TE Mike Higgins “Blacks I Have Seen in the Church–Who They Are Not”
I would like to start by stressing that I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the ability to make right whatever is wrong with the Church. When it comes to reconciliation, I am definitely “for” it. Ephesians 1, Second Corinthians 5, Revelation 7 and many other places in scripture speak to the Gospel’s power to reconcile. However, I am not writing this to defend myself. I believe that my presence, as a Black teaching elder in this denomination, at the risk of being ridiculed by my former denominational colleagues, speaks to my commitment to bringing down the “walls.” I have been a pastor in the Church of God in Christ, the Missionary Baptist Church (both predominately Black) and now the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). My fourteen year journey in the PCA has found me in a cross-cultural church and now again in a predominately Black setting—an anomaly in this denomination. I want to stress that the following comments about race, culture and church are not from the standpoint of despair or anger. I am just stating what I would call a present condition. As a pastor in a Black church, I have heard what Black people say and seen what they do. Presently, I am in a middle class setting, but I have pastored Blacks in North Saint Louis city and Blacks on Army installations—I would say that in each setting, the comments about racial division in the church are basically the same—Same Stuff, Different Day. You probably won’t agree with some of things you read, but am I just calling it the way I see it. As my grandmother would say, “I know Jesus; He will fix it, somehow.”
I have pastored Redemption Fellowship, a “ninety-nine percent” Black PCA church since September 2000. The church is within a mile of a “ninety-nine percent” White PCA church. I am hesitant to use the terms “Black” and “White” in describing the two churches because the use of those terms denies the diversity one encounters amongst people of the same color. For instance, when you look over the congregation of Redemption you see Black folks, but they are not the same—they are Black folks from the United States, Panama, Haiti, Barbados, Puerto Rico, and Africa. Most of the members of Redemption believe that their congregation is already diverse. I am sure that there is a similar Anglo-European diversity in our sister church up the road.
The two churches are have a great relationship with each other—we have co-sponsored two denominational conferences, community youth initiatives, participated in joint services, shared building resources and the pastors have preached in each other’s pulpits. However, there has never been an outcry from the leadership or members of either church to join the two congregations into one. Everybody seems to be fine with the present arrangement. I think I know why—both congregations are under the belief that they each are a self-sufficient, autonomous representative of the Church of Jesus Christ. They don’t need to be physically connected or integrated with each other church to be validated as a communing body of believers. Each is a particular church. Each has a Session.
Along these lines is the strong desire at Redemption to maintain its own worship culture—a Bapto-Presby-Costal worship style encompassing traditional and contemporary Black gospel music, hymns, passionate bible preaching, calling the pastor’s wife “First Lady”, etc. Many at Redemption say that while they believe in Reformed doctrine and really appreciate the structure and accountability of the PCA, they don’t relate to many of the PCA churches they have visited. One Redemption member stated, “It isn’t my place to tell people how to have church, but after I hear the Word of God, I want to rejoice out loud.”
Recently, I polled the Redemption congregation to get some answers to the following questions: “What are your thoughts on how race/ethnic culture impacts your decision to attend a church? Would you attend a majority white church? How about an inter-racial church? What draws you to “Black church?” Some responded that they would not mind attending a racially diverse church, but they would not want to be one of just a few Blacks in the membership. One respondent asked, “Why don’t Whites come to our church and sit under Black leadership?” Another responded by stating, “I have no problem being in the PCA, but I am not a White Presbyterian; I am a Black Presbyterian.” Finally, one the respondents asked, “Do Whites realize what it takes to be Black and be in the PCA? My family thinks I am nuts.”
The negative effects of racial segregation in America’s past are yet exerting force on the church. Again, I am by no means suggesting that the gospel is powerless in this struggle—I am merely suggesting that we are far from done with the race problem in the Church. Whites for hundreds of years enforced segregation and Blacks adjusted to it. Unfortunately, this is basically where we are ecclesiastically. During slavery, Whites had church on the main floor and Blacks, when they were allowed in the building, went to the balcony. Eventually, we formed our own black churches and nobody seemed to care—we “circled the wagons” and now we can’t get them un-circled. So when the question of racial reconciliation in regards to church attendance surfaces, many Blacks respond with “what’s the problem now?” As one respondent to the poll questions stated, “I believe that if there had never been a “White” church, there would be no “Black” church.” Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, in their book Divided by Faith, offer what I think is a significant insight to how racial groups define themselves. They state: “In many respects, we know who we are by knowing who we are not. Thus, an in-group always has at least one out-group by which it creates identity. Blacks are not whites, Lutherans are not Presbyterians, evangelicals are not mainline Christians, Carolina Tar Heels are not Duke Blue Devils. We may not like what they say, but I think this is what has happened. And most Blacks, at least when it comes to having church, are happy about who they are not.
TE Mike Higgins currently serves as the Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary. He previously served as the pastor of Redemption Fellowship for ten years and before that served as an associate pastor of New City Fellowship of Chattanooga.
 Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America: Oxford, University Press, 2000), 143.