When I knelt to wash the feet of an African-American woman who is an elder of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I knew the moral universe of my youth had vanished. A cynic viewing the action only moments before when she knelt to wash my feet could argue that nothing had changed. But when the roles changed, even a cynic could acknowledge that deep change has occurred.
It certainly did to me in last Maundy Thursday, when a small group of Christians gathered to remember the gospel story of the night Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. We listened to the story and I said a few words about servant leadership. Then we came forward, two by two, to wash one another’s feet, reenacting Jesus’ humble example of love.
In order to fully understand the impact of the racial revolution I experienced, you might need to know what I experienced in the Deep South of my youth, particularly in the Southern Presbyterian Church. (Officially it was called the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the denomination that came into being during the Civil War when shamefully the Presbyterians split into Northern and Southern branches. It took more than 100 years to reunite.)
I was thirteen years old when I accidentally overhead a few elders in the church discussing whether they should arm themselves with weapons on Sunday morning in case some of “the Negroes” decided to attend worship. (I also should note that even though the United Presbyterian Church allowed for the ordination of women in 1956, and the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1965, only the most progressive congregations of my youth followed the practice and always in the face of much resistance.)
I didn’t follow the whole conversation of the elders because I was eavesdropping, but I was told a few days later that the session had voted to stand a couple of elders with weapons at the door to keep any Negroes from disrupting worship. They didn’t come and no shots were fired. But it wasn’t long after that I left the Presbyterian Church where I had been confirmed.
A few years later, in 1972, my friends and I began attending an African-American AME Zion Church and after being accepted so graciously by the pastor, asked if we could join the church. The Ku Klux Klan called the parents of one of our group, along with the pastor the AME Zion church, warning that if we joined the church there would be trouble. It all sounds rather strange right now, but in those days it was very real and very dangerous–so dangerous that the pastor, much to the disappointment of our righteous passion, asked us not to join the church. Sadly, but out of respect for him and his congregation – after all it was their church that was threatened – we withdrew our request and left the church.
I drifted around for years in independent, wild and crazy, backwoods Pentecostal churches, filled mostly with poor white people who liked their singing and their preaching loud, passionate, and authentic. On a routine night, before the service was over, there would be people crashing over folding chairs, slain in the Spirit, testifying and speaking in tongues. Chaos reigned in jubilation, until the sweat-drenched preacher brought everyone back to order. I don’t recall any black folks in those churches either. It was whites only like the rest of the moral universe, but this much was clear-everyone there was poor and hungry, and knew it.
Thirty-five years later, I’m a PC(USA) pastor kneeling to wash the feet of an African-American ordained elder in my congregation. How I arrived at being a Presbyterian pastor is another story, but for now can you understand the transformation that has occurred over the past forty years, and not only in the Church?
Easter? Resurrection from the dead? The Dalai Lama once said to Thomas Merton, “Show me the resurrection.” Well, I understand the challenge. I not only believe in the resurrection, I have experienced it, in black and white.
Roy Howard is pastor-head-of-staff at Saint Mark Church in North Bethesda, Md.