At the Crossroads:  A Pilgrimage

by Rebecca Blair, Presbytery of Southeastern Illinois Lead Presbyter for Transformation and Stated Clerk

During this past week, I joined a group of 44 mid-council leaders from across the country on a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama.  Our exploration of race and culture was informed by reading What Kind of Christianity? by Dr. William Yoo, professor of history at Columbia Seminary.

The book’s title comes from the words of the Reverend Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, the first Black American woman ordained in 1974 as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church.  Her observation about the challenging historical relationship that Presbyterians have experienced with issues of race ends with this question:

“Where was the Church and the Christian believers when Black women and Black men, Black boys and Black girls, were being raped, sexually abused, lynched, assassinated, castrated, and physically oppressed?  What kind of Christianity allowed white Christians to deny basic human rights and simple dignity to Blacks, these same rights which had been given to others without question?”

Those of us on the pilgrimage sought to find deeper evidence in response to Reverend Dr. Cannon’s questions, questions which the PCUSA must still engage.

In Montgomery, we visited the Legacy Museum and Memorial, where the horrific narrative of the enslavement of millions of Africans, the bloody history of lynching during the Reconstruction Era and beyond, and the inhumane impact of modern day segregation and mass incarceration is told.  This narrative powerfully impacts our understanding of American culture and the complex, often dehumanizing role of the Church along the way.

As Dr. Yoo observes, many members of the Presbyterian Church, including a number of ministers, engaged directly in enslaving people of color, adhering to theologies that devalued these human siblings in order to exploit their labor to amass wealth. Those ministers, presbyteries, and synods who challenged these practices, particularly during the Old School-New School split in 1836-37, were summarily excised from, kicked out of the denomination.

The history that Dr. Yoo traces through written accounts, minutes of Presbytery and General Assembly minutes, and other published records leads him to this concluding appraisal:  “While the ‘wrong kind of Christianity’ is the most obvious answer to Cannon’s question, this book maintains that a more historically precise and honest answer is ‘the Presbyterian kind of Christianity.’”

During this coming Holy Week, we focus on the direct challenge to the cultural powers, principalities, and inequalities that Jesus embodied especially during these last days of his life on earth.  His ministry focused on teaching, healing, truly seeing those oppressed by an occupying colonial power and a self-concerned religious elite.

He welcomed the marginalized—those experiencing poverty, injustice, fear, and great suffering—into a community of love where they could be truly seen and cared for in their common humanity because God loved them first.

And so, during this holiest of weeks, as Jesus responds to the exertion of cultural power with passion and death on a cross, perhaps this is the time for us to also focus on what kind of Christianity we are a part of and how we can shape our being and doing as disciples of the Risen Christ more closely to the model he provided, living out a meaningful Christianity that goes beyond what we proclaim to act with compassion, love, and justice—to walk our talk—in service to all of those with whom we share community.