There’s an old saying that states, “The most segregated places in the world is church on Sunday morning.”
So says Rev. Dr. David T. Miller, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. Miller pastors Wesley Union AME Zion Church in Harrisburg, the oldest African American congregation in the city.
Recently, Miller and congregation representatives, along with 11 other churches, have begun participating in Messiah University’s “Thriving Together” program.
The two-year program, funded by the Lilly Endowment, is bringing together diverse area congregations across geography, race and politics to participate in anti-racism training, learn about geographic racial boundaries, study theologies of justice and reconciliation, and examine their own tradition’s mission and values.
Eventually, they will take a bus tour to areas of civil rights history in the South.
“At the end of our time, our participating congregations would have a deeper understanding of the ways that their own church participates in the racial ecosystem of our region, number one,” said Drew Hart, Messiah professor and program co-director. “They would have a better understanding of their church, in their traditions’ racial history. And they would have refreshed and reimagined their ministries to engage the challenges that we face in our current society today.”
Each group has a particular hope for their congregation.
“My hope and my expectation is that we’ll be able to deepen our roots in the community, but also work together with other congregations, around racial injustice, to become better advocates for the city and racial justice,” said the Rev. Canon Kate Harrigan, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Racial justice conversations, in the context of church, would also include discussing the hard truth that, throughout history, the church has played a significant role in promoting racial injustice.
“The Bible itself was used as a tool and weapon to enslave people, to define discrimination, to enforce laws, and to tell individuals that what we’re doing, we’re doing because this is what God would have us do,” Miller said.
The journey through this program will not be an easy one.
Congregations will talk openly about race, in a way that they may not have before and learn facts that they didn’t know. These facts include:
- On the west shore, many neighborhoods had racially restricted deeds that limited the people who could buy a home based on race, religion or ethnicity.
- The KKK and other white supremacist groups have had a long history in Pennsylvania.
- At Wesley Union AME Zion, church property was simply taken from them, on two separate occasions, without any recourse or compensation.
“That part of this program is kind of reckoning with history,” said Josiah Ludwick, associate pastor of Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren on Hummel Street. “Having experts and people who’ve done the scholarship in those areas to help guide us through that process is really exciting.”
Talking and learning is just one aspect of the program. The second involves reconciliation and action.
“We need to be about the work of reconciling broken relationships in our world,” said Brian Smith, program co-director. “And part of that is, of course, dealing with the history and legacy of racial inequalities in this country.”
Each participating congregation will receive a small grant at the end of the two years to develop or revitalize racial justice initiatives, Smith said.
Thirty churches applied for the program, more than double what the program could manage and many others expressed interest.
Hart and Smith both believe that the murder of George Floyd last year demonstrated to congregations a problem they could no longer ignore, heightening interest in the program.
“That just affirmed for us two things: the validity of our program and the good work that people are already doing,” Smith said. “It demonstrated that this is a thing that churches already have in their frame.”
Racism can be viewed as a political topic, and some churches shy away from tackling the issue.
“If churches, in particular, are going to say that they’re committed to the God revealed in scripture, then that’s the same God that says to let justice roll down like waters and righteous, like an ever flowing stream, right?” Hart said. “And so still, that’s the kind of work we should be about as Christians.”
Other churches dive right into what they consider their work, Harrigan said.
“There’s a very tenuous line between political and mission,” she said. “And I think we, you know, the world, walked on that line last year. And, for some, anything that had to do with Black Lives Matters or George Floyd was too political for church. St. Paul’s, we think of that as church. That’s what God is calling us to respond to.”
According to Miller, rather than churches staying away from controversy, they are uniquely situated to create the kind of reconciliation that is promoted through the “Thriving Together” program. He said that he’s looking forward to another, better time.
“When both parties, whether you’re black or white, say, ‘I’m sorry. I was really ignorant to that. I never looked at it that way,’” he said. “And have an understanding of other pieces, learning one another’s culture.”
Rather than segregated from one another, churches connecting in “Thriving Together” will discuss hard issues and will likely feel uncomfortable and challenged.
“I think the church in general is on a precipice, and we can go either way in that precipice,” Harrigan said. “We can either kind of tumble back and fall into being a very ineffective institution. Or we can strive forward. We can become one of the most effective institutions, not imposing our theology or belief system so much as encouraging justice, equity, love and hope.”
For more information on “Thriving Together,” visit www.messiah.edu/info/23582/thriving_together.
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