Chattanooga pastors grapple with history of church racism

*Originally published at the Chattanooga Times Free Press

Since the month began, hundreds of area residents have gathered in Chattanooga’s streets to protest police brutality and call attention to racism in American systems of governance.

Signs read “No justice no peace” and “Wake up & show up.” People have called on leadership in local law enforcement to reform or resign.

However, last Tuesday, a rally at Miller Park called attention to another part of society some believe continues to be shaped by the far-reaching damages of systemic racism: The church.

Troy Brand of Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church told the crowd the event was the beginning of an organized movement in the city against racism.

“We have gathered here to appropriate the collective sin of a race of people perpetrated against another people and to ask for forgiveness of that sin,” he said. “The reality is, until we take responsibility of it as a whole, meaning white people as a whole, we’ll never get healed.”

Since their creation, American churches have been on both sides of nearly every civil rights struggle in the country. For every Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or Southern Christian Leadership Conference, there are examples of pastors preaching white supremacy or institutions of higher education like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary owning slaves.

And in this current American moment focusing on race and the country’s troubled history, some faith leaders are calling for a renewed examination of the ways racism shapes the American worship experience.

For many local pastors, dismantling racism in Chattanooga’s pews requires 􀀁rst acknowledging the history of prejudice led by white church leaders who read the same Bible that millions of Americans do today. This recognition cannot be vague but must be direct, they said.

The process also means pushing back against an increasingly Americanized view of Christianity, one that, as Brand described, focuses on the individual rather than the collective.

A history of racism

Like in other conversations about racial inequality in the United States, people often fail to grasp just how deep the connection is between slavery and the American church, said the Rev. Dr. William Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church.

“You have to go back to the truth that the church was actually in support of slavery,” Ladd said.
In the years of colonial America and decades into its founding as a country, the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Catholic churches owned slaves.

Some churches used the slaves as compensation packages for ministers. Others -like in the now-famous sale of 272 slaves by the Catholic institution of Georgetown University in 1838 – practiced human trafficking to stay financially viable.

Literal interpretations of the Bible stories were common during this time, and white Christians often justified the institution of chattel slavery by pointing to the story of the “Curse of Ham” or the “Curse of Canaan” in the book of Genesis. The story says that Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan after Ham sees Noah naked and drunk on wine. Noah then says the Canaanites will be forced to be servants of Israel.

The Biblical justification for superior groups of people mixed with other strands of racism in society, Ladd said. Blacks were believed to not have souls. They were forbidden to be baptized. With beliefs like these, there was then no conflict in the views of preachers like William Joseph Simmons, who helped resurrect the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.

According to research from the university, the men who founded Sewanee: The University of the South for the Episcopal Church in 1857 did so to maintain slave-holding society.

Practically every church in the South that was erected before the Civil War has symbols of the Confederacy or complicated histories with race, said the Rev. Claire Brown, associate rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. During the war, many churches supported the Confederacy and believed God was on their side.
In Brown’s own church – the congregation of which was established in 1852 -there still hang portraits of Episcopal bishops who were slave owners, she said.

“Race as a social category was created to justify that exploitation and it was within the same breath that people were saying that it was God-ordained that some groups of people would be inferior to others,” she said. “And it got twisted pretty much immediately to be unto the glory of God.”

Racism continues to have effects on Christians today, Ladd said.

Black pastors and theologians continue to be seen by some as less theologically sound than their white counterparts.
The white church experience, often a quieter and more contemplative service with a distinct set of music, is viewed by some as superior to a traditionally black service, which often involves a call and response between the pastor and the congregation during the sermon and another style of music, Ladd said.

Many ushers continue to wear white gloves, a holdover from the era when white church members did not want the “sin” of Black people touching anything in the church, Ladd said. Black ushers were also required to hold one hand behind their back when taking up the offering because white Christians believed Blacks would otherwise steal money from the church, he said.

When Christians, especially pastors, do not recognize the complicated history of race in the church, it becomes easy to gloss over it, Ladd said.

“There is a plethora that the church universal and the church in America has to deal with before we start talking about reconciliation,” Ladd said. “I don’t think the white church has ever been really truthful about the foundation of all of this, that they’ve set a contradiction between their faith and racism.”

Chattanooga’s white churches need to have an “open and honest” conversation about what happened then and what is happening now, he said.

Dismantling racism

Some pastors in Chattanooga said the increasing individualistic nature of American society – from an $11 billion self-help industry to the proliferation of social media in􀀂uencers – is warping the understanding of Christianity.

“We believe that any individual can achieve what they want to achieve,” Brand told the crowd on Tuesday. “That’s called the American dream. That American Dream has seeped into our Christian understanding and now we say that I have a personal Lord and savior. And I have a personal pursuit of Christ. The problem with that is that scripture does not teach that. Scripture does not teach that we are individuals.”

Instead, scriptures in the Old Testament and the New Testament talk about salvation being communal, pastors said.

Thinking socially instead of individually is particularly dif􀀁cult for white Christians, Brown said. Being the majority racial group, whites often view themselves as not having a particular culture or community since theirs is the dominant one.

“We don’t understand ourselves as a racial community,” Brown said. “And we’re much more comfortable with 􀀁guring out me and my relationship with Jesus. And so it’s about my personal attitudes towards people who are different from me, rather than what are the systems of our society and how are they protecting communities and disenfranchising other communities.”

The pastors gathered in Miller Park this week wore T-shirts reading “Ubuntu” -meaning “I am because we are” – a call to a philosophy made widely known during the South African anti-Apartheid movement.

The event was part of a series of ongoing events hosted by Kingdom Partners, an organization focusing on bridging racial divides among Chattanooga’s churches. For two years, a group of around 25 pastors in the area have met for honest conversations about race in the church, said Oliver Richmond, president of the group.

When the group first met, around October 2018, the meeting was abruptly stopped after a major argument among the church leaders. Richmond wondered whether it was the right time to come together. But with a few more rules – such as allowing people to talk politics individually but not in front of the group – the faith leaders began building relationships.

The pastors then become examples in their church communities, then for the community at large, Richmond said.
“God made us all,” he said. “So I have to see God in you and we’re all part of the same family, the same team. So if you hurt, I hurt. We have to keep reinforcing our mission and vision, keep reinforcing that as we have meetings. We’re all one. We’re in this together. Different preferences, but we’re one.”

Kingdom Partners had planned to begin holding more public events in 2020 after years of meeting privately. The coronavirus pandemic canceled most of those plans, but the protests over police brutality created an opportunity for the group to say something publicly.

The transition has not been entirely smooth. Kingdom Partners has been criticized for not publicly supporting the demands of protesters, such as defunding the police. The group was also criticized this week for not including a female clergy member during a virtual town hall with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy and Public Safety Coordinator Troy Rogers.

And while recognizing the church played a direct role in the ongoing history of racism in America, those in Chattanooga calling on it to address its failures are those who have dedicated their livelihoods to the Bible.
Acknowledging the complicity of churches does not mean Christianity must be abandoned, they said.

The church whose members on Sunday morning packed picnic baskets for after the sermon to attend a public lynching is the same church that gave America voices of justice and peace like Dorothy Day, Brown said.

“The call of our society right now is that we need people who are equipped with courage and love and justice,” Brown said. “And so the church should be the place that offers that and then sends people back out to do the work.”

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