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A Response to a Letter from Dr. Aubrey Brown, Editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, fifty years later

(In December 1961, two students from the Belgian Congo studying at Union Seminary in Richmond, Va., attended the three-week pilot project called Christmas International House (CIH) at the Westminster Fellowship House at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., where I was Presbyterian Campus Minister.

A racial incident occurred in Charleston, S.C., involving these two students. Dr. Brown had heard about it and he communicated with us in the Campus Ministry to understand the situation better. Because of underlying conflictive and knotty concerns in this matter, a response unfortunately was left dangling. As I reflect on the meaning of this incident fifty years later, I am now responding to Dr. Brown’s pre-death request.)

February 12, 2011

Dr. Aubrey Brown, Former Editor

c/o Dr. Jack Haberer, Editor: Outlook

Box 85623

Richmond, Va. 23285

Dear Dr. Brown:

In response to your request about the racial incident occurring in Charleston, S.C., on December 27, 1961, I offer the following remarks. Our group of 15 CIH students took a tour to see Charleston, S.C, and in order to help with expenses, I asked a church to feed us lunch, which they did. However, in the negotiations with the church, I felt that it was best for the two Africans to eat in a home instead of the church in order to keep peace. My wife went with them, as I thought this would smooth the way.

Standing on the steps of that church, I invited the two Africans to leave with my wife, while the others entered the church dining room. As I said these words of separation, I was looking down on the steps, not into their eyes, and saw the shadow of the cross caused by the sun and perhaps the steeple. I had just crucified the Lord again and committed a heinous sin. The scales that blinded me of my deep racism began to fall away. I had a conversion of social injustice at the time that has not ended. Yet, I did not act then to stop this injustice. The full blame of creating this incident was mine, and, I learned a costly lesson which blessed my future ministry.

Returning to the Westminster House at the University, the mood of the whole group was sober. I expressed a sense of sorrowfulness to the two students, but later I knew that was not enough. But, one night, 20 years later in the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) I met one of the two Africans as Director of a rest home in which I stayed. I requested a conversation with him about this past event. We went outside and talked. I really apologized for my sinful act and asked for his forgiveness which he gave. About that same time, another African student came up to us “out of the night.” I knew him. He had been a college student at our first, official CIH in-a-local-church, in First Presbyterian Church, Huntington, W.Va., in 1965. He was able to testify that he had not seen or endured any racism while there. This Charleston event positively affected all future human relationships in the CIH programs which continues to this day under the leadership of former Presbyterian General Assembly Moderator, Dr. Fahed Abu-Akel. What a Providential event that evening in the heart of Africa. I learned later that the other African student who had been in Charleston had died with still bitter feelings.

Over the past 50 years, God used this experience to help break down my walls of racism, and pushed me into action. A few weeks after the incident, I spoke and voted in my Presbytery against enrolling a new church until all the persons in that community, including Black Americans, had been invited to become part of this new congregation.

Then, as speaker at a world mission conference at a church on the coast of Georgia, after returning from my first missionary work in Taiwan, I supported the “Poor People’s March.” I was then informed that if I brought any international guests from Villa International Atlanta for a week-end visit, Africans would sit in the balcony for worship. I gave my interpretation of this matter and was informed that I would never be invited back to that church.

Moreover, seven years after my Charleston experience, I returned overseas for another missionary appointment as Protestant Chaplain in a university in Ghana, West Africa. Within two years, I was removed from this university as I fought against the injustices of its powerful President against Africans of other tribes. I preached a sermon on the moral deterioration of the university and was removed from the university, but so was the President in due course. In Nigeria a few years later, as a senior lecturer and once a temporary Acting Head of the Department of Religion, with Muslim and Christian lecturers, I found myself confronting a financial issue which came to me involving fairness between the two religions.

Before my retirement, I was Director of Villa International Atlanta for 20 years, built by the Presbyterian Women’s Birthday Offering of 1970. This international ministry was built on the principles of the CIH program, not with college students but with medical personnel studying at the Centers of Disease Control (CDC). There were no racist reactions between Americans and the over 1,000 international guests from 120 countries per year during my tenure. Indeed, at times there were tensions between different nations, causing the staff and volunteers of Villa to work earnestly toward a ministry of peace-making.

Indeed, progress has been demonstrated in the lives and social structures of so many persons and in so many ways in human rights. Yet, the insidious sin of discrimination still kicks hard. For several years I have voted against any policy of the General Assembly supporting justice regarding the inclusion of gays in the ordination process. Yet, this Charleston incident of long ago pushed me finally to vote favorably at the recent Western North Carolina Presbytery meeting to approve the amendment to allow such ordination.

Thank you for helping me to keep the issue of human rights before me over the last 50 years.

Sincerely,

Harry F. Peterson

Black Mountain, N.C.

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