Racism in America: Can a young pastor be a change agent in a divided church?
While this case study is about racism, how it is handled and the solutions that are proposed could be applicable to two broad categories of issues:
- A moral failure that is being allowed to fester.
- Anything (even something more trivial) that has polarized a congregation.
Use this case study to think about how a body of believers needs to act when there is a sinful cancer growing within it.
Some general case study guidelines are available to aid in your reflection and discussion.
Should the young pastor and his wife resign their church? Was the racism problem too overwhelming to tackle? Was there any hope for change if they stayed? Can this congregation be cured of cancerous racism?
During the long vacation drive home from Georgia to Texas, Dave and Carol talked about how rough their two years pastoring in Wesson had been. A lot had changed for them since Dave's decision to become a pastor. Among other things, they had left the Northeast and Dave's high-paying job and had moved to the South.
Now they were trying to decide whether to accept an invitation to move to a California church. That church was one which they had visited three months before on a mission trip. Headed west on Interstate 20 toward their Texas home, Dave thought about the direction of his ministry at Wesson Community Church.
He kept asking the Lord, "Should I stay at Wesson? Should I leave for California?"
Wesson was a small, racially divided town of 300 people. The whites constituted sixty-five percent of the population; the blacks thirty-five percent. Eighty percent of the town people were of retirement age. Of the forty-nine school-age children in town, thirty-one were white; eighteen were black.
Wesson's churches were very segregated. Dave's church was the largest in both active members (60) and in its building size. Three of its members were very influential in the town. Those same three also steered the church's decisions and controlled its finances. One was seventy-eight-year-old Tom Graves. He was town mayor and the church's treasurer, positions he had held for over thirty-five years. Tom was convinced that the reason for the decline in the power of the Democratic party was that it had too many blacks in it. Bill Graves, Tom's seventy-six-year-old brother, was a church deacon. Fifty-two-year-old Kenny Grimes, who had led music in the church for decades, was probably the most powerful person in the church. He was wealthy because oil had been discovered on his land.
In Dave's two years as pastor in Wesson, he had become very concerned about the town's racism. Physically, the town's residential area was divided into one section that was largely white and then another section that was all black. While the whites earned their income from timber and oil which had been discovered years ago on the north side of town, most blacks earned their living working for the whites.
The blacks and whites knew each other very well, but even the way they addressed each other was tinged with racism. The black children, for example, called the white adults "Mr. [last name]" and "Mrs. [last name]," while white children often called the black adults only by their first names.
Within the last several decades, much had happened in the town and in Community Church. Years ago, Beverly Dunn had started weekly Bible clubs in the backyards in the area of town that was all black. She had been ridiculed by some of the whites for doing that. Lloyd Burns, deacon chairman at the time, finally gave Beverly an ultimatum: she must either quit teaching Sunday school in their church or quit her backyard ministry to the black children. He said that, as a Sunday school teacher, Beverly must realize she represented the church.
One summer, the church's boys got the church to put up a basketball goal in the parking lot. However, when some black young people began playing there, the church voted to take it down. Kenny Grimes sent one of his black employees over to cut it down with a chain saw.
A year before Dave arrived as pastor, a well-known black man in the community died. The man's relatives, who came from a large city in the state, asked to rent Community Church for the funeral service (because the sanctuary was the largest in town). However, Community Church's three deacons voted against it.
"They're not members, and we don't want them messing up the church," the deacons decided.
Just after Dave arrived as pastor, word hit the town that a black woman was being assigned as their postmaster. On his way into the post office one day, Dave met Kenny Grimes. Kenny said, "I guess they're fixing to send this black postmaster to us. Pastor, there are two things I won't do with black people: Go swimming with them and go to church with them."
The real trouble in the church started later when Dave created a youth event every Wednesday night. His "Youth Rap" quickly became a big attraction in town. It was so popular that the white kids talked about it on the school bus with their black friends.
A series of confrontations began on a Wednesday night when four adults leaving the church after midweek prayer service encountered four black youths in the foyer. The youths had shown up with their white friends for "Youth Rap" which met at the church after the adult service. The next morning the phones around town were busy with people asking what was going on.
The next week, eighteen adults attended the Wednesday evening prayer service. The youths decided to wait outside until they had all left before going into the building. While some tension could be felt in the air, everything went smoothly.
The following Wednesday night was a regularly scheduled congregational business meeting. Once upon a time, deacons' meetings had been held before each congregational business meeting. However, since Dave had become pastor, the deacons had not met as a separate group. On this occasion, however, all three deacons were at the church early, waiting for Dave. The deacons asked Dave if he had any business to discuss. "No," he said.
Then Greg McCovey, fifty-three years old and the deacon chairman, said: "I am so embarrassed. Last Sunday night after church, when I got home, I discovered a cuss word scribbled in the dirt on my car door. It had to have happened while I was parked at church. I am really glad it happened at night. If others had seen it, it would have embarrassed God and the church."
Kenny Grimes added: "I heard those black kids out there Sunday night."
Dave sat silently while the deacons talked about the weather and how dirty everyone's car was. Bill Graves reminded the group of the story of the basketball goal and having it cut down.
Greg concluded: "We never had a broken window until we put up that basketball goal."
Dave sat silently.
Then Kenny said, "I hate to see those black kids coming; they're just plain thugs. I don't know if I like this at all. If they keep coming they'll want to start coming to choir and then on Sunday mornings."
Greg chimed in: "It would be all right if they didn't have a church of their own to go to. Dave, I know they don't have you as pastor and I doubt if they have a program for youth, but why can't they just go over there with their own kind."
Dave sat silently.
"When these black kids come, they're not getting along with the others are they?" Kenny asked.
"Well, yes, they are," said Dave. "In fact, the white kids invited them."
Kenny asked, "Are any of ours dropping out?"
Dave responded, "No, not one of them has missed in three months."
Kenny persisted, "How many blacks are coming?"
"Four," said Dave.
"How do they get along?" Kenny asked again.
Dave answered, "They mix just fine. They go to school together."
Two women entered the church and sat down. The deacons' meeting ended abruptly and the church's business meeting carried on without incident.
At the end of the business meeting, Judy, one of the white young people, came tearfully running in. "Dave," she said, "they're saying nasty stuff and Tammy's about to cry and go home."
Dave went outside to find Phil Burns, a thirty-six-year-old white man who was not a member of the church, standing in the church parking lot shouting, "Those g__ ___m black people don't have any business in this d____m church yard."
Standing there in the yard, Dave heard Phil say loudly enough for all to hear: "I'm not a member here, but my children are. As long as they're going here, I'm not putting up with this s___t."
Dave told the young people to go across the street and into his house for Youth Rap. There were twelve of them: eight white and four black.
The next week, Dave left on that mission trip to California. One of those churches there was now asking him to come as their pastor.
On Dave's first Sunday back in Texas after the mission trip, there was still tension in the air. After Dave went home, he pulled his weekly paycheck out of his pocket and saw to his surprise that he been paid only one-half of his usual salary. During the following week he learned that deacons Kenny and Bill had decided to cut his salary. He also heard that Kenny was telling people, "We'll see how important those d____m blacks are when he can't pay his bills!"
On the positive side, several church members had quietly handed personal checks to Dave. These added up to more than the amount that had been withheld. The money came from people who agreed with Dave but who felt too intimidated by the dominant church and community leaders to say much of anything.
One of those "silent supporters" had even confided to Dave: "We can't stand up to those racists because before long you will leave like our other pastors have, and we will be left alone to live with them."
On Thursday Dave called his district church leader: "Rev. Johnson, I think I'm history at this church," he said.
After hearing Dave's story, the church leader advised, "Don't let this furor over some black kids destroy your ministry as pastor of the congregation. Why don't you move the youth meeting off of church property and also hold it on a non-traditional church night?"
Dave and Carol's vacation gave them plenty of time to think about their ministry in Wesson and the offer from that church in California. Dave was as committed as ever to social justice and to racial equality. But he and Carol were both frustrated with continually butting their heads against the racism wall.
After still another assessment of their chances, Carol said to Dave: "It's time to decide. Do we move on or should we continue to battle the racists?"
This case was prepared in its original form by Raymond E. Higgins II of Southwestern Baptist University Seminary. Original case study copyrighted by Case Study Institute, 1991. Distributed by Yale University Library, 409 Prospect Street New Haven, CT 06511. Revised and used by permission.
racism: (1) the idea one race is intrinsically superior to other races, (2) discriminatory or abusive behavior toward members of another race
- If Dave and Carol decide to stay, what will be their strategy?
- Should Dave be doing anything differently?
- How can church leaders promote changes in the culture of a church like this one?
Responding to racism by ChristiansSadly, racism is not something that's part of the distant past. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti, I was urging people to financially help a disaster relief team from SNU. I received this email from an acquaintance of mine:"I am weary of contributing to Blacks who never get off their feet, but give birth to even more mouths to be clothed and fed. Black people are never going to sustain their own countries and/or get rid of their poverty. White Christians are wasting money and resources by helping them feel well enough to stimulate their sex lives and give birth to millions more children just as needy as they are. It's a losing battle. . . I don't want my money going down a drain hole that seems to have no bottom."
The note stunned me, especially since the lady seemed to identify herself as a Christian. How do you think I should have responded to her? What would you have said in response to her email?
Howard Culbertson, 5901 NW 81st, Oklahoma
City, OK 73132 | Phone: 405-740-4149 - Fax:
Updated: January 29, 2019
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