We’ve now entered June, even if it feels like August. We’re calling the coming four Sundays Heritage Month at Westminster. Each week in June, the lens of scripture will help us understand different aspects of our history – our heritage – as a congregation.
Today we also celebrate the Westminster students who have graduated this year. The story of this congregation is your story. You carry it with you as you set off on your future, whatever that might be. This morning we will take a look at who we have been as a community of faith, because it will shape who we shall become.
Today we look at the matter of race in America. Next week we will examine the leadership of women in the church, and welcome back the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence, former Associate Pastor at Westminster, to offer the sermon that day.
We begin at the beginning: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” (Genesis 1:24a)
Last week we explored this very text as a way to consider new perspectives on the Trinity, noting that God speaks in Genesis of God’s own self both in the singular and plural. This week we return to the same passage from the first book of the Bible to think together about another aspect of these ancient words: the foundational understanding of the human creature as a reflection of the Creator.
Perhaps this biblical phrase is so familiar to us that we miss its significance: Let us make humankind in our image. In other words, the finite bears the imprint of the infinite. The earth-bound manifests the eternal. The Creator made human beings, as the psalmist says, “a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor,” and God gave them dominion over – stewardship of – all the creatures of the earth, not over one another. (Psalm 8:5)
The words from Genesis give us the scriptural starting point for a theological consideration of race in America. To say it plainly: the Bible does not support any justification of a division of humankind based on racial categories. In fact, just the opposite. Scripture reveals from its earliest pages, through the psalms and prophets, the gospels and epistles, that in God’s eyes, humanity is indivisible. One family. One global community, rich in its diversity, but each member of which bears the same imago dei, the face of God.
Let us make humankind in our image.
Sometime in the mid-1700s, Olaudah Equiano was born in the Eboe region of the Kingdom of Benin, in the south of modern-day Nigeria, not far from Cameroon. At age 11 he was taken from his home, brought through the Middle Passage to America, and sold to a white merchant in Virginia to serve as enslaved labor. Eventually, as an adult, he was taken to sea and earned modest wages. Equiano finally was able to buy his own freedom, after which he became a prominent abolitionist in England.
In his autobiography, published in 1789, Equiano says this of the system of enslavement in America:
“O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you: learned you this from your God, who says unto you, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?’” (From a quote in the Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.)
It took “good, Christian people” to set aside the biblical foundations of their faith to endorse the enslavement of human beings based on a system that valued skin color above all else. Each of these children of God bore the spark of the divine in them, the image of God, and was “created equal” according to the Declaration of Independence, yet each was deemed merely three-fifths of a human being in the U.S. Constitution.
O, ye nominal Christians.
The idea that some human beings would be considered superior to others, privileged simply by virtue of the color of their skin, is utterly counter to the biblical witness. Europeans and their colonial descendants invented the idea of race as it came to be understood in America. As far as biblically-based faith is concerned, it is sinful heresy, and must be repudiated at every turn.
“No one was white before they came to America,” James Baldwin says.
“It took generations and a vast amount of coercion…In this debasement and definition of black people, they have debased and defined themselves…Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all people are siblings.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations-a-narrative-bibliography/372000/) (male language changed)
Here Baldwin echoes the words of the Apostle Paul:
“Therefore, you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things…For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:1, 11)
The willingness of white Christians to lay aside clear biblical mandates, in favor of invented categories of humanity, gave rise to the insidious system of chattel slavery. Gone was the notion of the image of God in every human being. While the immoral decision by colonialist Europeans to support the enslavement of people from the continent of Africa may have fueled the early economy and eventual growth of America as a nation, it also threw out and trampled upon the God who showed no partiality, the God who warned against judging others. We are still living the consequences 400 years later.
Ta-Nehesi Coates says,
“Race is the child of racism, not the parent… Whiteness and blackness are not a fact of providence, but of policy—of slave codes, black codes, Jim Crow, redlining, GI Bills, housing covenants, New Deals, and mass incarcerations. (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations-a-narrative-bibliography/372000/) (male language changed)
One such policy decision was made in 1857 by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that began right here, at Fort Snelling. An enslaved African named Dred Scott was brought to the fort in 1833, the same year the first Christian church in the territory was built on the eastern shore of lake Bde Mka Ska by Gideon and Samuel Pond, Presbyterian missionaries. The Indian Agent who introduced the Pond brothers to the Dakota people living in the village there, Lawrence Taliaferro “owned” an enslaved African woman named Harriet Robinson. Like Dred Scott, she, too, had been brought to Ft. Snelling in the north, where slaveholding was outlawed.
Dred and Harriet met and fell in love. They married and wanted to begin a new life together as free people. They sued for their freedom on the basis of being enslaved people in a free territory. The case was decided by the Supreme Court in March, 1857. Westminster Presbyterian Church was established in August of that same year, on the banks of the Mississippi.
The Dred Scott decision held that an enslaved person residing in a free state or territory was not entitled to freedom, that African Americans were not and could never be citizens of the United States, and that the Missouri Compromise permitting no slavery in territory west of the Missouri River was unconstitutional.
You have no excuse, the Apostle Paul says, whoever you are, when you judge others; for God shows no partiality.
The decision brought the U.S. to the brink of civil war. When war did break out at Ft. Sumter in April 1861, the Presbyterian Church General Assembly met one month later in Philadelphia and adopted a resolution in support of the Union, prompting the southern delegates to walk out and form the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States. Historians say the Civil War never ended until the northern and southern Presbyterians finally reconciled and reunited in 1983.
To state the obvious, Westminster was born 164 years ago in the midst of great turmoil – theological, political, social, economic turmoil – around racialized segregation and violence in America that has been the context for our church’s ministry and mission ever since.
Presbyterian congregations and institutions across the country are coming to terms today with their past support of and continuing benefit from racist practices, including slavery. Pastors “owned” enslaved Africans. Elders owned plantations worked by enslaved people and businesses that profited from enslaved labor, both in the South and in the North. Churches enforced segregation. Seminaries were built with enslaved labor; many of them have begun creating reparation plans today.
To offer one illustration: the church our Associate Pastor Alexandra Mauney came from in Greensboro, North Carolina, dates from the early 1800s. Until 1865, whites attended worship at First Presbyterian on the main floor of the sanctuary; their enslaved laborers and free Blacks were relegated to the balcony in the back. When Emancipation came, African Americans were no longer welcome. They left and formed their own church, St. James Presbyterian.
The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, our preacher on Pentecost two weeks ago, served for many years as pastor of St. James in Greensboro. In 2018, the African American church, at her initiative, approached First Church to begin a process of reconciliation – more than 150 years after separating. After two years of difficult conversation a new relationship is forming. It is hard work, and it is only beginning.
What steps for racial equity has Westminster taken through the years? Our church records say little about efforts to reckon with racism in the 19th or early 20th centuries. (I am grateful to our archival team for their research on these matters.) We did send money to the Freedmen’s General Fund to assist newly emancipated people. We also supported a school for Black girls in Virginia in the 1870s.
I learned recently that in 1939, Dr. George Washington Carver was invited to speak at Westminster. Dr. Carver was born into slavery and overcame great odds to become a celebrated American scientist and leader. He rose to prominence for his work with the peanut, for which he developed some 300 uses. Booker T. Washington hired him to teach at the Tuskegee Institute. (Thank you to Jeanie Huebner for sharing the information about Dr. Carver’s visit to Westminster.)
Dr. Carver was also a man of deep faith. Westminster’s senior minister in 1939, the Rev. Dr. William Henry Boddy, invited Dr. Carver to come from Tuskegee to speak here as part of a Lenten series. It’s hard to know if Dr. Carver’s invitation was a testimony to the church’s support for racial justice, but his mere presence in Westminster’s pulpit would have caused a stir. The speech – a copy of which we do not have – was titled, “Alone with the Creator.”
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
Thirty years later, in the 1960s, Westminster responded to the Civil Rights Movement by establishing a Task Force on Religion and Race. Some of you served on that Task Force, and led the church in working alongside others in the Black community – tutoring in schools, teaching music lessons, supporting food shelfs, providing seed money for Project for Pride in Living, inviting children of color to our Camp Ajawah, marching in protests right down Nicollet in front of our building, educating the congregation on racism, and making deposits of Westminster funds in African American-owned banks. Church members were encouraged to read books like Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power and the Autobiography of Malcolm X – a full and rather provocative list was featured in the Westminster News and the books were prominently displayed in the church library. An associate pastor position for outreach to the Black community was created, but never filled.
Westminster’s efforts to address racism surged again, three decades later – this is a thirty-year pattern – in the 1990s. The session created a Racism and Diversity Task Team – some of you served in that group – and approved a Policy on Diversity. The Team offered classes on dismantling racism, and in 1993, Westminster joined the Anti-Racism Initiative of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches – thirty years ago, an anti-racism initiative. In the late 1990s, Westminster joined in helping launch a new, Afro-centered congregation called Kwanzaa, now Liberty Community Church. We have been active in our time in support of racial equity.
Today, in yet another time of turmoil around race, Westminster continues to find ways to educate and encourage its members to make a difference. This week one such opportunity arose. In light of the violence that has claimed the lives of children, Black church leaders issued a summons to join them in a 21-Days of Peace Initiative. It started this weekend and continues the next two weekends through June 20. Volunteers stand outside in the streets in solidarity with others from African American churches and allies, as a ministry of presence, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, in two-hour shifts, from noon to 6:00. If you want to be in solidarity with our neighbors, contact Alanna or me, and we will help you do so.
This is our heritage.
We know we live with enormous disparities that work against God’s desire for the human community. But we also know God calls us to show no partiality. We know every human being bears the image of God. And we know, as Olaudah Equiano said in 1789, that Jesus says to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
That is our call in this age, and in every time.
The graduates we honor today have begun already to move us in new ways toward racial justice. The road is long, as have discovered in reviewing our history, and the obstacles many.
But faithfulness to the gospel was never meant to be easy. We follow in the footsteps of many who have led the way, and we join them now – the communion of saints – at this table as we commit ourselves anew to be more than merely nominal Christians.
Thanks be to God.