Radical Reconciliation: Witnessing Justice at Witherspoon Street

imageOn Sunday, April 24th, I delivered the benediction at my church, immediately hopped in my car, and drove some three hours away to Princeton, New Jersey to attend a very special service at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. It was a worship service “Witnessing for Unity, Reconciliation, and Healing,” correcting a more than a century-old injustice imposed upon the congregation by its own Presbytery.

programIn 1879, Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church called its first black pastor, the Reverend William Drew Robeson (you may also know him as the father of Paul Robeson). Rev. Robeson served Witherspoon Street for twenty-one years before the pastoral relationship was dissolved by the Presbytery of New Brunswick. By all accounts, his removal was racially motivated. Robeson was an ardent opponent of Jim Crow and was a force in the church and community for the rights Princeton’s Negro community. The congregation vocally opposed dissolving the pastoral relationship, and his removal severely decimated its membership (see the story explained at Presbyterian Outlook).

This week’s worship service was the culmination of efforts on the part of the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the Synod of the Northeast to rectify a racially motivated injustice that left a church ravaged and a minister and his family in dire straits. Acts of restitution have included a public apology from the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the forgiving of the remainder of the debt on the Robeson House, which the church had to sell after Rev. Robeson’s departure but was able to repurchase in 2005. A series of powerful acts indeed by a Synod determined to live into its call to racial justice and a Presbytery that understands that, even though no one living was guilty of these injustices, to paraphrase remarks given at the service, those who are here now are yet responsible.

And it only took 115 years.

There I worshiped with sisters and brothers from throughout and beyond the area, from all different races, backgrounds, and walks of life, all committed to justice and reconciliation, and I thought about how chronological distance might be facilitating such an act. I suspect it’s easier to apologize and make restitution for something from which we have a good amount space (the distance helps us see it clearer). It’s much more difficult to reconcile and apologize for something that’s more “fresh.”

At my denomination’s General Assembly this summer, an overture offering an apology to the LGBTQ community for harms done will come before the body for a vote. So far, the overture has been received in a variety of ways, ranging from enthusiastic support to concerned rebuke, and some offering compromise on the parts that may be viewed as problematic. It’s certainly one overture to watch as we go into our proceedings this summer. Yet, I often wonder how this overture would have been received if it were presented 10, 20, or even 50 years from now, once some distance has been created. It has only been five years since ordination of LGBTQ candidates was allowed in our denomination, and a little over one year since same-sex marriage rites were permitted. Similarly, we have overtures calling for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, offering an apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, and acknowledging and reconciling for killing Korean civilians in July 1950. None of those overtures have elicited the same response or fervor as the one calling for an apology to our LGBTQ family.  Is our reaction to this particular overture informed by our proximity to what it addresses? I have no answers; I simply wonder.

Sunday’s service certainly has me thinking about reconciliation — when it’s easiest to do, when it’s hardest to do, and what realizations facilitate it. And I hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in my spirit, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” I would hope that when institutional sins and injustices are brought to light, or when we recognize there are breaches that must be repaired, we courageously address those things and do so sooner than later. Witherspoon Street should not have had to wait 115 years for justice and reconciliation, but Sunday’s moment gives me hope. It gives me hope that the breaches we’ll bravely face this summer can and will be repaired. I don’t know what the final outcome will look like, but I have faith that it won’t take over a century to do it this time.

The Subversion of Forgiveness

Holding Hands
Holding Hands

“You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

That’s what Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, said to her mother’s killer at his bond hearing. One-by-one, family members of the people Dylann Roof ruthlessly killed during Bible study at Emanuel AME Church addressed him. And one-by-one, they expressed forgiveness.

The radical forgiveness modeled by these bereaved souls has had a number of people singing their praises. They’ve been admired for their Christ-likeness. Many have found their posture aspirational .

“I don’t think I could have done that.”

“They’re better Christians than I am.”

“That’s that ‘next level’ Christianity!”

They’ve been held up as shining examples of what it means to forgive as Christ commanded.

Then there’s the unintentional consequence of such radical forgiveness: guilt. The guilt of a rape victim who, even years later, still can’t bring herself to forgive her attacker. The guilt of a grown man who can’t seem to forgive his abusive mother. The guilt of being unable to shake off those feelings of anguish, anger and resentment toward people who hurt you — even if they’ve apologized for it.

Let me provide whatever pastoral care I can to those who are struggling with that guilt right now: it’s alright. You’re alright. Really, you are. Forgiveness is not a one-time event. Forgiveness is a process, and not a linear process at that. Some crappy days will often follow some good ones. One day you’ll feel incredibly light and unaffected, and the next day you’ll wrestle with your own rage and have to talk yourself out of strangling someone (hopefully you’ll be successful in that). Such is the case for all us, even those of us who read our Bibles every day, pray constantly, and never once miss a Sunday at church. Your capacity to forgive is not related to your godliness. Even those of us who understand the importance of forgiveness will be challenged by its arduous process, including the friends and family members of Roof’s victims.

They have courageously committed themselves to forgiving Roof. But they, too, will have rough days ahead. They are not exempt from the process or its emotional roller coaster. Praying and having their community around them will definitely shore them up in these coming days, but it won’t lift the process off their shoulders. The process of forgiveness is God-created, and we’re no more rooted in our faith by skipping it. So I hesitate to look at these loving individuals as exceptions to the rule or excused from the effects of trauma. There seems to be something else going on here.

This, to me, does not look like a failure on their part to honor the necessary process of forgiveness. This does not appear to be a compulsion to embody a religious doctrine. This is likely an act of subversion toward the person who killed their loved ones and, ostensibly, the system that created him. Their actions are in the same spirit that has for centuries emboldened Black folks to find morsels of joy and magnify them in the faces of their oppressors.  This is not just an act of radical forgiveness, but of radical resistance. This is them heaping their hot coals — a holy practice akin to flipping the bird to the system.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think these folks care anything about being our examples. I think they care more that they’re not like Roof. They know that they will be forever changed, but they refuse to be changed into him. If that’s the case, then I understand and honor that. But what I don’t want is for anyone else to feel compelled to take that on for themselves, especially if they aren’t ready.

Black folks have had to assume this very posture for generations. It is quite understandable if you’re tired of it. I’m tired of it. I want to exist in a world where pastors preach process from the pulpit. I want to hear that God calls us to forgiveness, but that it’s also okay if it’s taking us a while to get there. We can arrive at forgiveness rather quickly, but we shouldn’t be expected to — especially not at times like these when existing wounds are opened anew.

For a good perspective on the process of forgiveness and how to faithfully model it, I commend to your reading How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, by Dr. Janis A. Spring. Free yourselves, family; we and ours have experienced enough bondage already. Shalom.

Dear NEXT Church…


I’m reflecting on my time at this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago. I feel odd calling it a “conference” (because NEXT Church is much more than that), but the National Gathering is, for me, one of the few conferences that makes me not want to miss a single second of any offering, any workshop, or any worship service. It’s a welcomed jolt of creativity, innovation, and inspiration during a time in the liturgical year when we church workers often feel like we’re hamsters spinning on our wheels; running frantically to nowhere.

This year’s National Gathering had no short supply of epic moments. With over 600 in attendance, it was the largest to-date — and I wonder whether we’ll soon outgrow being able to host it in a local church! We were all together hearing from Diana Butler Bass when word came of the ratification of amendment 14-F to our constitution, effectively allowing for the marriage of same-gender couples. The reaction to that was just, well, take a look:

That awesome moment when #NEXTChurch2015 gets word that 14-F has been ratified. Love wins! #pcusa

A video posted by Tawnya Denise Anderson (@thesoulstepford) on

But right out of the gate and at the very beginning of the conference, I was surprised and impressed by NEXT Church’s acknowledgment of our denomination’s lack of diversity and failure to have and/or sustain the difficult conversations about race. Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman presented a thought piece and answered some thoughtful questions on what we have done, have failed to do, and can do going forward in the work of reconciliation (or conciliation) and inclusion. Disappointingly, a workshop for the same day that planned to further these conversations didn’t receive much interest during conference registration, but a lunch-time conversation and a revival of the workshop ensured the work would continue. I was happy to see that, and though I’d signed up for a different workshop, I still participated in the lunch-time conversation. Bruce Reyes-Chow‘s Wednesday IGNITE presentation was insightful, inspiring, but woefully short (I totally wanted more!). And one could look out at the crowds and see this was probably the most diverse lot that has ever attended the National Gathering.

NEXT Church, you’ve encouraged me in the knowledge that these things aren’t flying under the radar. They aren’t just important to a few of us. They are of significance to the whole Body. And now I hope to encourage you to continue the work.

This year’s gathering was in Chicago, a city that is painfully segregated along racial and socio-economic lines. Next year’s gathering will be in Atlanta, which is a city with a strong African-American population and a strong income disparity — again, along racial lines. It is a city instrumental in the history of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Please acknowledge this in crafting next year’s message. I grow so weary of hearing our denomination talk about decline as if we are victims. The truth is, when compared to the demographics of the whole country, the PC(USA) is both whiter and richer than the nation of its setting. We’re not struggling as much as we think we are. Where we struggle is in adapting our model for ministry and accepting that ordered ministry and church/mid-council spending and operations will have to make changes. If anything is threatened, it’s our privilege, but for those of us who never had it, that’s not exactly cause for panic.

NEXT Church always leaves me hopeful and encouraged by the way in which the Spirit is moving in our church. I celebrate that more and more we are making room for those who have historically been excluded from the Table. And as much as my heart swelled to hear 14-F had been ratified, I was also sadly aware that ratification of the Belhar Confession still has not happened.

A confession that calls to the carpet hegemony and racist systems that have pervaded the Church — yes, even the Presbyterian Church (USA) — is still sputtering along. At this point, we have had enough presbyteries vote that it could have been ratified already, but yet it sputters.

I would hope that NEXT Church would play an integral role in helping our denomination come to terms with its own past and present prejudice. You’ve started the work, NEXT Church. Now continue it. Be clumsy, but continue it. Make mistakes, but continue it. We cannot be the “next church” authentically without this piece.

As always, you’ve refueled my fire for ministry and given me hope for the future. Thank you, and keep up the important work.

Rev. T. Denise Anderson

%d bloggers like this:
Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterCheck Our Feed