Ryan Landino walked into the Lovejoy United Presbyterian Church in Wood River, Illinois, knowing that some 100 nervous people were waiting there – and another 81 online – to hear what he had to say. Landino, presbytery leader of the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, would explain how 17 years ago their presbytery orchestrated an arrangement that benefitted two White churches while leaving a Black church burdened with substantial debt for years.
The question that hung in the air that hot August evening was: What, if anything, might the presbytery do to repair the harm done to the members of Third Presbyterian Church of St. Louis?
“I am sure some people were defensive because they were not sure of my intentions,” said Landino. “They wondered if this was going to be a witch hunt.”
Later, Landino would write of the action taken at the meeting: “On August 24, 2023, the presbytery made the decision to respond courageously in one of the boldest acts of reparative justice in our presbytery’s history.”
People had been given an overview with details of the issue in the weeks before August 23. The fellowship hall that evening held people who helped to construct that original arrangement in question, others who supported it, and the pastor and some of the members of Third Presbyterian Church, the Black church left with half a million dollars of debt.
“We have always ministered under a mountain of debt, $40,000 to $50,000 a year in loan payments,” said Third’s pastor, Cedric Portis. “Still, we were the fastest-growing church; we started a pre-school, helped the community. But we had no savings account. None of our members were dying and leaving us money. It was a testament to God that a way was made.”
“We have always ministered under a mountain of debt, $40,000 to $50,000 a year in loan payments. Still, we were the fastest growing church, we started a pre-school, helped the community. But we had no savings account.” — Cedric Portis
Using PowerPoint, Landino presented a step-by-step explanation of how the presbytery transferred a building to Third without disclosing the real condition of the building or the scope of needed repairs and did not treat Third “as an equal” partner in the agreement.
Landino spent weeks combing through minutes, emails and financial documents. John Knox Presbyterian Church, one of the White churches involved, assisted by providing some documents as well. The documents went back to 2005 and told the following story.
The membership at New Providence Presbyterian Church had fallen, the pastor was retiring, and the church could not afford to make the necessary repairs to the building. The plan was that New Providence would give its building to the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, and New Providence members would join John Knox. Before an agreement was finalized, Third expressed to the presbytery its need for a larger building and parking lot. Early minutes mention all three churches in the plan. Instead of the New Providence building being abandoned to the presbytery, the church was permitted to sell the building to Third.
The formal agreement also stated that upon the sale of Third’s original building (the church planned to sell its building to a Baptist church), $190,000 of the money from that sale would be put in the presbytery’s escrow to cover anticipated repairs to the New Providence building, Third’s new home.
“But here things get really, really kinda wonky,” said Landino.
The proposal stated that any money from the sale of Third over the $190,000 would go to John Knox, the White church.
“I had to reread this part a whole bunch of times,” Landino said.
Subsequent documents show that Third’s name was dropped from the proposed agreement, basically leaving them without any say-so or consideration and making the agreement only between John Knox and New Providence. (In Landino’s research, no records were found showing that John Knox received any proceeds from the sale.)
There are emails from Portis, the pastor of Third during the sale and today, questioning the arrangement, but presbytery leadership tells him not to worry and insinuates this is not a final agreement. Meanwhile, the congregation of Third moved into the New Providence building and discovered it was in worse shape than had been conveyed. During his research, Landino found a note from Portis reporting that a week after Third took possession of the building, it rained in the sanctuary because the roof was leaking.
“It cost us $300,000 to renovate just to move in,” said Portis, who is also an engineer.
Landino explains, “We had a chance to show care to three churches. We did not show care to Third.”
Third received an empty building in such bad condition that the church had to soon take out a loan to make necessary renovations.
“[The presbytery] allowed people to take chairs, communion ware, everything (from New Providence). They gutted the building,” Portis said. “We were a small church and in a poor community. I knew something was wrong, but I was just trying to pay off this debt. It really started to impact us during the pandemic.”
It was his inquiry to Landino about the possibility of getting the loans paid off or forgiven that prompted the presbytery leader to begin to look deeper into the circumstances that created the debt. “[The presbytery] can’t take on a church’s loan. Churches are responsible for the upkeep of their building.” But after some preliminary digging, he concluded, “This was a presbytery decision that set this church up for some real challenges.”
A couple of weeks before his August presentation, Landino met with the session at John Knox. “I wanted them to hear what I was going to say. Every time you tell a story, it needs a bad guy. I wasn’t interested in that,” said Landino, who depended at times on John Knox Presbyterian to provide documents and fill in gaps in his fact-finding. “They were good partners,” he added.
Landino also met with the session at Third. Some of them were angry after hearing that the presbytery might have treated them in a way that left Third in tremendous debt. Others were anxious as they waited for the outcome of the evening. The presbytery ultimately voted that August night to pay the debt of Third, in part because of the anti-racism work that had begun before Landino began as presbytery leader in February 2022. A presbytery group called Dismantling Racism and White Privilege (DRAWP) had spent a week in Montgomery, Alabama, visiting historic Civil Rights sites, attending workshops and having honest discussions about race. On the way back to St. Louis, the group came up with the idea of composing an official apology to Black people from the Presbytery.
They submitted the composition “On Offering an Apology to African Americans for the Sin of Slavery and Its Legacy,” at the denomination’s 225th General Assembly. The apology was approved by the assembly and has been adopted by some synods and presbyteries nationwide. DRAWP held other activities in the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, reading books, holding discussions and bringing in speakers to discuss race before Landino began his role. When he arrived, he observed the efforts and issued a new challenge: “How do we move from apology to action?”
“How do we move from apology to action?” — Ryan Landino
Then came this opportunity to create justice for Third.
That night in August, after Landino’s PowerPoint, two motions were presented to be voted on.
- To assume the remaining balance on the loan to the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program (PILP) incurred by Third for building repairs and
- Repayment of the loan plus all principal and interest that had been paid to PILP by Third, totaling approximately $718,000.
Before the vote, Pastor Portis of Third spoke. “Giddings-Lovejoy, I stand before you today bearing the weight of not only a congregation … but I stand before you as a representative of all African Americans who bear the burden to prove and convince the majority group that ‘our pain is real,’ ‘that our hurt is real.’”
“I stand before you as a representative of all African Americans who bear the burden to prove and convince the majority group that ‘our pain is real,’ ‘that our hurt is real.’” — Cedric Portis
The pastor pointed out that there was proof “harm was inflicted. I have made appeals for justice several times around the world, but I never thought I would have to come before my Christian siblings to make an appeal for justice,” Portis said. “If Christian people won’t do Christian things, then the church is absolutely lost.”
The motions were discussed and questioned. Someone asked why names were blackened out in the presentation. Landino said there was a procedure by which someone could find out those names, but he explained, “Withholding the individual names at this particular time is meant to focus us on the fact that the presbytery took this action collectively.”
Reflecting on the August meeting, Third’s pastor viewed the move differently. “It was the protection of White fragility that upset me,” said Portis.
That night, everyone agreed harm had been done. The question was the best way to address it. The final decision was to pay the $718,000, though it represented 13% of the presbytery’s total resources.
“This is not the church saying we are just going to help this African American church that was in debt,” Portis says today. “The presbytery was wrong. They did some intentional things to harm and hurt this ministry. This is making that right.”
“A lot of people were hugging me and coming up and saying they were sorry,” Portis said, adding. “It almost took on the spirit of a revival — at a Presbyterian meeting.”
“We are thankful that [Portis] kept correspondence he had with our presbytery about monies being transferred,” said Bernice Thompson, 87, and the longest member of Third. She was on Zoom that August night. “Shame on the Presbyterian executives and leadership. Shame is the word we have to use,” said Thompson, who hopes the actions of her presbytery will encourage church leaders elsewhere to right past wrongs.
“We can no longer sit and minimize or ignore the way we treated other people and expect God to bless us,” she said.
Before the Presbytery processed the checks to pay off Third’s debt, what Landino has called “a God thing” occurred. Word came that the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery was named as a legal recipient of a trust from an estate and would receive $810,000. The presbytery used this new gift to pay off Third’s debt and still had thousands left over.
To Portis, the gifted money means the presbytery did not suffer at all for the harm it caused.
“Here’s another way to look at it: Change only occurs when you are impacted financially, or physically,” he said. “With this money showing up, the presbytery was never really impacted. It’s as if someone else paid their debt. How much would we (at Third) have been able to do if we had had that money all along? There is a punitive damage that has not been addressed.”
Since August, Portis said he has been preaching to his congregation about healing. When someone asked him, “How does it feel to be debt free?” the pastor said he responded, “That’s like asking a slave the day after he is released, ‘How does it feel to be free?’ I have never ministered without a mountain of debt. I said, ‘What your Whiteness wants is for us to be celebratory; we are not. We are trying to get over the fact that a presbytery we have lifted up and did all this labor for has deliberately harmed us. It is tough now to say the presbytery is our ally.”
As for the presbytery, Landino says there is widespread work to put into place procedures that will assure that future financial agreements and other administration policies are “transparent, clear, consistent, accessible, and representative of the whole presbytery.”
Meanwhile, Susan Andrews, a former moderator of the PC(USA) and a member of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, is hopeful because of what she witnessed that August evening and because of other recent experiences.
“I thought our church was finally saying something important (in the apology), but I was aware that it was just words,” said Andrews, who watched Landino’s presentation on Zoom.
“This was not the case of ‘Oh, this poor church that is suffering so much and has no resources,’” she said, referring to Third. “It was this thriving, mission-oriented church proclaiming the gospel the way it needs to be heard. It was not about bailing out a church but acknowledging an injustice and doing something about it.”
Andrews was moved to tears that night. She said with so many White churches in the presbytery dying, she saw this decision as “a moment of life” that will sustain the work Third is doing and have the ripple effect of impacting many other lives.
“There was a movement of spirit in the body that knew that this was the right thing to do. It was putting into action the words we had approved two years earlier. There was of White guilt, but this was about much more,” said Andrews. “This was a gospel moment. I think people feel this is one more step in the steps of repentance and restoration.”