BALTIMORE – What does Presbyterian history reveal about the challenges of working collaboratively on issues involving race?
“Why haven’t we gotten any farther?”
Those are some of the issues that William Yoo, an assistant professor of American Religious and Cultural History at Columbia Theological Seminary, delved into Nov. 10 during his second plenary presentation at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians’ national conference, held at First and Franklin Presbyterian Church in Baltimore.
He started with history: including the story of Samson Occum, a Mohegan who was intelligent, multi-lingual and passionate about ministry and mission, who, despite his gifts and experience, had to fight for 12 years to win the support of white ministers and to convince the Presbytery of Long Island to ordain him in 1759.
In 1765, Occum traveled to Europe to help raise funds for a school that Eleazor Wheelock said he wanted to start to train Native American students – a trip on which Occum preached more than 300 sermons in England and Scotland, where “he was a sensation,” preaching once to an overflow crowd of more than 3,000 people.
Wheelock, however, later reneged – using the funds Occum had helped raise to found Dartmouth College, not a school for Native American students. Their relationship fell apart – and Yoo said that history reveals much about relationships involving race.
“I think Wheelock was as shrewd as a snake,” Yoo said, realizing that Occum could be valuable to him – some in England and Scotland turned out because “they wanted to hear a Native American speak.” That’s an example of “the pressure of a person of color to perform for predominantly white audiences” and “the perils of tokenism.”
Despite that, Yoo said he wants Presbyterians not to view Occum as “an object of our pity. He was a preacher of the gospel. … God used him in his life.”
But over and over, history shows that Presbyterians have struggled to accept the prophetic voices of women and men outside the dominant culture, Yoo said.
He outlined some of the history of the unwillingness to see people of color as equal or even human. Before the Civil War, black bodies “were considered treasures; they were considered property,” Yoo said. After slavery ended, black bodies were “mutilated and lynched and feared.”
Yoo also spoke of the often-conflicted views involving immigration, reflected by the views of Denis Kearney, a California labor leader of the late 19th century who advocated for the expulsion of Chinese immigrants.
Kearney argued that “these Chinese immigrants are coming to take our jobs; they are coming to take our jobs and our women,” Yoo said. That’s part of the country’s history of pitting one immigrant group against another.
An 1889 Presbyterian report on immigration spoke of new immigrants in several ways – including as a “national peril” (similar to language some use today), but also as an opportunity for evangelization. The idea was that “new immigrants can be so vulnerable. … Perhaps we the church can be where they come for help,” Yoo said.
In other words, “immigrants are either objects of fear or objects to convert. They’re not considered to be equal human beings,” or partners in ministry.
Yoo described the context of people of color “competing for second place” or for limited resources – sometimes leading to tensions between them. He laid out some of the Presbyterian history reflecting that – including advances (such as the creation of the first indigenous Hispanic congregation in the U.S. in 1887) and a series of reports to various General Assemblies.
A 1967 report from the Commission on Race and Religion concluded there had been enough studies and reports already. The commission said, in essence, that “we just need to do what our existing reports say to do,” Yoo said.
That commission said to the church:
So why haven’t Presbyterians made more progress on issues of race?
Yoo said when he started his research, he thought maybe “the record wasn’t there; maybe we didn’t know” of the history and the injustice. But he has discovered – as the 1967 report reflects – “that we did,” that the reports were there and Presbyterians failed to act. “I think next year’s General Assembly could say the same thing. I think we have to ask why. The why is harder. It really requires genuine partnerships between different people.”
Yoo contends that “the best way to move forward would be coalitions” working together.
The PC(USA) is 91 percent white, and most white Presbyterians (about 98 percent) worship in predominantly white congregations.
In the PC(USA), “we need more of God’s people,” Yoo said. “We need more of all God’s children,” those in the margins, the vulnerable, the poor. And more white people willing to work for justice “in ways that are painful, ways that are hard.”
And “we’ve got to move past treating those we want to come to our churches” – including people of color and young people – “as objects of our success.”
There are not easy solutions, Yoo said. His mother-in-law, a Korean-American, is a Presbyterian elder and participates in an English-language Bible study in her neighborhood, along with Baptists. But she might not experience the fullness of her faith if she left her Korean-American congregation to join a white church, Yoo said. “In my mind, it would cost her too much” not to worship in her native language.
So what can white Presbyterians concerned about race do? How can they be allies?
“Continue showing up; continue in a posture of humility,” Yoo said. Continue trying to discern God’s will. Be fully present to others who are different. Sometimes white people hear hard things about racism – the hard things and confrontational truths – better when it comes from other whites. Use your privilege, Yoo said, to change hearts and minds.
The Covenant Network conference, with the theme “Our Shared Humanity,” ended Nov. 10 with Covenant Network co-moderator Daniel Vigilante preaching. The conference also honored the service of Tricia Dykers Koenig, now the associate director for Mid Council Relations in the Office of the General Assembly, for her 16 years of service as Covenant Network’s national organizer.