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“At the River: Grace and Struggle in the Segregated South”

Alex Evans and Amy Starr Redwine review Carolyn Crowder and Rod Murphy's documentary "At the River."

For many of us, the last few years of pastoral ministry have included various conversations about race, emerging from the racial unrest in our nation revealed by George Floyd’s murder and many other disturbing events.

Especially in our predominately White congregations, we have sought deliberate conversations about our own White privilege and complicity in our nation’s history of racial injustice. Here in Richmond, Virginia, we have sought to confront the church’s role in the racial injustices perpetuated in this city. It is difficult to find examples of people from the past in positions like ours who stayed faithful to their gospel calling even when it put them in danger. In God’s good providence, we have been blessed by the timeliness and thoughtfulness of a new documentary film titled “At The River: Grace and Struggle in the Segregated South” directed and produced by Carolyn Crowder, a retired psychologist who specialized in parent education.

Carolyn was a high school and college student in the 1960s. “I wanted to document the stands some pastors took in the Deep South during dangerous times. I, and many other young people, watched and learned from their bravery and commitment calling out the injustice that was all around us. We were all born into a received world of racist bigotry that we White children took for granted. Along came a few ministers who dared questioned the status quo. In my life they were Presbyterian, but every denomination had such men.”

Most Southern Presbyterian ministers, departing from the justice of Jesus, opted not to stir the waters of the cultural river we all lived in. Silence from the pulpit on the matter gave support to the status quo. So many ministers stood on the banks of the river and chose not to leap in to face certain retaliation for questioning the status quo of White privilege. The ones that did were harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, threatened and/or lost their pulpits.

Crowder states, “I made this film out of a sense of debt of gratitude owed the ministers who changed me. I like to say that they salvaged me and woke me up. My film is really a memoir — their memories and mine, our stories of those times during the 1950s and 1960s in the South.”

Crowder and co-producer Rod Murphy have now screened the film in 22 churches in the past 8 months to a total of nearly 2000 people. They have scheduled 14 more screenings for 2023 and the requests keep coming. We showed the film recently on a Sunday afternoon in Richmond to a packed, diverse sanctuary with lots of tears and passion. This film reminds us of the complexities of our lives, illustrating not just how easily we can be absorbed in racist, horrific cultural blindness, but also the capacity each one of us has to stand for what is right and enact the justice of the gospel. As one Wendell Berry quote used in the movie reminds us: “we all carry wrongs; what we need is someone to hear and forgive us.”

The filmmakers interviewed 35 ministers and 20 family members and colleagues. It took a total of 5 years to travel and conduct the interviews and another 2 years of editing. Eleven ministers have passed away since their interviews. Time was of the essence.

The beautiful and profound storytelling in this film, with such honest reflections from ministers who faced intense challenges so early on in difficult pastorates, calls us to keep working for God’s justice, to keep reassessing where we have fallen short, and to promote help and healing in our churches and country.

“At the River” offers much-needed inspiration and example to pastors and pastors-in-training who find themselves struggling to preach and live the gospel and the words of the prophets in a deeply divided cultural and political environment. We have continuing work to do in our denomination and in our churches.

We know, as Hebrews reminds us, that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” We also know that familiar saying, inscribed on a statue at the National Archives, “what is past is prologue,” and we have continuing work to do in our churches, in the PC(USA), and across the world as we seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. “At the River” truly helps us get and stay on track as we work to build God’s beloved community.

To learn more about the film, book a screening or contact Carolyn Crowder, visit the film’s website: attheriverfilm.com

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