they saw.

“It shook some of them to their core,” he said. “And that was encouraging because it showed that they had compassion and they were willing to acknowledge that America has had a problem in this area and this problem of racism and injustice needs to be addressed.”

Bishop Derek Grier, right, founder of Let’s Talk, talks with missionary Doug Gentile outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Sept. 13, 2022, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The Let’s Talk initiative was launched at a banquet at the Museum of the Bible in November, and since then more than 500 people have signed its “Statement of Change,” which says in part: “We believe both the spirit and clear moral imperatives of scripture require the Christian community to lead the way in defeating racial bigotry.”

Some of the signers have also committed to meeting regularly — at first monthly and now quarterly — over Zoom to continue conversations about racial tensions.

Many of the participants already work on race issues through their churches or organizations. But Kim said Let’s Talk was a chance to learn, share and network together. “There’s a desire for us not to be territorial about this work,” he said. “This is gospel work, and it is really important for us to be in collaboration with others, sometimes applauding what they’re doing from afar, other times collaborating closely.”

Bock, a white New Testament scholar who has taught at Dallas Theological Seminary for 41 years, said the museum tour helped orient the work the group has ahead. He said their focus on unity in Christ is a starting point for conversations about polarization in the country, adding that discussions of race should not be separated from the church’s testimony.

“Most of the evangelical church is about individual salvation and a person’s individual walk with God,” he said. “This is all about larger community structures and being able to think through that space and to help people see that space is an important part of the conversation.”

Kim said his organization expects to support Grier’s plans for a “Unity Weekend” in June 2023, when churches will cooperate across racial and denominational lines on service projects and hear sermons about unity.

In March, the NAE hired a director of its new Racial Justice & Reconciliation Collaborative who has been meeting with leaders of local and regional initiatives to address racial injustice such as One Race. The NAE, an umbrella organization for a wide range of evangelical organizations, hopes to foster networks that address not only what the churches can do within their own structures but beyond them to transform their communities.

Grier, who is pastor of an independent church in Dumfries, Virginia, said his reasons for founding Let’s Talk are based on biblical lessons about collaboration, including Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels “that they may be one” and that “a house divided against itself will not stand.”

“I have children I love, people I love that are going to be here a lot longer than I will be,” said the 57-year-old pastor. “And I want to make sure that I do my part in trying to make this a better country for the young people that are going to follow us.”

Christian Methodist Episcopal Church elects second woman and African bishops

Christian Methodist Episcopal Church elects second woman and African bishops

The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church has elected its second woman bishop and received its first episcopal address from a woman during its quadrennial General Conference.

“I think when you elect the first you have to be really careful that they just don’t become a token and so I was really excited,” said Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, who was the first woman elected in 2010 and serves as the secretary on the College of Bishops.

The Rev. Denise Anders-Modest, pastor of Trinity CME Church in Memphis, Tenn., and coordinator of the CME Commission on Women in Ministry, will serve the 2nd Episcopal District, which includes Kentucky, Ohio and Central Indiana.

The Rev. Denise Anders-Modest. Photo courtesy of Farish Street Baptist Church

The Rev. Denise Anders-Modest. Photo courtesy of Farish Street Baptist Church

Her forerunner was particularly pleased that voting delegates chose Anders-Modest as the second to win election to the role of bishop, not waiting until the last opportunity to add another woman to the CME episcopacy. “That’s also quite commendable that people were able to see her qualifications and not just, ‘oh, we need a woman bishop.’”

Jefferson-Snorton achieved another first this year, becoming the first woman to give the episcopal address — the message given on behalf of the bishops to the denomination — on June 25, the first official day of the gathering at the Duke Energy Center in Cincinnati. The meeting, which was attended by about 2,500 people, is set to conclude Friday (July 1).

She also was elected as the denomination’s new ecumenical and development officer, a role that no longer requires her to also lead a district of churches. Part of her role will be to seek resources to create and work on ministry and outreach programs at both the denominational and local levels.

“I see lots of our churches that are in communities that have such need but the local church itself doesn’t really have the capacity to go out and look for funds or even manage the program,” she said.

The delegates, who attended in person, also elected the second African bishop in the history of the denomination, which was founded in 1870 and claims 1.2 million U.S. members. It has sister churches and missions in 14 African countries, Haiti and Jamaica.

The Rev. Kwame L. Adjei, a member of the CME Church’s Judicial Council and a former associate pastor and high school chaplain in his native Ghana, will serve the 11th District, which is in East Africa.

The Rev. Kwame Lawson Adjei, right, is the new bishop-elect for the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church's 11th District, located in East Africa. Courtesy of CME Church Facebook

The Rev. Kwame Lawson Adjei, right, is the new bishop-elect for the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church’s 11th District, located in East Africa. Courtesy of CME Church Facebook

He will be the second African bishop. Bishop Godwin T. Umoette, the first African-born bishop was elected in 2010 and died earlier this year.

“Because we do consider ourselves the international church,” Jefferson-Snorton said, “bishops in the leadership needed to also include a voice that was not just the American voice but someone at the table of the College of Bishops who brought another cultural perspective.”

Other new bishops are: the Rev. Clarence K. Heath, pastor, Carter Metropolitan CME Church of Fort Worth, Texas, who will lead the 5th Episcopal District, based in Birmingham, Alabama; the Rev. Charley Hames Jr., senior pastor of the Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland, California, who will lead the 9th Episcopal District, based in Los Angeles; and the Rev. Ricky D. Helton, senior pastor of Israel Metropolitan CME Church in Washington, D.C., who will lead the 10th Episcopal District, based in West Africa.

Despite temperature checks and other measures to keep the gathering free of COVID-19, some attendees tested positive during the General Conference.

Jefferson-Snorton, who also is board chair of the National Council of Churches, said she did not know how many people tested positive but she quarantined for three days after she learned her husband tested positive.

“No one has had to go the hospital,” she said. “It wasn’t like gaping holes in the delegation.”

In recent weeks, other gatherings of religious denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have had COVID-19 cases as well.

“We had a handful of attendees who reported they had tested positive for COVID-19 in the days following their trip to Anaheim,” said Jonathan Howe, vice president for communications of the SBC Executive Committee. “None of those with whom we spoke were able to identify the source of their specific case, nor did any report significant illness that required hospitalization.”

Preliminary meetings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) featured reports of 13 cases of COVID-19, its stated clerk said in a June 23 statement posted on Twitter.

“We believe that this week’s small outbreak of positive cases did not originate from the Presbyterian Center or during General Assembly meeting times,” said the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II about the gathering in Louisville, Kentucky. “Rather, the source of this outbreak appears to have occurred outside of official General Assembly activities involving receptions and other hospitality events.”

‘Blessing of Elders’ lauds 7 Black Christian luminaries at Museum of the Bible gala

‘Blessing of Elders’ lauds 7 Black Christian luminaries at Museum of the Bible gala

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Well-known names from the world of gospel music and the Black church gathered at the Museum of the Bible to hail the contributions of African American churches and to call for continued efforts toward building unity and bridging divides.

The “Blessing of the Elders,” an awards celebration held Thursday (June 23) just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, specifically honored seven leaders known for their contributions in megachurches, denominational leadership, civil rights, music and religious broadcasting.

The Rev. A.R. Bernard, an honoree and a Brooklyn, New York, pastor, described the Black church, in its varied expressions, as a repository of Black culture in America.

“Embracing Christianity, Blacks didn’t seek to imitate white Christianity — oh no, instead we created a parallel religious culture, our own brand of Christianity with our own hymns, music, style of worship, much influenced by the challenge of slavery,” Bernard said in the museum’s World Stage Theater.

“Christianity gave Blacks hope in the midst of a hopeless situation, and we’re not done yet. I believe the 21st century will see the Black church lead the way to hope and healing in a deeply divided nation.”

One honoree, Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., the former top leader of the Church of God in Christ, was unable to attend due to medical reasons.

“Bishop Blake wanted me to tell you he was sorry he couldn’t be here,” said Harry Hargrave, chief executive officer of the Museum of the Bible. “He’s coming off of COVID. He’s feeling much better.”

Jon Sharpe, the museum’s chief relations officer, and the Rev. Tony Lowden, pastor of the Georgia church where former President Jimmy Carter is a member, took the stage to explain how the predominantly Black gathering came to be.

Sharpe said he had a vision two decades ago that “the Black church is going to lead spiritual renewal in America.”

The museum executive, who is white, shared his idea over dinner with Lowden, an African American man who had attended a 2020 fatherhood conference at the museum. Lowden said the concept — which Bernard now calls a “movement” — resonated with him.

“There was a move that we had to answer, asking us to come together, go around the nation to talk about how we can bring the Black church together to lead,” Lowden said.

Over the course of the more than three-hour ceremony, coming together and overcoming were recurrent themes.

“The only way we can go forward now is with ‘love one another,’” said honoree John Perkins, a civil rights veteran and reconciliation advocate, quoting the New Testament book of 1 John and elevating the church as a whole over congregations attended by Black or white people. “‘He that loves knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God.’”

North Carolina pastor Shirley Caesar, an honoree known for her award-winning gospel singing, spoke of worshipping in the “red church,” based on the sacrifice of Jesus, rather than at a Black church or a white church.

And Dallas pastor Tony Evans also spoke of a unified church, saying, “It’s time to go public as the Black church and white church of the kingdom of God, the glory of God and the advancement of his rule in history. It’s time for the church to lead the way.”

Bishop Vashti McKenzie, an honoree and the first woman prelate in the more than 200-year-old African Methodist Episcopal Church, said she accepted her award “on behalf of women who have been pushed to the margins of church culture, yet their gifts continue to make room for them.” As McKenzie stood between her daughter and granddaughter, whom she asked to join her on stage, she urged others to adhere to the biblical admonition to “stand firm.”

Actor and producer Denzel Washington, one of the presenters at the event, noted his spiritual trajectory was shaped by two of the evening’s honorees as they led churches on opposite U.S. coasts — Blake’s West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles and Bernard’s Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn.

“It’s been an amazing 40-year journey from Bishop Blake’s church, where I first was filled with the Holy Spirit, to tonight,” Washington said, noting that Bernard, “a man of God with a mind of God,” had asked the actor to speak during his time of tribute. “It has been a blessing for all of us to be students of Pastor A.R. Bernard. It’s been a blessing for me personally to have someone that I can talk to, ask questions.”

Between prayers and speeches, a range of Black church music was featured, including from co-hosts BeBe Winans and Erica Campbell — who also harmonized a bit of “Amazing Grace” while awaiting a working teleprompter. Wintley Phipps, Pastor Marvin Winans, Lecrae, the Clark Sisters, Tramaine Hawkins, Fred Hammond and Anthony Brown & group therAPy also performed.

The Blessing of the Elders initiative, which thus far has included a steering committee and been supported by the Museum of the Bible and partnering foundations, individuals and corporate sponsors, is now a not-for-profit corporation that Bernard will chair. In an interview before the gala, he said its next steps could include a documentary, an exhibit or a curriculum about the history of the Black church that would be particularly intended for white churches “to walk a mile in our shoes.”

Steve Green, board chair and founder of the museum, said in a separate interview that a temporary exhibit centered on the Black church — delving more into the subject than what is already featured in its Bible in America permanent exhibit — is a possibility at his facility.

“To be able to do a deep dive within the Black community and the Black church is an exciting opportunity for us to consider because there is a story to be told,” he said.

The evening ended with a blessing of the celebrated elders, but Bishop T.D. Jakes, another honoree, made it clear the concluding prayer should not be solely for the seven people with bios in the program but rather all those who gathered to laud them.

“Perhaps the greatest elders are not on this stage; perhaps the greatest elders are you,” he said. “So if we bless the elders and exclude you from the blessing, we will have missed the opportunity of God’s attention. Because the future is in your hands and your mouth. We’ve all spoken. The next message is on you.”

Faith on the ground in Buffalo: Voice Buffalo executive director Denise Walden

Faith on the ground in Buffalo: Voice Buffalo executive director Denise Walden

(RNS) — Soon after a white 18-year-old shooter targeted Black customers of a community grocery store in Buffalo, New York, on Saturday (May 14), the Rev. Denise Walden, executive director of Voice Buffalo, a social justice and equity organization, was coordinating clergy to offer grief counseling and help families immediately and, she hopes, for the foreseeable future.

She was also grieving personally: She knows the families of most of the 10 people killed in the massacre.

“This is going to take more than a week, more than a month, more than six months,” said Walden, a member of the clergy team at First Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly Black congregation in Buffalo. “We need long-term solutions and support.”

Walden’s 25-year-old organization is a local chapter of Live Free, a Christian organization that has in recent years focused on preventing community violence, which now has new questions to answer, Walden said, about “the hate that caused this person to come into this community and create such a horrible, violent violation to our community.”

She said more resources are needed to counter hate in general and to cope with the reaction from Buffalo’s Black community. “When tragedy strikes and those things are not in place,” Walden said, “we create an environment that can become even more dangerous because people don’t know what to do to process their grief and their trauma.”

Walden, 42, spoke with Religion News Service about her connections to the people who died on Buffalo’s East Side, who the community has lost and what it needs now.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The massacre on Saturday occurred at a grocery store in your neighborhood. How did you react to the violence that happened there?

I’m a seven-minute walk away from the grocery store. It’s our community store. We’re there regularly. As far as how I reacted, I think I’m still trying to figure that out. For me it was, how do I show up with and in my community, just being a resource and, hopefully, a person to bring some peace and love that are all much needed in this time. And just being as comforting to those who are closest to the pain from this as possible.

You were one of the officiants of a vigil on Sunday outside the Tops grocery store. What words did you find to say?

It was hard. I think we know that there’s a need for comfort. There’s a need for love in our community. And that was the word, reminding people that we are still a strong community; reminding those of us that live here that in spite of this heinous act that we’ve seen, this is still home. This is our home.

You helped notify family members of those who were killed. Was that an unexpected responsibility or have you done that in the past?

That is definitely an unexpected responsibility. I’ve done little bits of it in my clergy capacity. For our organization it’s completely different and completely new. And I’ve never had to show up that way in something so tragic, and also something that is so closely impacting me as well.

The Rev. Denise Walden. Photo via Voice Buffalo

The Rev. Denise Walden. Photo via Voice Buffalo

It must have been very difficult.

Difficult doesn’t even describe it. I don’t think that there are words that can describe what was felt by these families and especially when our community is already in such a deep period of grief just still coming out of the pandemic. And then to now have loved ones ripped away from (them) so violently. That’s very difficult news to deliver to anybody.

Some of those lost have been described as church mothers or community mothers and a deacon — people who may have helped others cope when something like this happens in their community.

They are some of the matriarchs and the pillars of our community. They will be missed in ways that I don’t think I can do justice to describing, but who bring joy to this community. They’re the ones who help stand and hold this community together. Check those of us that need to be checked when we need to be checked. They are such an instrumental part of our community. I know some of them have snatched up my kid, like, “Hey, young man, get it together.” That is a huge loss to our entire community.

How will faith leaders address the mental health needs that there are now?

One of the asks that Voice and our partners have been consistently making is for culturally responsive services — people who understand there is some generational trauma here. People that they can feel a sense of community and trust with. There are very big cultural dynamics at play here. We’re working really hard to coordinate faith effortsalongside mental health providers and we’ve had a call out for faith leaders who are also licensed in providing (such) services.

Is that clergy of color who would understand some of the cultural and long-term dynamics here?

Yes, that can do grief counseling, trauma, counseling, all of those typesof things. But we’ve also put out a call to clergy to just be a presence in this community. Just be a presence of peace, a presence of comfort, a presence of love in this community. Because at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to help us start to process. That’s what’s going to help us start to heal.

Before the shooting, what were you planning to do this week?

I was getting ready to go to my sister’s graduation. She’s graduating with her second master’s degree and with honors. We were planning a great family Saturday to just all be together before I was leaving out of town. (But) I need to be here with my family. That’s my actual family, my husband and my children, but I also need to be here with my family that is my community. And so, for that reason, I won’t be traveling, and I’m grateful because she understands.

 

Half of churches say Sunday school, other education programs disrupted by pandemic

Half of churches say Sunday school, other education programs disrupted by pandemic

(RNS) — Sunday school and other Christian education programs have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, with half of congregations surveyed saying their programs were disrupted.

A March 2022 survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that larger churches with more than 100 people were more successful in maintaining their educational programming for children and youth, often using in-person or hybrid options. Smaller churches, especially those with 50 or fewer attendees, were least likely to say they continued religious education without disruption.

Scott Thumma, principal investigator of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project, said the findings echoed concerns about general education of schoolchildren, where researchers have seen declines in learning over the last two years.

“My sense is that people knew what good robust Sunday school was or what a successful vacation Bible school was,” said Thumma, drawing in part on open-ended comments in the survey. “And they couldn’t parallel that using Zoom or using livestreaming or using take-home boxes of activities. It just wasn’t the same thing. And so when they evaluated it, it just didn’t measure up to what they previously knew as the standard of a good quality religious education program.”

The findings are the third installment in the five-year project, a collaboration with 13 denominations from the Faith Communities Today cooperative partnership and institute staffers.

The new report, “Religious Education During the Pandemic: A Tale of Challenge and Creativity,” is based on responses from 615 congregations across 31 denominations.

Comparing data from 2019, churches surveyed in March 2022 reported that the attendance of their religious education programs had decreased an average of 30% among children younger than 13 and 40% among youth, ages 13-17.

“Analysis showed that those who closed their programs had the greatest decline in involvement even after they restarted,” the new report states. “Likewise, churches that moved religious education online lost a higher percentage of participants than churches who modified their efforts with safety protocols but continued meeting in person either outdoors or in small groups.”

The report notes that it’s not surprising the smallest churches experienced the most disruption in their religious education, given the decline in volunteer numbers and additional stresses on clergy during the pandemic.

“In the smallest churches (1-50 attendees) pastors were most likely in charge of the religious education programs, while for those between 51 and 100 worshippers, volunteers bore the bulk of leadership responsibilities,” according to the report.

Overall, evangelical churches reported experiencing the least disruption to their educational programs, while mainline churches reported the most, followed by Catholic and Orthodox congregations.

Vacation Bible school, long a staple of congregational outreach to local communities, has also been shaken by COVID-19. More than a third (36%) of churches offered such programs prior to the pandemic. That number decreased to 17% in 2020 and jumped back to 36% in the summer of 2021. Slightly less than a third (31%) reported VBS plans for 2022.

While children’s programming was greatly affected by congregational change during the pandemic, adult religious programs saw the smallest decreases compared with pre-pandemic levels, with a quarter growing since 2019 and an almost equal percentage (23%) remaining even.

But, as with children’s programs, churches with 50 or fewer worshippers saw the greatest loss in adult religious education, while those with more than 250 in worship attendance increased their adult programs by an average of 19%.

Some congregations reported moving Sunday school activities to weeknights or vacation Bible schools from weekday mornings to later hours, with mixed results.

“One said they ‘went from a typical 200+ kids to about 35,’” the report notes, and they “’shortened the number of days and moved VBS to the afternoon.’”

Thumma said innovations including intergenerational and kid-friendly programming helped sustain programs for people of all ages in some congregations. These included revamping of the children’s message time during worship to be more inclusive or older members greeting children who run by during Zoom sessions. Some churches called their all-ages activities “messy church” or “Sunday Funday” as they used interactive educational events.

“It becomes, out of necessity, intergenerational because that allows you to have robust energy and lots of people there,” he said. “But it really is directed at the kids being involved in the life of the congregation in a way that isn’t, like, ‘OK, you go to your class’ and ‘you go to your classes,’ and the classes don’t ever mingle.”

Whether creative steps such as new intergenerational activity will continue remains to be seen, Thumma added.

“I think it should because that’s a valuable strategy,” he said. “One of the things that we’ve seen in lots of our research is the more intergenerational the congregation is, the more it has a diversity of any degree, the more likely they are to be vital and thriving.”

The findings in the new report of the project, which is funded by the Lilly Endowment, have an estimated overall margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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