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By Wes Crawford
For the better part of the 20th century, white and African American leaders within Churches of Christ perpetuated an illusion of racial unity through their public speech, sermons, journal articles, and lectureships. If one’s only windows into 20th century American society were lectureships and journals affiliated with Churches of Christ, she or he would never know about the thousands of lynchings that occurred in cities and towns across the American South, or Jim Crow segregation, or even the Civil Rights Movement. The most prominent voices and most influential platforms within the movement were utterly silent.
In 1968, however, that illusion of racial unity was shattered for two important reasons. First, Marshall Keeble died. The principle African American figure connecting African American and white Churches of Christ died, and when he died no other black leader took his place as a regular speaker and writer in white-controlled journals or lectureships. During the first half of the 20thcentury, Keeble had been the glue that held white and African American Churches of Christ together. When he died, the two racially defined segments of the movement drifted further apart.
The second reason the illusion of racial unity shattered in 1968 was perhaps even more impactful than Keeble’s death. In 1967, the white-controlled Board of Directors of Nashville Christian Institute (the school Keeble operated for the purpose of educating African American students), decided to close the school and liquidate its assets and use the proceeds from the sale of the property to establish a scholarship fund at the recently desegregated David Lipscomb College for an African American student. Alumni of NCI and other African American members of Churches of Christ responded swiftly and strongly, filing suit against the Board of Directors and attempting to block their decision. They even hired Fred Gray, NCI alumnus and attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr., to take the case. When the dust settled, the court ruled in favor of the Board of Directors, the Burton-Keeble Scholarship was established at David Lipscomb College, and decades of deep-seated resentment from African American members of the movement toward their white counterparts spilled into the public through speeches, sermons, and journal articles. One African American leader called the Board’s action, the “grab of the century,” while another referred to that same action as robbery.
Keeble’s death prevented him from mediating the discourse between these oppositional parties. NCI, which had provided another point of connection between black and white Churches of Christ, no longer existed. Following 1968, African American and white Churches of Christ became more and more physically separated, and each began to grow and develop independently of one another. On one hand, white members of the movement centered themselves around institutions, such as Abilene Christian College, Harding College, and David Lipscomb College. They subscribed to the Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation, and they attended the Tulsa Soul Winning Workshop and other lectureships held on the campuses of predominantly white colleges. On the other hand, African American members of Churches of Christ centered themselves around Southwestern Christian College, the National Lectureship, and the Christian Echo. Lacking any official denominational structure, these three entities—colleges, lectureships, and journals—have historically provided cohesion to our otherwise autonomous congregations. In the years following 1968, white and black Churches of Christ became more estranged from one another, each locating itself around its own racially defined loci of cohesion. In short, for all practical purposes there exist in the opening decades of the 21st century, two racially defined movements each bearing the name “Church of Christ” on their marquees.
All hope, however, is not lost! In recent years courageous voices from within African American and white Churches of Christ have raised their voices in attempts to heal racially motivated wounds and to bring these two movements together. (Notice I do not write “together again,” because in reality, these two movements have never experienced togetherness).
At the turn of the century, Royce Money (then President of ACU), convened the One in Christ Conference in Abilene. This gathering brought together key white and African American leaders to discuss the past and present sins of racism of white Christians against black Christians. These closed-door meetings consisted on truth-telling, confession, tears, repentance, and forgiveness. Not long after these meetings, Money publicly confessed ACU’s sins during an ACU chapel ceremony. Weeks later, Jack Evans (then President of Southwestern Christian College) invited Money to Terrell, TX, where he made that same confession in front of the student body of Southwestern Christian College.
In recent years, Jerry Taylor, African American faculty member at ACU has courageously led efforts to build community between black and white members of Churches of Christ. He has hosted a series of “Racial Unity Leadership Conferences” in cities, such as Abilene, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Birmingham to bring together leaders from these two movements for conversation, confession, prayer, and relationship building. Taylor also led a bus ride through the American South, allowing a handful of younger black and white leaders of Churches of Christ to visit key Civil Rights Movement sites together. Most recently, Taylor became the first Director of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action. The Center exists to conduct important research on the historical and contemporary role of race and racism within the church. The Center also hosts regional and national events to bring together prophetic voices on the topic of race and racism.
Jerry Taylor is not alone in his work of reconciliation. Tanya Brice, Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Bowie State University, also has lent her voice to this effort through her important writings and speeches. See, for example, her 2016 book, Reconciliation Reconsidered. From his post as Preaching Minister at North Atlanta Church of Christ, Don McLaughlin has added an essential voice from white Churches of Christ. McLaughlin has accompanied Taylor as a speaking partner at many national meetings, and the two are currently working on a collaborative book project. Another white member of Churches of Christ, Doug Foster, has spent the better part of his academic career researching and writing about the presence and effect of racism within the church.
This short recital of names and initiatives provides but a glimpse of the many black and white members within Churches of Christ who are working to make our future much better than our past. To this small sampling could be added countless others. To recognize the scores of church leaders within Churches of Christ passionately working for racial equality and justice is extremely important, because some prophets for this cause, much like Elijah, feel as if they are the only prophets left. In fact, however, you are not alone. So, be bold.
Ministers, have the courage to stand in the pulpit and name the sin of racism in your ranks. Yes, some folks will get upset, and some may even leave your congregation for another one down the street. You will be charged with being a “race baiter,” and you will be accused of bringing politics into the pulpit (even if you never mention politics). Remember, you were not called to win a popularity contest; you were called to be a prophet of God.
Elders, have the courage to make your own bold decisions about racial justice in your congregation and stand with the ministers when they make bold statements about racism. Yes, you will get phone calls from disgruntled members, and your congregational budget may even take a hit. Remember, you are not a politician called to represent the constituents of your congregation. You are a shepherd of Christ’s church, called to lead people closer to the heart of God.
Make no mistake: Churches of Christ have not handled the issue of race well in the past. As a church historian, I often have witnessed the truth of the old adage: “History tends to repeat itself.” Yet, I also have observed many occasions when history did not repeat itself. We do not have to repeat the sins of our parents. History is filled with people like Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Florence Nightingale, and Fannie Lou Hamer—people who refused to allow the seemingly immovable obstacles of the past and present from charting a new and better path toward the future. I pray regularly for God’s Spirit to empower such bold and courageous leaders in our movement today.
By Wes Crawford
Historically speaking, how have Churches of Christ addressed the issue of race? In my article last week, I mentioned that at the time of the American Civil War, members of the Stone-Campbell Movement owned more slaves, per capita, than any other religious body in the United States. In the mid-twentieth century, colleges operated by Churches of Christ were among the last higher education institutions in America to abide by the Supreme Court’s mandate to desegregate, some waiting close to decade after Brown v. Board of Education (1955). Only an extremely small minority of Churches of Christ congregations in the first decades of the 21stcentury could be considered “multi-racial congregations.” In short, Churches of Christ, in their handling of race, have behaved much like other southern, predominantly white, Christian denominations.
Yet, there are those within Churches of Christ, presently and historically, who believe our movement has navigated the tumultuous waters of racism, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racial violence better than our regional contemporaries. For example, some leaders within the Stone-Campbell Movement in the late 19th century wore as a badge of honor the fact that their movement did not divide in the years leading up to the Civil War. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other American Christian groups divided along the Mason-Dixon line over the question of slavery. The Methodists did not reunite until 1939, the Presbyterians did not reunite until 1983, and the Baptists remain divided to this day. The movement founded by Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, however, was among the only American Christian groups to remain united. Or, was their unity only an illusion?
In reality, one could argue that the only reason the Stone-Campbell Movement did not divide was because it lacked an official governing body to declare such an official division. When the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ officially divided in 1906 (at the behest of the United States Religious Census), roughly ninety percent of Disciples of Christ congregations existed in the North, and roughly ninety percent of Churches of Christ congregations existed in the South. The Stone-Campbell Movement did, in fact, divide along regional lines, but their division happened slower and finally came to fruition without an official ecclesiastical proclamation. Our lack of an official governing body shielded from view the full measure of our disunity with our northern counterparts.
Other forces shielded from full view the disunity historically present between black and white members of Churches of Christ. One of those forces was Marshall Keeble. Keeble has long been recognized as one of the most effective evangelists in the history of Churches of Christ (white or black). He held meetings all over the country with blacks and whites in attendance, he baptized an untold number of people, and he guided Nashville Christian Institute, a school in existence to educate black students, for nearly two decades. Keeble was one of the few African American preachers invited to speak at white lectureships, and he even wrote a regular column for the Gospel Advocate. Why was Keeble given such a platform among white members of Churches of Christ? To put it bluntly, Keeble publicly acquiesced to white racism. Strong evidence exists that Keeble privately spoke out against racism, but publicly, he never did. Keeble did not challenge segregated seating arrangements at his meetings, he did not march in civil rights protests, he did not publicly challenge the racial status quo in any way, and because of his public habits, white leadership within Churches of Christ accepted him. In fact, they often held Keeble up as the picture of racial unity within the movement.
One brief mention of an encounter between Keeble and a well-known and respected white leader, Foy Wallace, Jr., provides ample evidence of Keeble’s customary response toward racism. Upon learning about two Churches of Christ preachers, one white and one African American, rooming together and sleeping in the same bed during a mission trip, Wallace responded:
Aside from being an infringement on the Jim Crow law, it is a violation of Christianity itself, and of all common decency. Such conduct forfeits the respect of right-thinking people, and would be calculated to stir up demonstrations in most any community if it should become generally known…I have always said that Marshall Keeble and Luke Miller could not be spoiled, but if I ever hear of them doing anything akin to such as this I will take back every good thing I have ever said of them. Keeble should teach these negro preachers better than that, even if we cannot teach some young upstart among the white preachers. Their practices will degrade the negroes themselves. It is abominable.
In response to this racist rant, Keeble sent a personal letter to Wallace, which the latter published in his journal, Bible Banner:
Dear Sir and Brother in Christ:
For over thirty years I have tried to conduct my work just as your article in the Bible Banner of March suggested. Taking advice from such friends as you have been for years has been a blessing to my work. So I take the privilege to thank you for that instructive and encouraging article. I hope I can conduct myself in my last days so that you and none of my friends will have to take back nothing they have said complimentary about my work or regret it. Please continue to encourage me in my work and pray for me.
Keeble publicly acquiesced to white racism in order to secure financial gifts for the school he led, Nashville Christian Institute. Tragically, this accommodationist posture remains the primary picture of African American attitudes within twentieth century Churches of Christ. “If you wonder how blacks and whites get along in Churches of Christ, just look at Keeble,” so the argument went. Such a vantage point allowed Reuel Lemmons, longtime editor of Firm Foundation and one of the foremost 20th century white leaders within Churches of Christ, to make the claim, “We do not believe that segregation has ever been a problem with the Lord’s church…The kingdom of heaven is the most completely integrated institution we know, and all the brethren accept all the brethren as brethren. We have never had a problem here.”
Keeble’s voice, however, was not the only one speaking in the 20th century. Historians of African American religion, such as Gayraud Wilmore in his much heralded book Black Religion and Black Radicalism, have often discussed the long continuum between accommodation and protest. Booker T. Washington has long represented one end of that continuum on the side of accommodation. He, like Keeble, publicly acquiesced to white racism in order to appease white power brokers. He believed the best way to achieve uplift for African Americans centered on working within white-led systems. On the other end of the continuum exists a figure such as W. E. B. DuBois. Throughout his life, with his writings and his activism, DuBois openly challenged white racism. African American leaders within Churches of Christ have existed all along this continuum; however, most white members of Churches of Christ have been content to assume Keeble’s more accommodationist voice represented the voice of all African Americans. To accept such a position, however, is to turn a deaf ear to other prominent voices within Churches of Christ.
George Philip Bowser spent his life establishing and leading schools for African Americans in Churches of Christ (much like Keeble), but one would be hard pressed to label Bowser an accommodationist. He confronted white racism throughout his life. Perhaps because of his willingness to protest against racism within the movement, his name did not become as well known among white members of the movement. In fact, most of the schools he founded closed not long after they opened due to a lack of funds.
Another voice of protest among African American members of Churches of Christ came from Floyd Rose. As a young adult, Rose was denied admission to Abilene Christian College because of his skin color. Instead, he attended school across town at McMurry University, a Methodist institution. Floyd spent most of his adult life in the North, protesting discriminatory laws and systems in Toledo, Ohio. A sheriff in Valdosta, Georgia, Rose’s hometown, once referred to Rose as “the Martin Luther King, Jr. down here.” During his life, Rose has served as President of the Toledo chapter of the NAACP, boycott instigator, and march leader. Throughout his life, he also served as a preacher within and without Churches of Christ. Though influential in regional and national fight for civil rights, Rose’s name is hardly known among white members of Churches of Christ.
To this list of unheralded agents of protest one could add Fred Gray, attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr. and longtime leader within Alabama Churches of Christ. Molefi Kete Asante, formerly known as Arthur L. Smith, became a strong advocate for equal rights and one of the leading authorities in the fields of African American and African studies. Before he became an internationally recognized scholar, he graduated from Keeble’s Nashville Christian Institute. From his post as editor of the Christian Echo, a journal established by Bowser, Richard Nathaniel Hogan castigated white leaders in Churches of Christ, particularly white colleges affiliated with Churches of Christ, for their unwillingness to desegregate. Numerous African American leaders within Churches of Christ raised their voices against the racism within the movement, but few white members were listening. Instead, key white structures within Churches of Christ—journals, lectureships, and colleges—focused almost exclusively on Keeble.
If the only picture white Christians have of race relationships within Churches of Christ is a portrait of Marshall Keeble, it is not surprising that some would hold up our movement as a model for the rest of the world to emulate. When one begins to listen to the voices that have been silenced by white power brokers within the movement, however, one begins to get a truer, less flattering image. Listening to voices that disagree with us often causes pain and discomfort, which is why so few people, even in the present age, watch more than one news network, have conversations with people from opposing political parties, or form friendships with people of different skin tone. We are content to live our lives in political, religious, and racial echo chambers. Certainly, new laws need to be passed and entire systems need to be uprooted, but perhaps the place we should all begin our quest to heal the racial wounds of our nation and our Christian family is a dining room table. Invite someone who does not look like you to dinner and simply listen.
By Wes Crawford
Paul Overstreet, country music songwriter and singer who had a handful of hits in the mid-1990s, released a song in 1990 entitled “Seein’ My Father in Me.” The chorus of that song includes the lyrics:
I’m seein’ my father in me
I guess that’s how it’s meant to be
And I find I’m more and more like him each day
I notice I walk the way he walks
I notice I talk the way he talks
I’m startin’ to see
My father in me
My father passed away in 2003 from cancer, so I haven’t seen him in nearly two decades; nevertheless, I remember enough about my father to recognize the truth of these lyrics. Whether I care to admit it or not, I have inherited many wonderful, and a few less than admirable, traits from my father. I bear a striking physical resemblance to him. I have inherited many of his mannerisms. As I have grown older, I recognize that I make decisions and process information a lot like he did. In short, I’m “seein’ my father in me.” I bet most of us could trace our habits back to a previous generation.
As religious people, we also inherit characteristics from our spiritual parents and ancestors. The Quaker movement, for example, continues in the path of pacifism established long ago by the founders of their movement, including William Penn. Charles Taze Russell set the Jehovah’s Witness movement in motion in the late 19th century. Subsequent members of that denomination, including Will Keith Kellogg, much like their founder, have tied healthy eating to their faith.
Among the characteristics members of Churches of Christ have inherited from our parents is our refusal to acknowledge the ways in which our spiritual parents have influenced us! As a lifelong member of Churches of Christ, I have heard on numerous occasions, “Our movement didn’t start with Alexander Campbell or Barton W. Stone. We started in A.D. 33, and we find our habits from Scripture, not any humans who came before us.” Whether we care to admit it or not, we have inherited many wonderful, and a few less than admirable, traits from previous generations. Among our most admirable traits is our love for Scripture. Like Campbell and Stone and many other members of our movement in the past, we hold the Bible in the highest regard, allowing God’s Word to provide direction and governance for our lives. Not unlike our spiritual forebearers, we also believe the church plays a central role in the ongoing redemptive drama of God in this world. Our high view of scripture and high ecclesiology find their roots in the habits and inclinations of 19th American Christian reformers, Campbell and Stone among them.
Even as we have inherited many praiseworthy habits from our spiritual parents, we also have learned some bad and even dangerous habits. The recent racial turmoil in America brings to the surface some of our less than desirable inherited traits. Whether we realize it or not, the ways in which members of Churches of Christ engage the topic of race bears striking resemblance to the ways Campbell and other of our spiritual parents addressed it.
Certainly, our habits originated not only from Campbell and Stone, but also from previous generations of southern Christians in various denominations. In most ways, Churches of Christ mirrored other southern denominations in their handling of race. I would love to report that our strong allegiance to the pattern of Scripture pushed members of our movement to emulate the love of Jesus in the debates centering on slavery. In reality, however, by the time of the American Civil War, members of the Stone-Campbell Movement (of which Churches of Christ are a part) held more slaves, per capita, than any other religious group in America. When the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ split apart in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly ninety percent of the Churches of Christ movement existed in the southern states, and white members of Churches of Christ supported Jim Crow segregation much like other southern white Methodists, Presbyterians, or Baptists.
Campbell’s views on slavery, regrettably, continue to impact Churches of Christ. Campbell did not support slavery; yet, he did not actively pursue its eradication. His chief criticism of the peculiar institution was that it was inexpedient, believing it not in harmony with the spirit of the age. Campbell held an extremely high view of humanity, and he believed the new American democratic nation was among the highest achievements of the world. He believed, in fact, that human achievement had reached such heights that their activity was preparing the way for Jesus’ second coming. In such an advanced age, Campbell believed slavery did not belong.
If Campbell disagreed with slavery, why then did he not join with abolitionists to fight for its demise? There seem to be three reasons for Campbell’s position. First, Campbell did not view slavery as a moral issue. Like many of his contemporaries (and many future generations), Campbell viewed slavery and the racism that undergirded it as social ills, not in step with such an advanced society, but certainly not against God’s law. In fact, in his lengthy series on slavery in the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell regularly pointed out that the Bible nowhere condemned slavery.
A second reason for Campbell’s reluctance to take a stronger stand against slavery concerns his position as leader of a unity movement. In taking a middle position between abolitionists and proponents of slavery, Campbell hoped to hold his movement together. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians had already divided over slavery, and Campbell hoped to avoid a similar fate by standing in the middle with an arm reaching out to both poles. In the process, he angered people on both sides of the debate. For example, two of Campbell’s sisters, Jane Campbell McKeever and Dorothea Bryant were abolitionists, and they were highly and publicly critical of their brother’s position.
A third reason for Campbell’s middle position is by far the most alarming. In short, Campbell was a racist. In one article, Campbell wrote, “As much as I sympathize with the black man, I love the white man more.” He may have felt sorry for American slaves, but he did not view them as equal to white-skinned people, and that position, built upon the racist ideology of black inferiority held Campbell back from strongly advocating for the end of slavery.
Campbell’s views on slavery shaped the way future generations of his movement addressed the question of race. Even in the early decades of the 21st century, many members of Churches of Christ continue to view racism and its effects as a political, not a moral, concern. I spent twenty years as a preacher within Churches of Christ. On those occasions when I directly spoke about racism, I typically had folks criticize me for “bringing politics into the pulpit,” even though those sermons never named a politician or a political platform.
As a church historian who has spent a great deal of time studying the American Civil Rights Movement, I find it interesting to see how this distinction between “social” and “moral” has impacted the question of race in America. One of the most important contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays before him) was his ability to cast segregation and racism as moral issues. His contemporaries, even within the Black Church, had most often discussed Jim Crow segregation as a political and social issue, and they attacked those unjust laws in the courts. King, on the other hand, attacked segregation as sin, and his non-violent direct-action strategy brought that sin and its effects into American living rooms. When King convinced enough people that segregation was sin, the church had to deal with it. They could no longer hide behind the seemingly advantageous strategy of gradualism. If segregation is sin, it must be dealt with now.
Whether we care to admit it or not, we have inherited many wonderful, and a few less than admirable, traits from Alexander Campbell. But as a good therapist might tell her or his patient, “You do not have to follow your parents’ bad behavior.” As the national dialogue continues to center on race and racism, my hope is that members of our movement would cast off this ugly part of our heritage and name racism for what is really is. Racism is sin. I pray we would stop allowing politicians to commandeer this important discussion and that we would quit discouraging ministers and religious leaders from bringing politics into the pulpit. In fact, racism is not only a political issue; it is a moral issue that demands the attention of those who love God and God’s mission in the world.
An elderly gentleman was walking in the park one afternoon. He grew tired from his daily journey and sat down on an old, green park bench. As he was sitting there he looked up and saw before himself a family. The two children in the family were creating quite a scene. The little girl was yelling at the top of her lungs: “That’s mine. Give it back.” The little boy who was next to her yelled back, “It’s not yours. I had it first!” The man thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this before…sibling rivalry.” But then it got a little worse. “I hate you,” she yelled. “Oh, yeah, well I wish you were never born!” he responded. Before long these two were really going at it, yelling insults back and forth. They were screaming and fighting. It made this man a bit uncomfortable. You know it can be quite unnerving to be in such close proximity to such tension. And do you know what this elderly man did next? I guess it shouldn’t surprise you. He got up from there and walked away. He decided he needed to get as far away from that “family” as he could get.
Let’s be honest about something. It’s not always easy to get along with our brothers and sisters, is it? Adults may try to fool themselves into believing they can get along with anyone, but kids are more honest. A Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her class of five and six-year-olds. After explaining the commandment to honor thy father and thy mother, she asked her class this question: “Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” Without missing a beat, one little boy answered, “Thou shall not kill.” He gets it! Sometimes getting along with our family is difficult work, isn’t it?
Maybe that’s what led Paul to write these words to the Corinthians all those years ago…
When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?
In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that. Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6: 1-11
What do you suppose happened that caused Paul to write this? Have you ever wondered that? It seems a bit out of place, doesn’t it? Just before this section, Paul talks about “church business”—expelling the sinner. Just after this section, Paul discusses sexual immorality. But sandwiched right here between these “church issues” is this business about taking someone to court. Why this excursus about lawsuits? What do you suppose happened? Corinth was an urban city. Perhaps one of the church members owned a building there that he rented out to people. Maybe one of his Christian brothers was renting his apartment and was behind on rent. I can see how that might lead to a lawsuit. Or, maybe a certain sister was a dressmaker. Maybe one of her Christian sisters refused to pay for the dress she’d made. I can see how that might lead to a lawsuit, can’t you? I can see how any of these issues might have led to some conflict: sides formed, names called. Before long, the name calling stops and then, just silence! There’s nothing worse than coming into a family and hearing only silence—a sure sign that something has gone wrong! Maybe this wasn’t an excursus at all. Maybe this issue is really at the heart of Paul’s message to the Corinthians. Maybe this is really at the heart of God’s message to us.
I can see something like this happening in our world. Did you know that in the mid-19th century, there were many court cases which pitted Christians against Christians? As Christian denominations split before the Civil War, there were many property disputes. Who owns this building, the southern Baptists or the northern Baptists? Who owns this piece of land, the southern or northern Methodists? Churches of Christ never divided over the issue of slavery or the Civil War. At least, that is what some of our leaders claimed. They, in fact, pointed to our unity as a sign that we were really the true Church of God! I would argue, however, that we did in fact divide. Our division came a little more subtly and slowly—and may have been even more damaging. We saw the aftermath of that division in 1967.
In that year, African American members of Churches of Christ sued white members of Churches of Christ over their blatant racism. The entire story began a few years earlier, in the 1940s. African American members of Churches of Christ raised money to build a school in Nashville. Their goal was to build a credible school on par with David Lipscomb College. They raised money, they sacrificed, they purchased property, and they established the school. In its first few years, it ran into financial trouble, and white members of the church stepped in to help. But they also took control—changing the make-up of the Board of Directors from ten African American to six white and four African American.
In 1967, the white dominated board closed the school, sold the property, and put money into a scholarship fund for African American students at the only recently desegregated DLC (which desegregated a decade after the Supreme Court’s mandate to do so). African American members of Churches of Christ responded immediately. One African American leader called this move the “grab of the century.” He wrote, “Whites came in under the guise of paternalism and grabbed our school.” African Americans wanted the money to, at the very least, go toward Southwestern Christian College—the only other African American school in Churches of Christ. A lawsuit was filed. Interestingly (and regrettably), the federal record of the lawsuit lists as the plaintiffs: “Black Members of Churches of Christ.” And the defendants are listed as: “White Members of Churches of Christ” This lawsuit did more than separate the few people involved; this lawsuit divided African American and white members of Churches of Christ for over 40 years.
In 1999, the administration of ACU saw the division that had existed for all of those years, and they set out to reconcile with their African American brothers and sisters. They hosted a closed-door meeting between African American and white leaders. I’ve talked to some who were present at that meeting, and they all described it as very tense! At one point, they talked openly about that court case. The question was raised: “Why were African American’s so resistant to attend David Lipscomb College?” One man’s response:
“For all those years you refused to allow any of us to attend your school, then you took by force and against our will one of the only rallying points we had, let it be swallowed up in your multi-million dollar operation and then you say to us, “You can come over here and be like us now. We still don’t particularly value your culture and history and the way you live, and act, and worship, but you can come over here with us, as long as you just do like we do.” Can you understand the resentment expressed at this act?”
Brother against brother; sister against sister. Yes, this court case did more than divide a few white and African American Nashvillians in 1967. I think I know why Paul was so concerned about this issue. Such infighting can destroy lives and the church, and it can even do more than that!
Our divisions repel the world, but the opposite is also true. Our efforts toward unity stand out in a world like ours. I believe our efforts toward reconciliation have the power to help a fallen world stand up again. In case you haven’t noticed, racism causes a lot of division in our country. In recent weeks, this issue has dominated the headlines once again. How can the church help in times like these? I’ve thought a lot about that one question, not just in recent weeks, but over the last few years. Here is what I’ve come up with. It may sound a bit simplistic to you, but here you go: We could start simply by forming relationships—one at a time.
If you are white, do you have any meaningful relationships with African Americans? If you are African American, do you have any meaningful relationships with whites? What effect could that friendship have on you? What effect could that friendship have on your family? What effect could that single friendship have on your community? Physical distance breeds suspicion and fear, but real meaningful relationships based upon mutual respect and love have the power to cast out all fear.
An elderly gentleman was walking in the park one afternoon. He grew tired from his daily journey and sat down on an old, green park bench. As he was sitting there, he looked up and saw before himself a family. He was particularly taken in by a brother and a sister. They were playing together. They were laughing together. He could tell they loved one another. An interesting thing happened: others began to join this brother and sister there in front of the park bench. First, another little boy came over to play with them. Then, a small girl who had been playing all by herself joined them. Before long, the yard in front of the bench was filled with children laughing and playing together. Their joy, their love, was contagious. And do you know what this elderly man did next? I guess it shouldn’t surprise you. He got up from there and walked closer to this family—this family made up of adopted brothers and sisters, this family made up of young and old, this family some people call the church.