The American Protestant tradition is one with a mixed history on race relations without question. The Presbyterian tradition, in particular, is one that has had to face its own failure of being on the wrong side of racial justice for much of American history. Even with that history, we are encouraged that the gospel really does change people and has the power drive racial healing and build racial solidarity. In The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign For Southern Church Desegregation, by Rhodes College religious studies professor Stephen R. Haynes, readers get an example of gospel transformation in the powerful story of the “kneel-in” desegregation in Memphis in the 1960s. Like most histories, we find the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Resisting Racial Integration
The book opens recounting the story of a series of nonviolent church desegregation protests across the South to test the limits of white Christian denial of their baptism by prohibiting African Americans from joining in corporate Sunday worship. Haynes explains that kneel-ins became the official name of the protests “not because kneeling was a regular feature of the visits (which it wasn’t), but because attempts to break the ecclesiastical color line were viewed as part of a larger campaign of ‘sit-ins,’ ‘sleep-ins’ and ‘wade-ins’ that was sweeping the South at the time.” The denominations barring African Americans in the South ranged from Assemblies of God to Methodist to Presbyterian churches and beyond.
The bulk of the book focuses on the events of 1964 at Second Presbyterian Church (SPC) in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Southern Presbyterian struggle with racial integration during the mid-1960s in general. What is additionally helpful in the narrative is the observation that for these white churches, the only thing feared more than racial integration was interracial marriage. Miscegenation was to be avoided at all cost and would serve as the catalyst for racial tension decades later.
What readers will find startling are the events leading to the formation of Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) in Memphis. According to Haynes, IPC was planted as a protest against racial integration and in resistance to what was considered unbiblical involvement of the Presbyterian Church in social issues in ways that weakened the church’s core calling to evangelism and discipleship. In March 1965, right after SPC voted to embrace racial integration, over 300 people left SPC to form IPC. Because of this history, IPC has had challenges building unity with the black community in Memphis. However, after a number of painful years, IPC has publicly confessed the sins of their fathers, sought forgiveness, and is actively working toward racial reconciliation and racial solidarity.
A Model of Confession and Repentance
Several years ago SPC initiated the challenging process of confession and repentance as it dealt with its own history in Memphis, and it has successfully pursued several racial reconciliation initiatives with the black community in the city today. It is now IPC’s turn. Under the leadership of its current pastor, the Rev. Richie Sessions, IPC is putting the gospel on display before a watching world. On Sunday May 13, 2012, one of the elders of the IPC read this statement of repentance and confession before the congregation:
We profess, acknowledge and confess before God, before one another, and before the watching world, that tolerance of forced or institutional segregation based on race, and declarations of the inferiority of certain races, such as once were practiced and supported by our church and many other voices in the Presbyterian tradition, were wrong and cannot and will not be accepted within our church today or ever again. The Lord calls us to repent of the sin of prejudice; to turn from it and to treat all persons with justice, mercy, and love. As a church, we will strive to be more intentional and proactive with ministry opportunities for the congregation to serve the city of Memphis as redemptive, Gospel-driven agents seeking the peace and prosperity of ALL of Memphis.
On that same day, Sessions preached a powerful sermon on the gospel and race. Haynes tells the story of how IPC arrived at this day of confession over several years of discussions building on the work of previous pastors in this direction. It is a wonderful story of church struggling through the implications of what it means to love God and neighbor while taking both baptism and the Lord’s Supper seriously. Sessions has emerged as one of America’s most dynamic pastors as a result.
The Deep Roots of White Supremacy
Within the context of the IPC repentance story, Haynes also covers a troubling story from just a few years ago. In 2005, IPC hired the Rev. John Hardie to serve as pastor. Hardie had done graduate work at Yale University and was completing a Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. In November 2006, Hardie made a tangential comment that the Bible does not speak against interracial marriage while giving an illustration about a close friend of his. What Hardie did not realize is that while many conservative Presbyterians in the South were open to different races occupying the same public space, interracial marriage is still considered unbiblical and impermissible by many Southerners to this day. It turns out that in our era if you want to get a sense of where a person stands on race issues, do not ask about integration or racial reconciliation; ask whether or not God smiles upon interracial marriage.
TRACKING A PAINFUL HISTORY: Author Stephen R. Haynes.
Several members of IPC found the sermon comment offensive. According to Haynes, the Rev. Tom Elkin, a former adjunct pastor at IPC and now on pastoral staff at The First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, taught a Sunday school class two weeks later at IPC where Elkin “misleadingly implied that Hardie was not only defending interracial marriage” but “encouraging its practice.” Elkin objected, in part, because Hardie’s view appeared to condemn Southern Presbyterians’ spiritual ancestors. In his admonishment of Hardie, Elkin even went so far as to defend pro-slavery Presbyterians like R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell and their acceptance of American slavery on what Elkin interpreted as non-racists grounds. After a few months of questions and turmoil, Hardie found himself “resigning” by May of 2007. Haynes concludes that however Hardie’s abrupt departure is officially described “there is no question that his decision to invoke interracial marriage as an acid test for white racism was a fateful turn in his brief tenure at the church.”
The Hard Road of Reconciliation
Independent Presbyterian Church and is a member church of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. In recent years several, other books and articles have raised troubling questions about individual churches and the resistance to desegregation. Books such as Joel Alvis’ Race and Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983, Peter Slades’ Open Friendship in a Closed Society, and an article by R. Milton Winter titled “Division & Reunion in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.” stand out as prime examples. The PCA has taken important steps toward acknowledging its past as a denomination through repentance and racial reconciliation statements (2002) and statements condemning the sin of racism (2004). However, consistent with its Southern Presbyterian roots, those statements are non-binding and only make a difference in congregation life if individual churches take action in response. As a result, according to Haynes, IPC is the only church in the PCA that has ever taken the courageous step to confess and repent of the sins of their own local church fathers.
Given the number of Presbyterian congregations in the Southeast with histories dating back to slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, it might seem amazing to some that, although the denomination embraced a repentance statement over a decade ago, only one of the nearly 1,800 churches has publicly confessed and repented of the past locally. Some argue that this has much to with a Southern cultural norm that discourages people from discussing the failures of previous generations. This perspective can only be called idolatry. Richie Sessions and IPC reject this idolatry. IPC understands the biblical model of confessing the sins of our fathers and instead of turning a blind eye, to honor them in their death for the good they did (Ezra 9:6-15, Neh. 1:6-7, 9:2).
To date, IPC remains a model of what true racial reconciliation looks like. Without confession and repentance in Southern cities by individual churches, reconciliation will be cheap and ineffective. What cities in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina need are pastors with the vision and fortitude of men in leadership at IPC. Confessing and repenting of their father’s sins puts the gospel on display to a watching world and reminds members of their need of the grace of God, lest they return to beliefs and practices that deny their baptism. As I noted in my official endorsement for this book, Haynes presents a story based in Memphis that is paradigmatic for the entire South.
SHARING THE BREAD OF LIFE: When not making biscuits at a local restaurant, Democratic Republic of Congo refugee Benjamin Kisoni pastors a congregation of African immigrants in Tennessee. He awaits asylum in the U.S. and dreams of reuniting with his family. (Photo by Dawn Jewell)
Benjamin Kisoni’s recent life reads like the story of a modern-day Joseph. But instead of donning a fine multicolored robe, he ties apron strings in pre-dawn stillness. His fingers freeze mixing chilled buttermilk and flour. He is preparing the day’s first biscuits at the fast-food restaurant Bojangles’ in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
Until three years ago, Benjamin had never tasted a biscuit in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Amidst the region’s ongoing turmoil, he was pastoring a Baptist church and publishing a Christian youth magazine. But in 2009, five times men assailed his house, seeking to kill him. Each time Benjamin evaded them. Desperate, he fled to the U.S., leaving behind his wife and eight children (ages 14 to 30) and effectively shutting down his family’s printing business.
Benjamin was targeted because he pursued a court case for his brother’s assassination. Hired gunmen had murdered his brother, a veterinarian and businessman respected for his humanitarian works. Local influential leaders had feared his brother’s increasing popularity.
“I love my country and wanted to help change it by writing. I never imagined I’d be chased from it,” he says. He and his wife reluctantly agreed that his leaving the DR Congo was the best chance they had for everyone to survive. So in May 2009, the beleaguered pastor arrived with one suitcase in small town America, welcomed by his sister and her husband.
Since then, Benjamin’s faith has been refined. After applying for asylum and while awaiting a work permit, Benjamin penned his story on God and suffering to encourage his fellow countrymen. “The ink which wrote this book is my tears,” he says. The book, “God, Where Are You?” will be released later this year by Zondervan’s Hippo imprint.
Biscuits for Jesus
Five days a week Benjamin rises at 3 a.m. to pray and read Scripture. His eight-hour shift begins at 4:30. He has honed the science of Bojangles’ made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits.
“It’s non-stop work,” he says. But God prepared Benjamin via his Master of Theology thesis on the ethics of work years ago.
Last year Benjamin was promoted to Master Biscuit Maker, training new hires from other restaurants. On their first day, he tells each trainee: “I’m a Christian, I love God…The manager may be present or not, but I know God is there. I’m working to please God.”
God, in turn, has blessed the work of his hands. Business has improved at Benjamin’s Bojangles’ location since he started working there, his boss told him. Three times his manager has nominated him “employee of the month.”
Each month Benjamin wires home a large portion of his meager salary to provide food, medicine and rent for his family. It’s not how he imagined supporting them or rebuilding his nation. But he has accepted God’s plans.
Silent worship carries Benjamin through hours of biscuit-making. As the batter forms a ball, he softly sings in French:
“Here is Good News for all who are disappointed;
He offers better than anything we’ve lost,
Because what we see is not all there is,
His provision never ends…” (English translation)
“I used to think you can go through suffering and then reach victory on the other side. But I’ve learned that when you are in the midst of suffering and have hope in God, that is victory,” he says. Like Joseph, this suffering servant in exile has excelled, trusting in God’s plan.
An African Billy Graham
God keeps confirming the strange twists of Benjamin’s life. Twelve years ago, he dreamed he was helping to build a church, oddly within a bigger church. Today Benjamin is senior pastor to a fledgling congregation of local African immigrants. It meets within the larger American Grace Fellowship Church.
On a recent Sunday, 50 men and women, and more than 25 children from Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Ivory Coast, the DR Congo and Cameroon filled chairs. The International Christian Fellowship formed in 2009 out of a Bible study to meet cultural needs that American churches couldn’t.
From the pulpit, Pastor Benjamin preaches the Word clearly and simply; Billy Graham is his life-long model. As a pastor’s son, a young Benjamin devoured each new issue of Graham’s Decision magazine. Today he avoids theological debates and exhorts congregants to imitate Jesus. The church is slowly expanding.
Besides discipling fellow Africans, Benjamin has helped Bryan Henderson, a bi-vocational pastor and financial advisor, grasp God more clearly. The two men email, pray and meet regularly as friends and accountability partners. “I’m white, he’s black. I grew up with privilege and he grew up with poverty,” Bryan says. “We had nothing in common, but everything in common. We had the Holy Spirit guiding us.”
BI-VOCATIONAL BROTHERS: Bryan Henderson (left), a pastor and financial advisor, met Benjamin during a time of personal despair. “He helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” says Bryan. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Henderson)
The two men met shortly after Bryan had lost his job with financial giant Merrill Lynch. Benjamin’s deep faith amidst persecution and trials “really helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” Bryan says. Now they discuss church leadership issues, American and African culture, and Scripture passages.
A strong daily dose of God’s word sustains Benjamin’s hope. “People here want fast food, fast cars, fast this, fast that. They haven’t learned to wait patiently on the Lord,” he says.
Recently he resonated with the three women who carried spices to Jesus’ tomb, despite awareness they couldn’t budge the boulder at the entrance (Mark 16). “The women could’ve stayed home, but they didn’t,” he says. “So I said, ‘God, I have many stones in my way. I believe you will remove them.’”
A Place to Call Home?
The biggest stone in Benjamin’s life is his asylum case. Last year the U.S. granted asylum to about 25,000 people seeking sanctuary, although three times as many applied here. Like refugees, asylum seekers flee their home countries because of persecution or well-grounded fears thereof, based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Back home, Benjamin is sure he would be killed. His family is scattered across the eastern DR Congo, too afraid to return to their house but tired of living in limbo. Recently his daughter texted him, “Dad, I want to go back home. If they will kill me, let them kill me.”
This May an immigration judge denied Benjamin asylum, claiming inadequate grounds. His lawyer is appealing, but the process could last years.
Massive backlogs of asylum cases sit in the vastly under-resourced U.S. court system, says Lisa Koop, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a Chicago non-profit. Anxiety for family members still facing danger back home is a huge stressor for asylum seekers, Koop says.
In recent months, fighting between marauding militia and the army has increased in the lush green hills of eastern DR Congo, near Benjamin’s hometown. Despite peace accords signed in 2003, 5 million people have died since 1998 in the world’s deadliest conflict. The current battle for power, the region’s mineral wealth, or security originates in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the subsequent flight of Hutu civilians and militia into the DR Congo.
Meanwhile, Benjamin looks beyond the American dream, “longing for a better country, a heavenly one,” he says (Hebrews 11:14).
“I trust God because He’s sovereign. I’m not asking the ‘why’ questions,” he told Bryan after his case was denied.
The final pages of Benjamin’s story are unwritten. Meanwhile, reads his book’s epilogue: “I thank God for my suffering. He made himself known to me, and through them he has allowed me to comfort others.”
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MODELING SERVANT LEADERSHIP: Manassas High School coach Bill Courtney sought to teach more than football.
We’ve seen the story before: a white coach turns around a failing inner-city football team and, in the process, helps ease racial tensions in his community. This time the film is Undefeated, a documentary about three black players from North Memphis, Tennessee, and their volunteer coach Bill Courtney. The film won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards last Sunday night (snagging an Oscar for executive producer Sean “P.Diddy” Combs), but while Courtney is humbled by the honor, he isn’t all that impressed and says he didn’t set out to save anybody. UrbanFaith talked to this no-nonsense coach about his faith, his motives, and his goals for working with the team. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: In an interview with MSN before Undefeated won the Academy Award, you said if the film defines you or the players featured in it, or if it is the best thing that ever happened to any of you, you’ve got real problems. How do you feel now that it’s won?
Bill Courtney: I feel the same way. The film winning a little 14-inch gold statue doesn’t make it any better or worse than it was before it won it. It’s a great honor and it’s humbling. In Hollywood, societal statements or environmental statements are the types of things that are typically celebrated, so when a film about perseverance and kids wins, it speaks to the power of the film. I think it’s great, but it doesn’t define us and it cannot define us. What needs to define us is the experience that we had together so that when we go on in our lives 20 years from now, and we’re raising families, having graduated from college, and have jobs, that’s what needs to define us, not a moment in time that was captured on film. Don’t take me wrong. It’s humbling. It’s a wonderful experience and we should allow ourselves to enjoy it, but if something like that defines you, you start taking yourself too seriously and that’s a pretty tough road to hoe.
An employee of yours had asked for time off to cook pre-game meals with his Sunday school class for an inner-city football team and you told him about Manassas High School, which is down the road from your lumber company. He then told the Manassas team about you and that’s how you got involved. Did faith play a role in your involvement too?
Courtney: Faith plays a role in everything I do. I’m a Christian. It’s my job to be as Christ-like as I possibly can. I sin daily. Thank goodness for forgiveness; otherwise my life would be in shambles. Certainly faith played a role in it, because I feel compelled and I feel that it’s all of our calling to help out those in the greatest need. These kids were completely deficient in a number of basic tenets and fundamentals that I want my own children raised with. The need was there and it was the most rewarding experience of my life to be able to share my life with them. It’s inspirational that they shared their lives with me. I don’t think they would have been welcomed into my neighborhood nearly as quickly and generously as they welcomed me into theirs.
What did you learn from these young men who came from a different culture and a different racial background than you?
Courtney: The racial thing didn’t really have anything to do with it. I didn’t think of them as my black players and they didn’t think of me as the white coach. I know society is going to look at this film and want to have that conversation. It had nothing to do with our relationship. Therefore, I don’t have anything to say about it.
With regard to what I learned from them, prior to my experience with them, I probably would have had the attitude that this is a free country. My mom and dad were divorced early. I grew up with very little and I made it, so if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. Frankly, that’s a lie. That’s something we want to tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good. The truth is the playing field isn’t level. When children grow up having seen perpetual generations that have no hope and feel lost, and feel like they’re not even part of society, that’s what they’re going to feel and grow up doing. All the money and governmental programs and everything in the world simply does not replace true love, care, and compassion, and true mentorship.
What they taught me was that no matter what you’re circumstances are, when you try to do the right things, and you work toward commitment and discipline, and you work on your own soul and character, then amazing things can happen. I will forever be indebted to those kids and that community for welcoming me and accepting me.
You’ve said that football doesn’t build character, it reveals character, and that if a person’s foundation is football, they’re going to fall on their behind.
Courtney: I don’t think something as trivial as a game builds character. You build your own character when you build a foundation of the tenets you want to make yourself. Things like football, a job, a marriage—the real things in life are what reveal your character. If you think football is going to help you to rise up above your circumstances and have a great life, I think you’re wrong. You can’t stand on a football. Football cannot be a foundation for anything. Your foundation has to be your discipline and your commitment. If you build your foundation on those principles, then you can hold 20 footballs over your head all day long.
In the MSN interview, you talked about the servant leadership of a coach you had growing up who made seniors get water for the team and things like that instead of making freshman do it, as is customary. Is Christ-like servant leadership something you taught your players and modeled for them?
Courtney: I believe that Christ lived on this earth and gave his life so that I could be forgiven for the things I do on a daily basis that I’m ashamed of. So, when I believe the ruler of the universe served me, I pretty much feel like it’s my responsibility to serve everyone I can. In serving, you then lead, because you give an example to people of a way to lead your life that is more selfless than self-serving. I didn’t say that, because it comes off self-serving if you say, “Hey, look at me.” I just did it. My belief is: I can’t save anybody—I can’t save anybody from circumstances; I can’t save anybody into a faith. It’s my job to introduce my faith and then let the Lord work his will the way he sees fit. The way you do that is you walk what you talk and do the very best you can to serve and to share what your life is about, if they ask. Hopefully from there, they find a place in their own lives to grow from that.
PLAYING THE GRACE CARD: Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. (right) and newcomer Michael Higgenbottom star in The Grace Card.
A Memphis optometrist, his Tennessee church, and a Hollywood legend join forces to tell a story of faith, forgiveness, and racial healing.