How Can Churches Overcome Racism?

Today I want to talk about racism and focus on what role churches can play to help overcome it.

This is a good Sunday to speak to this. You know this is Black History Month which is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. You may not know that it grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson who lived on 9th Street four blocks from the church. I passed his home today to pay homage.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death day of Frederick Douglas and today is the anniversary of the death day of Malcolm X. We are surrounded by history today and knowing history is critical to addressing today’s topic.

It’s also the first Sunday of Lent, a season of reflection and repentance before the celebration of Easter.

Both Lent and Black History Month call us to remember the past. Only by knowing the past can we impact the future.

We say we need to repent of the sin of slavery, but what is repentance?

Repentance plays a critical role in our own spiritual evolution. In our tradition, this is process is referred to as regeneration and it has three stages. First, you become aware of a sin in your life. Second, you seek God’s help in addressing that sin. Third, with God’s help, you take action in your life to change your behavior or thoughts away from sin and grow in great love spiritually.

This three-step process is not something you do once in your life and then you are saved. Instead, this three-step process is something you will work through continually throughout your life.

The hardest part of all spiritual growth for us is that we resist beginning this cycle. We work very hard not to see the problem. To be self-aware is to be vulnerable. The hellish forces around us will work hard for us not to see and not to change. Often the only way we can see our faults and the truth comes through listening to others who might see us better than we see ourselves.

To avoid change we rationalize–what we are doing isn’t so bad. We deflect saying, our issue isn’t as bad as their issue. We keep the sin in the dark, so no one sees it and it grows.

Racism is a tough sin for us to acknowledge in our own lives, the life of our church and culture.

When it comes to racism white people in America often work very hard to deflect. We might say, “I don’t see color” or “My dear friend is Black” or “I’ve been a supporter of NAACP and BLM. Look at the sign in front of my church!” While all that might be true, these thoughts can stop us from reflecting more deeply.

Racism is particularly hard to see because it is the water we swim in.

The sin of racism has been with us since our nation’s founding. America was founded on the idea that all men were created equal, but, as you know, many of those leaders had slaves. They owned people but still couldn’t see the conflict. Instead, we baked slavery into our system with severe laws against runaway slaves and great protections for slaveholders.

As our insight from Swedenborg said today there are two overarching sins in our lives the desire to be dominant over others and the desire for lots of money. Slavery was a system that made a small group of people incredibly wealthy by having dominion over them—it hit both. Blinded by the sins of dominion and wealth, they couldn’t see the obvious evil of slavery that they were participating in. It wasn’t just slaveholders. Our country benefited greatly from the use of free labor.

This sin played another role for poor white people who were not made wealthy. It gave them an appearance of the status of superiority to Blacks. “I might be poor but, at least, I’m not Black,” they could think. This helps explain why working-class whites have often been racist though it didn’t help them economically.

As you know it took a bloody war to end our national support for the sin of slavery. However, the sin of racism would be much more resistant to change. Though slavery was abolished officially at the close of the Civil War, this sin persisted in new ways. After a brief period of reconstruction where Black men were elected as senators and congressmen, the racist system snapped back.

New laws and regulations were created to keep exploiting Black Americans through Jim Crow laws and share-cropper schemes. Freed slaves were told they’d need to pay rent to work in the only work they knew ending up paying more in rent than what they made. So, though it wasn’t called slavery, aspects of the sin of slavery perpetuated itself for a hundred years after emancipation through government policy.

It persisted in creating schemes to keep Blacks from voting. Areas of cities were lined in red where Blacks lived to warn banks not to give loans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally put in new policies that it was illegal to discriminate, however, systems remain in place that made it challenging for Blacks in America to move ahead economically.

In addition, the ongoing collective trauma of the inhumanity of slavery was never addressed. Racist policies had the effect of giving a whole new life to racists viewpoints. Seeing how the pain of racism impacts the Black community in terms of crime or poverty today.

This challenge to deal with our sin of racism happens at a personal and societal level and the church is a reflection of this struggle. In the same way, we need to bravely deal with our own personal history to repent, so does the Christian Church. We know that in most cases the church looked the other way, and many gave theological support to slavery and racism.

You likely know this bigger history but none of you likely know our own church’s history.

Our own church has a fascinating view on this topic. Swedenborg spoke radical truth of the spiritual greatness of Black people based on what he learned from angels in heaven. His earliest followers became some of the world’s first abolitionists, particularly Carl Wadstrom who testified in Britain against slavery and who sought to create a free colony in Africa.

More than one Virginia slaveholder was impacted by Swedenborg’s writings and freed their slaves. Others like Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote the groundbreaking book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” scholars believe inspired by the teachings of Swedenborg.

But what about our DC church?

How do we become aware of our own church? The truth is I couldn’t really find any writings on what our church has done until I stumbled an article in the DC press a few years back that mentioned a battle for a piece of land in DC where an old church stood called The Negro New Church. Remembering that Swedenborgians often called themselves the “New Church,” I wondered if it could be related to our denomination.

I’ve since gone down many rabbit holes of research. Trust me when I tell you this is the boiled-down version, but we need to know our history, so I’ll give you a quick run-through.

I discovered an article in the 1932 Messenger “Our First Negro Church Society” that told of a prominent member of the DC church and a civil war hero named Gen. Mussey who once served as President Andrew Jackson’s personal secretary. Mussey had championed enlisting Blacks in the Civil War. He became famous for being the first white officer to recruit Black troops as colonel of the 100th U.S. Colored Infantry.

A local DC black minister named Rev. Peter Louis has at a church at 10th and V that was dilapidated. He was a student of Swedenborg. He reached out to the famous Gen. Mussey who supported his work. After Mussey died the church set up a committee to support the Black church and attended Sunday school. The group raised funds to repair the church and used the same architect to build it, Paul Pelz, another church member who designed the Library of Congress.

In building the church, they sought to copy the outside to reflect the outside of CHC. The group purposely hired a Black firm to build it. This church offered the first-ever kindergarten in DC for Black children and a playground. Attendance was between 40 and 60 on Sunday. Famous authors visited the school including Clara Louise Burnham who included observations in her books.

One of the great teachers there was Sister Hattie Jones, I’d love to know more about her. When Rev. Louis died a new Black minister was trained in the Swedenborg School named Rev. James Thomas. He lacked the skills needed and the effort failed. With no other Black minister to replace him, they sold the building in 1902 with funds supposed to be used for Black outreach.

Missionary churches were launched in Cambridge MA under Rev. Weems and Harlem NY under Rev. Fairfax. Rev. Gladys Wheaton of MA is a colleague of mine to this day, and she was the first Black woman ordained and is the granddaughter of Rev. Weems.

What’s fascinating to realize is it seems to have never occurred to them to invite them to worship together. Racism was baked in even for our church and not just among whites.

The letter from Rev. James E. Thomas said in the Messenger in 1901.

You can read a portion of his article below.

My first reaction was how racist it sounded. Only upon reading it more deeply did I figure out the James E. Thomas was himself Black and it appears was ordained by 1910 when he left DC where he worked for the Dean of Howard University to do outreach in Alabama to the Black community for Swedenborg.

The creation of the suburbs in the ’50s and the riots of 1968 transformed the church as white members fled the city. The neighborhood was considered dangerous, and attendance plummeted. This appears to have happened to white churches across the country.

In my research, I found an article in the Messenger from 1950 where the members of the St. Louis Church explained why they abandoned their urban location that gives insight into how race impacted decision making.

You can read the article excerpt below.

They couldn’t imagine becoming a Black church and throughout our history well-meaning leaders couldn’t see beyond separate but equal.

What seems clear is our church saw the Black community as other and outside.

My understanding from Jimmy Cox is that in the ’80s the church hired a Black organist, and the wedding director was Black. For years, a group of largely Black Swedenborgians gather for the Forum discussion but left as church started.

All of this history is helpful as we seek to become aware of our sins. It is tough work. We are all swimming in waters we aren’t often aware of. This first step in repentance is awareness and that means knowing our nation’s and church’s history.

Our church taught the spiritual superiority of the Black people yet thought in terms of separate but equal. They actually did have outreach to the Black community, today not so much.

Let’s look at what we can do.

What practical can churches do to overcome racism then?

First, in the awareness stage, we need to know our history and be willing to conduct the inventory of our role.

We need to resist the temptation to say, “That’s them, not me.”

Next, we can take practical steps. Over the last year at CHC, we’ve been looking at hiring qualified vendors from the Black community. This builds relationships and support.

We can educate ourselves on the history of racism and in our churches.

Finally, I’d say take a tangible step. Do something real. Too often we Swedenborgians can confuse that ideas are actions. Take an action. When we do, we are beginning the next step of repentance. When we move from awareness to action, we are inviting in the power of the Holy Spirit to move us forward and create healing.

There is a role for the church and each one of us to overcome racism. The first and hardest step will be awareness followed by action. If the church can provide the space for our nation to move through this stage of awareness, then we can move from being a reaction to the culture and become a leader in our culture for overcoming the injustice and sin of racism.