Robeson House: Public theology, public action

Guest commentary by Harold Delhagen

Growing up with my father meant that family time was filled with history lessons. While my brothers and I would have preferred trips to local amusement parks, Dad always had a scheme to enlighten his three sons by pausing at monuments and historical markers wherever we went.

I recall a time in my early teens driving through a neighborhood in nearby Princeton, New Jersey, on one of those forced educational opportunities.  We pulled alongside a well-worn house and a small white clapboard church where Dad briefly stopped the car to point out where a famous man named Paul Robeson once lived. Later that evening Dad pulled out a copy of Paul Robeson’s biography, encouraging us to read further about the tragic story of this local hero. To end the day’s lesson he offered a dusty old vinyl record to show us how, against all odds of racism, he excelled not only as an athlete but also as an outstanding and well-respected vocalist. Most importantly, my father impressed upon me the profound story of Paul Robeson’s career. He shared how the forces of racial hatred, mixed with the vengeful powers of McCarthyism, had virtually destroyed this talented man’s stellar career.

More than 40 years later I was drawn back to the rest of the story.  As the synod leader of the Synod of the Northeast, in the winter of 2015 I received a letter from the late pastor David Prince, a friend of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey. The letter included an invitation to come and learn about an earlier part of the Robeson story. I agreed to come to Princeton to hear, firsthand, the first part of the story.

It begins, not with a communist witch-hunt, but with an escaped slave by the name of William Drew Robeson, Paul Robeson’s father.  His life’s journey took him from a plantation in the South to theological education and ordination in the Presbyterian Church. In 1879, the Presbytery of New Brunswick installed him as the first African-American minister at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.

What occurred next, after over 21 years of faithful ministry, was a travesty. Pastorally serving the community of color in the Jim Crow environment of Princeton New Jersey compelled Robeson to lift his voice against the injustice and oppression in the Princeton area.  Soon the political and religious powers of his day began to find this prophetic voice less and less tolerable. Finally, the Presbytery of New Brunswick decided to establish an administrative commission to investigate the complaints – not from his congregation, but from those who considered themselves the congregation’s “benefactors.” The result was nothing less than an ecclesiastical lynching: a recommendation to the presbytery to dismiss Robeson.

As I listened to the rest of the story on that cold winter day, powerful feelings welled within me and haunted me for days to come. Prince reminded me of our synod’s public commitments and challenged me to bring the story back to the larger synod community and to consider responding not just with further words, but with action.

The Witherspoon Street Church had repurchased the manse where the Robeson family once lived. The church had to sell the property following the decline created by Robeson’s dismissal.  Now the house is used to serve the community and to once again become a center of hospitality. Since purchasing the Robeson House in 2005, the congregation struggled to maintain its mortgage payments. Prince suggested that the synod take the bold move of paying the remainder of the two mortgages, totaling about $175,000. This story required some tangible action.

A public theology without public action is meaningless.  As a leader of a mid council committed to racial justice, this was not a story I could simply file away. This spring, the Mission and Ministries Commission of the Synod of the Northeast established an investigating committee that was charged to research the details of the story.

The recent report of the investigating committee concluded that the charges against Robeson were unsubstantiated and diametrically opposed to the wishes of the congregation.  The report further concluded that if the same criteria had been applied to white churches, many other pastors would have been dismissed. The actions of the presbytery were an historic act of racial injustice.

The Synod of the Northeast is a regional community of Presbyterian churches called to be agents of racial justice and reconciliation. Public commitments and initiatives have been made to humbly and faithfully address the powers of white privilege and to raise up the diverse voices that bless our community. When confronted with this particular injustice, the investigating committee made the following recommendation to the Mission and Ministries Commission of the Synod:

“It is also clear that acknowledgement of wrongdoing in the past which has caused lingering hurt is needed from the larger church. The Rev. William Robeson was actively voicing what the gospel calls us to give voice to – the truth of the hurt caused by white privilege. In proclaiming the truth of the gospel, he was deemed “ineffective” because his words threatened the entrenched power structure of white upper-class Princeton. Holding onto the new addition of the Belhar Confession to the PCUSA Book of Confessions, with its emphasis on unity and reconciliation in Christ, we now believe that forced separation of brothers and sisters in Christ is wrong. We need each other or we are only a partial reflection of God’s creation and intention for humankind.

We recommend that the remainder of the Robeson’s House mortgage be abolished by a grant from the Synod of the Northeast.”

Discussion at the commission meeting was somber and thoughtful. It was clear almost from the beginning of the committee’s report that we were of one heart and mind. We weighed the cost and considered the implications carefully. We asked ourselves serious questions around sustainability in making such a large grant and the challenges of setting a precedent.

When the vote came it was unanimous – the commission was living into its public theology with profound humility and courage. When our business ended, we had embraced the challenge and confessed that this one story represents many as we journey toward the greater aspirations of God.

Harold_smallHAROLD DELHAGEN is the synod leader of the Synod of the Northeast.