As the PCA continues its corporate discussion about racial reconciliation and harvesting fruits of repentance, one Mississippi church has publicly confessed and repented of a specific episode in its history.
Following the 2015 Personal Resolution on Civil Rights Remembrance submitted to the 2015 General Assembly by Ligon Duncan and Sean Lucas, the session of First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in Jackson decided to look into the church’s history to see if there were specific sins that needed to be confessed.
FPC was one of the PCA’s founding congregations, and it has been a prominent church throughout the denomination’s history. What’s more, its former pastors, Ligon Duncan and Jim Baird, have been active in the denominational conversation about racial reconciliation.
Given its history and position within the PCA, FPC has taken steps in recent years to build bridges and Gospel partnerships with Jackson’s African-American community, which makes up 70 percent of the city’s population.
The session put together a committee to comb though session minutes from the civil rights era. The committee soon discovered that in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, the Presbyterian Church (USA) urged its churches to desegregate. In response, the 1954 FPC session committed to remaining segregated and barring African-Americans from worship.
When he read the old session minutes, elder Bill Stone knew that the current session needed to draft a public statement repudiating and repenting of the racism demonstrated in 1954.
Initially not everyone on the current session saw the need to handle the matter publicly. According to Stone, some session members thought that because the incident happened so long ago and was so obviously out of accord with the church’s current practice that a public confession wasn’t necessary.
Stone disagreed. “This was an official act of session published in the minutes so we needed to go on record with a statement of contrition and wanting to grow in godliness. We are men in a long line of men who have been called to serve God’s church, and we accepted this mantle of responsibility, whether we knew it or not,” Stone said. “If the church of Jesus Christ is really going to move forward in a fashion of truly seeking Him, this is something we need to do.”
Part of FPC’s statement says, “We deeply regret the injury such actions have given to the cause of Christ, the way they have undermined our ability as a church to minister effectively to all people, and the harm such actions have done to the spiritual welfare of our African-American brothers and sisters over the years.”
Senior pastor David Strain sees this as a continuation of the church’s community and denominational leadership. “[FPC] has had a role in serving the denomination and exercising leadership; sometimes we exercise leadership by acknowledging our failures and confessing sin,” he said.
Both Strain and Stone note that the men who served on the 1954 session were — and are still regarded as — courageous, godly men who helped found the denomination. But like the rest of us, they had spiritual blind spots. “All of our heroes are fallen men,” Strain said. “We’re not throwing them under the bus by acknowledging that fact.”
While the statement was well-received in the congregation, especially among African-American members, the FPC leadership understands that a public statement of repentance by itself is not going to fix race relations in the church and the community.
Strain said the church is committed to the work of building relationships with different groups in the community. “For many of us there is a sense of business as usual in that we have to keep going,” he said. “We have been working on this for a long time and will continue working on this for a long time.”
This statement is a necessary step forward.