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Racial Justice and Diversity in the Presbyterian Church in America

The PCA’s admission, confession, and repentance of the sins of its founders and continual racial sins is profound, and a testimony to the work of God in the life of the church.

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(Photo: Karl Fredrickson)

This article was published in Faithfully Magazine No. 3 (Summer 2018).

Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers… and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10)

The leaders of the second largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States approved by majority vote this corporate statement of confession and repentance of racial sins on June 23, 2016. These words put forth during its General Assembly, the highest denominational meeting of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), stand in stark contrast to the dark history of the Christian movement’s founding.

In 1973, the PCA broke from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) of the South over alleged theological liberalization of the denomination. However, the conservatism espoused in the PCUS that be- came the soil for the foundation of the PCA was often mixed with a defense of Southern ideals and preferences. Dr. Sean Michael Lucas in his book, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, illustrates quite convincingly that a representative bastion of Southern Presbyterian conservatives conflated doctrinal and theological conservatism with the status quo of the South. Pastors, professors, and leaders in the church at best remained silent on racism and discrimination. At worst, they spoke openly in defense of racial segregation and anti-miscegenation views.

The PCA’s admission, confession, and repentance of the sins of its founders and continual racial sins is profound, and a testimony to the work of God in the life of the church.

Since the approval of Overture-43, the title of the resolution, conversations surrounding racial justice and diversity have slowly come to the forefront of the denomination. Many voices that were once on the margins have shifted center stage.

Faithfully Magazine spoke with four members of the PCA who have been active and vocal regarding racial justice and diversity in the church: Dr. Alexander Jun, Mrs. Barbara Jones, Pastor Lance Lewis, and Pastor Duke Kwon. Each of these individuals reflect on what they were thankful for this past year and what they are hopeful and prayerful for in the future regarding ongoing conversations on racial justice and diversity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the significance of the PCA’s corporate confession and repentance of racial sins and how that has impacted the life of the denomination.

Dr. Alexander Jun
Alexander Jun.

Jun: It’s a long time coming. The cynical part of me thinks, “It took 40 years… and that’s almost 40 years too late!” But, I rejoice that it happened. I rejoice that the overwhelming vote was for corporate repentance and confession. It was good for the soul. We went out from that General Assembly with a lighter spirit and hopeful for change. It was cleansing.

I have gotten pushback pushback that there is no racism in America. That tempers my excitement to know there’s more work to do.… But, I’m grateful that the vast majority of people were in favor of a public statement and wanting repentance.

Jones: I remember when the first resolution was on the table many years ago [before the recent one that was approved]. I was skeptical the second time around. However, it was a beautiful thing having a Black man [Dr. Irwyn Ince] and an Asian man [Dr. Alexander Jun] on the stage of General Assembly. It was phenomenal. Having these men speaking to us from a place that we could connect to… Seeing Irwyn and Alex’s faces… it was a picture of glory, of heaven!

Duke Kwon
Duke Kwon.

Kwon: The most important outcome was that it made conversations about race and ethnicity in our denomination more public. It became a public conversation. What was spoken about amongst minority members and leaders in the denomination and in certain corners in our communion was now a central shared public dialogue. And that it- self is fruit-bearing.… I am encouraged by the number of people who seem to be engaged and are enthusiastic and eager to grow and see our denomination changed by the gospel of grace in regards to its interracial relation- ships.

What are you thankful for this past year regarding the PCA’s progress on the topics of racial justice and diversity? Are there people who have inspired you as they’ve become vocal about these topics?

Jun: I can list names of people that I’m grateful for. Ray Cortese [Pastor of Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church in Lecanto, Florida] gave a sermon in the fall of 2016 on white privilege at a predominantly White church he serves in Florida. Scott Sauls [Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee] has a huge platform and speaks openly on these topics….

What was beautiful for me [about this year’s General Assembly] was to see different people pray Black, Asian, Latino.… People have been saying that this is the most inclusive multiethnic display they’ve seen in years.

In the past year, I was asked to be one of 30 writers for Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church. All of the writers were from the PCA and most of them were pastors. A lot of them were White, some were Black, and two Asians, and they were all wrestling with the topic of racial justice. That author group alone built a sort of fellowship and camaraderie in the denomination that hadn’t existed before.

These were White pastors who were sharing their own journeys and awakenings to their privilege. Developing friendships with them has been hugely encouraging. I almost expect people of color to talk about this regularly because for most of them it has been their lived experience. To see White pastors engaging with other White pastors on this is- sue speaks volumes, that they’re understanding the systematic challenges and they’re doing something about it. They’re not doing it to become the “woke White person,” hopefully not just seeking a pat on the back. I am filled with hope when I see engagement from my White friends.

Barabara Jones PCA
Barbara Jones.

Jones: When Duke Kwon spoke [at the LDR Weekend conference], I wept the entire time. Everyone who had a pulse there did as well. We were hearing the affirmation that “You are welcome at the table.”

Just being at General Assembly was hard and beautiful. We were mourning be- cause of all we have been missing out on. But, it was beautiful because we could see where we could now go.…

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Wy Plummer has been the gateway to the diverse side of the PCA that has connected me to events like LDR Weekend and others. I learned that there were other diverse voices out there, and they have given me community from God a community of brothers and sisters to lament with and be encouraged by and spur each other on.…

Michelle Higgins, Ekemini Uwan, and Christina Edmondson [of Truth’s Table] in many ways, they have changed my life. They gave me what was almost like permission to speak my truth. Recently, I was asked to share my testimony at a diversity talk, and for the first time I spoke about my difficult journey [serving in a predominantly White denomination] in truth. For the people trying to shut you down, don’t let them. We need young, fresh, unafraid voices not caught up in the political roles in the PCA, but just doing what God has called them to do.

Karen Ellis is a wonderful voice.… I can list a lot of women, PCA wives, a lot of behind the scene names that many may not recognize. I’m grateful for Lynette Lugo and Peggy Lee [who work at MTW]. We meet together often to challenge one another, pray with one another, and point each other to the Word.

This is what’s beautiful: we’re not competing with each other. We’re coming alongside one another. I hear it all the time: “What do you need me to do?” “I need to introduce you to this person.” It’s community it’s what unity should look like. You get a taste of heaven and go back to your own space where you’re reminded that you’re still at work.…

It has been the voices of Asian-American brothers like Duke Kwon who have spoken on our behalf who have created some doors for us. For me, it’s been the Asian-American community that has said things that we’ve wanted to say. Being in spaces where they speak on my behalf have been empowering.

Lance Lewis
Lance Lewis.

Lewis: I’m grateful for the passion and determination of the many brothers who insisted the PCA bring this issue to the forefront. I’m amazed by the evidence of this same passion for genuine biblically-driven racial reconciliation in a number of the young adults I served in Philadelphia and now at Soaring Oaks PCA. Like the ministers who pursued the resolution, these young people were raised in Evangelical circles that scarcely acknowledged the issue of racial reconciliation. But now, gripped by biblical truth and a sincere love for minorities, they are the ones pushing the church toward a more Christ-like expression of our faith.

Kwon: I think a lot of gratitude and honor needs to be extended to Randy Nabors, who really was among the first White pastors in our denomination that pursued the minis- try of racial reconciliation as a core concern of the church back when it was hardly popular to do so in our denomination.… Thanks and honor needs to be extended to pioneer- ing African-American brothers and sisters… including Wy Plummer and Carl Ellis, who have been important voices reminding us of the importance of perseverance and steadiness of conviction through the challenging ups and downs of racial reconciliation and justice ministries.… I’m encouraged by a lot of the young African-American, Asian-American, and Latino church planters who are trying to start up more multiracial church plants in cities. I’m also encouraged by lots of White church planters who are trying to plant multiracial church plants themselves. 

What are you hopeful and prayerful for in 2018 and beyond regarding these topics?

Jun: The overture that passed for confession and repentance is the beginning not the end. Now, we need to make very practical steps to address racial reconciliation. To seek harmony with one another and put race at the center of the table along with every- thing else… I pray for daily reconciliation —  that means more conversations about race, not less. It means more intentionality about embracing all the different groups of people whom the Lord has brought to this denomination. It means rejoicing and not bemoaning the fact that we are different and that our style of worship will be different. I hope we continue celebrating difference, and inviting people of different perspectives. Just having people who look different is not enough.

I am looking forward to the second volume of Heal Us, Emmanuel coming out in 2018. Personally, I am working on a book titled White Jesus: The Intersection of Race, Religion, and Education, and I am addressing the idolatry of American civil religion and how whiteness shapes the way many view Christianity in America. 

Jones: I am praying for scales to be re- moved from eyes and for God to chisel hearts that are clinging to power for all the wrong reasons. There are some that want to do this, but are afraid of what they will lose in terms of relationships and power. There are some who can’t even see that there is a problem. Lord, help them to see there is a problem and respond to Your call for biblical unity.… I’m praying for that to happen at MTW, for revival. There is so much spiritual warfare going on within the denomination, and that leads me to have hope that something’s about to break, that something’s about to happen.

I’d love to see more conversation in PCA churches, more connections and diversity, raising up more leaders of color. People always say to me “Where are the rest of you?” over- seas. “I can hear from you when you talk about struggles and pain, but I can’t see that from the White brother or the White sister. I want to hear more from you about this Jesus.” If we can raise up more Brown people to go into the field!

Great things are underway. We just started up the Reformed African American Delegates (RAAD). Jim Jung, a missionary serving in Australia, was part of one of the first missionary teams who said specifically that there are people [in the mission field] who happen to be Aboriginal who don’t want to see White faces because they’ve been disenfranchised by them. [Jim] wanted to raise up African-American leaders for the mission field. We are in the process of meeting with our leadership in the PCA to prayerfully start a missions gathering to raise up African-American missionaries. 

Lewis: I pray that the church I serve as well as churches within the PCA will seek to acknowledge and minister to the deep sense of anguish, pain, frustration, and sense of disconnectedness many minorities experience in this country. I pray that our churches will move beyond our entrenched ideological stances and pursue minorities out of a genuine desire to demonstrate and envelope them in the loving care of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m overjoyed that Dr. Alexander Jun became the PCA’s first Korean Moderator and I’m so grateful for his leadership within our church at this time. I’m similarly grateful for the work and diligence of Dr. Irwyn Ince, who I pray will serve as the PCA’s first African American Moderator at our 2018 General Assembly. These men lead a host of minority men and women whose commitment to authentic racial reconciliation speak to their understanding of Scripture, commitment to the gospel, honor of our Lord Jesus Christ, and love for his church.

Kwon: I would really hope to see we as a denomination move from dialogue and listening to institutional change. That’s not just on a denominational level but on a lo- cal church level. What are you doing to make space? What are you going to die to? What are you going to let die? What prized seeming ministry or value will you let go? People are sincere, but don’t know where to go next or how much it’ll cost them. … We are at an important reconnaissance phase pretty soon we’ll see how the rubber hits the road.

Our church network this January (2018) will be launching a new institute for cross-cultural ministry. Irwyn Ince, a pastor in the PCA, has been called to serve as its founding pastor and director and he would help build up that institute. … We’re thrilled to have brother Irwyn join our team.


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    Written by Timothy I. Cho

    Timothy Isaiah Cho is an Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy enjoys reading, discussing and writing on topics related to racial justice, diversity, social justice and Christian engagement in society. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com