Race and the American Church - Part III

Otis W. Pickett
In the Fall of 2003, I enrolled at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time, I was thinking seriously about pastoral ministry, but would learn that God had other plans. I had traveled outside of South Carolina to Europe several times and around the U.S.A. to pretty much every major city and section of the country. However, I had never lived permanently anywhere outside of South Carolina and had always lived in majority-white, middle class suburbs. Covenant Seminary saw fit to place us in a seminary-owned apartment in a working class African American neighborhood just six miles south of Ferguson, MO. Someone much smarter than me (perhaps my friend Bobby Griffith) needs to write a history or sociological study of those seminary-owned apartments, the impact of the students in that community over time and the impact of that community and the wonderful people who live there on the lives of Covenant students over time. 

It is at this point I would like to mention something as an aside. We need to realize that we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters (African American, white, Hispanic, etc.) in other denominations and from different theological traditions. For instance, our African Americans brothers and sisters have much to teach us about a theology of community, of suffering, persecution, perseverance, heavenly thinking, love, forgiveness, worship, evangelism, lived or practical theology and how that theology leads us to action rather than mere contemplation.[1] These are theological topics that can incredibly enhance and nuance the reformed tradition when understood from the African American Christian's experiences. Sometimes I wonder if we (reformed thinkers) have gotten a little too proud of our theology such that we think it to be complete and begin to think that it cannot be enhanced by better understanding other traditions, cultures and experiences. For instance, I now have a deeper appreciation for a reformed theological position of Christian persecution by hearing the stories of African American brothers and sisters in Mississippi who dealt with great suffering, racism and hatred, but who worked through that and were able to love their enemy because of their theological understanding of suffering and persecution. Sometimes the perception, whether it is true or not, of Reformed thinkers is that we are "know it alls" and it is possible that we can be, intentionally or unintentionally, condescending toward other Christians and other denominations. We need to be careful of this and the potential theological paternalism that it might create. It might lead us to a biased posture of "they need to come to our church because we have the best theology" or "We need to go in this neighborhood and teach them because their theology isn't as sound as ours." This may be true, but we also need to be saying "What can we learn from our brothers and sisters and their Christian experiences," "how can our theological tradition be enhanced by their perspective" and "what can we learn from our brothers and sisters about putting that theology into action?" Anyway, back to the main story.....

The intentionality of Covenant Seminary placing students in that neighborhood for housing was a stroke of genius and I thank God for Covenant placing us there. I learned more about what it is like to be an African American in the United States in those three years then I have learned in my entire life. However, to my friends who visited from South Carolina (many of whom had similar living experiences as I had enjoyed), the place we called home was somewhat startling. Ninety percent of our neighbors were hard-working African American families. The apartments were not the "nicest" or "fanciest" living spaces folks had ever seen and many of our neighbors consisted of single parent homes with what educators call "latchkey" kids. These are kids who come home in the afternoon to empty apartments and do not see their parents until five or six that evening because the parents are working very hard (often two and three jobs to make ends meet). In the summer, the kids are there all day, from nine to five just hanging around the neighborhood with nothing to do and precious few adults there to make them lunch, help them plan activities or engage with them. Many times we had kids come to our door asking for a glass of water just to be able to come into our home and sit in the air conditioning. This absence of parents led to all kinds of activities within our neighborhood such as unwise decision making, teenage pregnancies, poor diets and interactions with the police. As seminary students, many of us organized activities, lunches, bible studies and "field trip" opportunities (St. Louis has a plethora of free museums and parks) for the children and got them involved in local churches with vibrant youth ministries. God even used my love of professional wrestling to connect with many of the young men in the neighborhood and we played countless hours of WWE Monday Night Raw on PlayStation. 

In many ways, our neighborhood was similar to Ferguson and when the events in Ferguson took place a few months ago, I watched them unfold with less of a detached emotion than many Americans. Some of the frustrations that the people of Ferguson have and feel with regard to targeted policing and justice are very real and I saw similar scenarios of an unbalanced policing of African American youths, compared to youths in white, middle-class, suburban sections of St. Louis, on a weekly basis. I remember one day the boys in the neighborhood were playing football in the yard between the apartments. There was a "tussle" (as we used to call it when I was a football-playing teenage boy in South Carolina), which basically means pushing and shoving because someone was playing dirty or was "throwing bows (elbows)." A police officer came by in a cruiser, got out of his car and walked up to the boys. These boys were no more than thirteen years old and the youngest of them was probably nine or ten. He questioned them about where they lived, what their names were and said he was getting complaints from neighbors about fighting and brawling in the yard. No one was arrested, but information was written down. These young men were now on the "radar" of a patrolling officer in the area. What struck me were the hundreds upon hundreds of times that my friends and I played what we used to call "highly emotional" basketball and football. We got into arguments, furious shouting matches, brawling fights but eventually we would get back to the game. In my neighborhood growing up the cops never came, we were never asked questions about who we were or where we lived, neighbors never called the police on us and we were far more violent towards one another then these young boys were being. 

I realized that simply because of where I lived, my parent's income and my race, I was protected by a sphere of white privilege that served as a buffer to targeted policing and other potential issues. If the police were ever questioning us on a regular basis because we were playing football and "tussling" my mother would have been on the phone in a "heart-beat" (as she would say) with an attorney and would have made the proper inquiries towards the police department about harassment. She and my father would have called people with influence who would "look into" the matter as a personal favor to them and our family. This access to power afforded by enhanced educational opportunities and having friendship and kinship networks in spheres of influence limited the effects of a targeted over-policing of our neighborhood. I may be wrong about this, but my personal experiences have shown me that police are more careful in approaching people (and those people's children) to gather their information if those people have access to connections, wealth, attorneys and political influence. 

As my seminary professors used to say, "Please do not hear what I am not saying." I am not at all anti-Police. I am very thankful for the police and the incredible work they do in our communities. I am thankful for how they protect our homes, how they put their lives on the line each and every day to keep us safe, how they keep speeding cars from causing wrecks and how they help us with roadside car breakdowns. They deserve our utmost respect. I thank Policemen in my community on a weekly basis and interact with them in very positive ways in my own community. However, it doesn't mean that they are not fallible, don't make mistakes and cannot be questioned. We have also seen far too many young African American men shot by the police to any longer consider it a coincidence. We must as a nation begin to ask questions and demand better for communities where over-policing or targeted policing towards African Americans is taking place. As whites, we must lose our complacency and self-interest and be willing to declare with our African American brothers and sisters that African American lives matter and we are willing to do something to display that. It might be as easy as looking through your contact list, picking up the phone and advocating for a particular community.           

Covenant taught me a great deal. The seminary student body was fairly multiethnic at the time with a sizeable international population and a growing African American student population. Professor Jerram Barrs taught me much about the importance of repentance over our national, denominational and regional sins of racism, recognizing past sins, admitting them publicly and seeking forgiveness from our African American brothers and sisters over those sins. I remember him saying once that, "It doesn't even matter that I am British. I'm white. Therefore, when I go and preach in African American churches I always acknowledge these sins, repent and ask for forgiveness over these sins. Many of the congregants weep openly over this and come to me afterwards saying it's the first time they have ever heard a white man saying these things."[2] Here was a man, who was not even a native born American, who was owning the sins of this country and doing the work of repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness. What a picture of the gospel! Christ owned the sins of Adam and all humanity even though He had no role in creating that sin and He sacrificed Himself (the blameless) to save us (the guilty). How could I not, as a white southerner from the United States, try also to go and do likewise? I remain very thankful for Jerram. I have never known a kinder, gentler or lovelier man in all my life. I, and many others, often refer to him as the most sanctified person that we have ever known.  

In my time at Covenant, the seminary hired the first full-time, tenure track African American professor in the school's history. His name is Dr. Anthony Bradley. Bradley has since moved on from Covenant, published numerous books and has been involved in pushing forward the conversation on race in our denomination for the last several years. I am thankful for him in many ways. First, we both went to Clemson University and so we share a love for Clemson Football. At Covenant we spent many Saturdays together cheering for the Tigers. I also took every class I could with Dr. Bradley. I will never forget the day that Bradley showed the class a pro-Confederate/Reformed Theology website that, at the time, was put together by people within Reformed Presbyterian circles who were also very proud of their Confederate heritage. On the website was an article about Covenant's hiring of Bradley and the there was a comments section below. Bradley did the painful work of reading each comment out loud to the class. The comments on this website contained some of the most racist, offensive and hateful language I had ever heard. There were probably 70+ students in the class. Many of us wept over the sin and hate contained in this website. We lamented over the pain this must have caused Bradley who should have been celebrating finishing his Ph.D. and receiving that first coveted tenure track teaching job. Instead, he found himself being attacked by Christians in his own denomination who were posting hateful language about him simply because of his race. I asked Bradley if we could go to lunch and he began walking me through some of the difficult history of race in America and in the church.[3] 

I found myself wondering if there was anyone in Southern Presbyterianism who was antislavery or who fought against racism, segregation or was even perhaps pro-Civil Rights. The seminary had just hired another brilliant scholar by the name of Dr. Sean Lucas, who had just finished his book on Robert Lewis Dabney. I told Lucas about my interest in southerners who were moderates on race in the nineteenth century and that I wanted to read and learn more about this. In the two years that followed, Lucas pointed me to some wonderful historians, connected me with Wayne Sparkman, Director of the PCA Historical Center and Archives (where I served as a graduate assistant for two years), and helped me write a large research paper on John Lafayette Girardeau, the multiethnic mission church that he pastored before the Civil War, his multiethnic church work after the war and the disputes he had with Robert Lewis Dabney over the ecclesiastical equality of freedmen during Reconstruction. I learned a great deal about Presbyterian history and I found myself far more interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in History and teaching than I did becoming a full-time vocational pastor. I ended up finishing an M.A. at Covenant and pursuing an M.A. in History at the College of Charleston. Upon acceptance at CofC, I found out that, as part of my M.A. studies, I had received a graduate assistantship at the Avery Center for African American History and Culture in my home town of Charleston, SC. In May of 2006, our family packed our things and moved South. My education continued. 

Otis Pickett is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Mississippi College, Clinton, MS. You can follow him on Twitter @OtisWPickett


[1] I am borrowing these ideas heavily from the thoughts of Carl Ellis whom I have heard present on this topic at General Assembly and at RTS-Jackson

[2] I am paraphrasing a well-known story that Professor Barrs tells in one of his lectures at Covenant Seminary during his Apologetics class

[3] One thing I should about this website is that it has since been taken down and one of the chief authors of the website has contacted Dr. Bradley to apologize