Building trust ‘for the sake of the Gospel’

Nassau Presbyterian Church and Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church work to build trust that has been missing since 1840.

Photo by Lincoln on Unsplash

Bridges are hard to build, even when they are desired. Trust is even harder – especially when the little that existed has been shattered.

Even after the bridges are under construction, and trust is being regained, not everyone feels comfortable with the new ties.

But that hasn’t stopped Nassau Presbyterian Church, a 1,000-member, predominantly White congregation in Princeton, New Jersey, and Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, a 100-member historically Black congregation, from working to build bridges and trust that have been missing since 1840.

That’s when what is now Nassau church encouraged its Black congregants to leave and create their own church.

Barbara Flythe, one of the prime movers in Witherspoon Street’s willingness to work with Nassau, said relationships and trust built during previous joint projects, including building a Habitat for Humanity house and celebration of the 250th anniversary of Presbyterianism in Princeton, was an important part of the success of the years-long effort to reconnect – but importantly, not to merge. Race relations, she said, was rarely the primary topic.

Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Image courtesy Municipality of Princeton.

“We never discussed that,” Flythe said. “We just did the work together.”

Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary “could probably learn a little bit from us, having it relation-based,” said Nassau Senior Pastor David Davis.

Indeed, the new president of Princeton Seminary is on board.

“I celebrate the ongoing conversations between our Presbyterian institutions here in the town of Princeton,” says Jonathan Lee Walton, the seminary’s first Black president.

“Whether it’s the slavery audit of Princeton University and Princeton Seminary or the reckoning of the complicated historical and racialized relationship between Nassau Presbyterian and the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian churches, this is hard but important work – work that moves us toward realizing true beloved community,” he said.

“This is hard but important work – work that moves us toward realizing true beloved community.” — Jonathan Lee Walton

Walton signaled his support even before he was inaugurated as president as he was the first speaker at last October’s debut of a documentary on the churches’ journey titled “Partners in Faith: Our Journey Together.”

While there has been sporadic work together over the years, the Witherspoon Street-Nassau relationship took a significant step forward in 2005 as the churches agreed to work together to celebrate 250 years of Presbyterianism in Princeton.

The evolution of an American story

In 2019, the churches created The Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church/Nassau Presbyterian Church Joint Committee charged with “establishing a larger Presbyterian footprint in Princeton, growing and enriching the relationship between the two congregations, and building a church beyond the walls.”

Then George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, leading to the creation of the documentary.

“Separated by less than half a mile, the First Presbyterian Church (now Nassau) and Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church have co-existed for almost two centuries,” says the program for the documentary’s debut. “The chronicling of the nature of their relationship, of two churches, one Black and one White, is what this project is about. It is both the story of evolving practices in two faith communities and the evolution of the American story in times of major social and political upheaval.”

Nassau Presbyterian Church. Image by Greenleaf Painters.

(Nassau church was founded in 1973 by the merger of First Presbyterian and St. Andrews Presbyterian church, which itself was originally called Second Presbyterian Church.)

The first members of Witherspoon Street were, one might say, refugees from First Presbyterian after it was ravaged by fire, destroying the balcony where African Americans had to sit.

During the construction of First’s new sanctuary, the Black members and the White members met apart, and after its completion, “the majority of pew-holders wish them to remain that way,” according to a Nov. 17, 1837, letter from interim pastor James Waddell Alexander.

That same year, the session of First Presbyterian appointed a committee “to persuade Black members to continue meeting separately,” according to the program.

Little changed over the years as both churches went about their mission with little acknowledgment of each other.

“By the early 20th century, there was little evidence of a relationship or even communication between the two churches and their congregations,” according to the program.

Renowned singer and activist Paul Robeson, born in 1898 during his father’s tenure at Witherspoon Street as pastor, didn’t mince words when he described what it was like in Princeton.

“The Princeton of my boyhood … was for all of the world like any small town in the deep South,” Robeson said. “Less than 50 miles from New York and closer to Philadelphia, Princeton was spiritually in Dixie.”

Part of that “Dixie spirituality” resulted in the Presbytery of New Brunswick dismissing Robeson’s father from the Witherspoon Street pulpit because of his activism and criticism of Jim Crow laws.

The presbytery apologized in 2015 for what had been described as an “ecclesiastical lynching,” and called for Presbyterian institutions in Princeton to commit to an ongoing process of racial reconciliation.

The reconciliation was helped along when then First and other organizations aided in Witherspoon Street’s repurchase in 2005 of what is now named the Paul Robeson House, which had been the Robeson manse during his tenure, but of which Witherspoon Street later lost ownership. The house now serves as a center committed to social justice causes, according to Witherspoon’s website.

The Paul Robeson House and Museum at 4949-51 Walnut Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Over the years, there were sporadic efforts for better connections between the congregations, but Flythe said they really picked up steam when Davis arrived at Nassau 23 years ago and took flight after Floyd’s murder.

“We would not be here without (Dave),” she said. “He was the right moment at the right time. … He’s very modest about it.”

For his part, Davis said, “I was determined to build relationships within the Witherspoon Street Church. It was members of the Witherspoon Street Church who taught me the history of Princeton over coffee and taught me things that my congregation wouldn’t have told me or didn’t really know.”

“The list of microaggressions directed at Witherspoon Street Church from old First Presbyterian Church and Nassau are legion, so at every point when we do this work together, I am aware that a mistake can be really, really costly,” Davis said.

Chronicling the evolution of a community’s faith

Davis said the “freshening” began two or three years before the pandemic when the sessions of the two churches “engaged in a partnership to try to deepen our footprint in Princeton.”

Those participating in the partnership were transformed the week that Floyd was killed, Davis said, so they decided they needed to produce a documentary to show what could exist.

As the program for the documentary’s debut says: “By telling the stories and experiences and exploring the shared programs and events of the past 186 years, (the documentary) is offering a unique and nuanced look at the evolution and practice of the Presbyterian faith, in one of the oldest towns in America, through the multicolored lenses of our disparate communities. This is, in many ways, a chronicle of America’s evolution and how, hopefully, our Christian faith has tempered tension and distrust to allow us ultimately to work together for the benefit of our congregations and the wider Princeton community. Exploring and understanding just how this unique relationship came together and has continued for more than 183 years is an amazing story and one that needs to be told.”

“This journey was very personal for all of us,” Davis said. “We took nothing for granted.”

Davis had some words of advice for his White pastoral colleagues on ways to spur their congregations: “White pastors must be willing to push back on White members who react negatively to terms like white supremacy or reparations. To be a leader in this work as a church leader is to challenge the folks who push back.

“This journey was very personal for all of us. We took nothing for granted.” — David Davis

“And,” he said, “do it for the sake of the Gospel.”

The documentary ended with Davis’ vision of the future of the congregations:

“I am optimistic about the future of the two congregations and our place in this community. And I’m optimistic first of all because God is faithful, and God is faithful to our efforts and our intent to provide a Gospel witness and a witness to the relationship and the importance of the relationship of our congregations and our willingness and our calling – our holy, sacred calling – to push past the fraught history that informs and creates who we are and who our respective congregations are.

“And I say that I’m hopeful because I’ve already seen it. I’ve seen the work being done, I’ve seen the relationships being made such that in the future from this day forward the relationship between these two congregations is not dependent upon one pastor or another.

“It’s now embedded in the relationships between folks in the congregation who have come to love each other and trust each other, have learned and said hard things to one another, and that ripple effect of those relationships isn’t going to go anywhere, and let the community see, and in fact the church see, what God can do between to faithful congregations.”