A Practical Response to Racial Tension
By Zoe S. Erler

As a black man, Alex Shipman says he experienced an identity crisis when he decided to join the PCA.

“I loved the theology and the content of the sermons. Culturally, I just felt out of place because I was the only African American male who was a member [at my church],” says Shipman, who became a Christian in 1996 through Campus Outreach at Valdosta State University. “Who am I as a Black man? Have I sacrificed everything from my culture to be here?”

But he loved Reformed theology, and when his church family at Redeemer Church in Greenville, South Carolina, helped cover his cost to attend seminary at RTS Charlotte in 2001, Shipman felt pulled deeper into a denomination that didn’t look a lot like him.

That was almost 20 years ago, and today Shipman is the senior pastor of the Huntsville, Alabama-based Village Church, described as “a cross-cultural, multiethnic, multigenerational, Reformed, Presbyterian congregation of the PCA.” He is also the board chairman of the Unity Fund, a grant-giving entity to educate, train, mentor, and develop minority leadership in the denomination.

Right-Sizing the Numbers

It was the number 47 that led Scott Bridges down the path to starting the Unity Fund two years ago. Forty-seven was the number of African American teaching elders in the PCA in 2015.

In 2018, the fund awarded 41 scholarships; in 2019, 67 scholarships.

With more than 4,000 teaching elders overall, “we barely broke 1%,” says Bridges, a former church planter and assessor in the denomination. Similarly, the number of Hispanic teaching elders was only 0.6%. African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population; Latinos make up more than 16% and are one of the fastest-growing demographics.

“I knew things weren’t right, but that was a galvanizing moment for me to see the stat … when I contrasted where the PCA was [in 2015] to where the church is going to be when our Lord returns” (Revelation 7:9).

Bridges couldn’t help but ask himself, “What are we doing to move toward our destiny and how come I’ve never heard anybody frame it that way?”

So with the backing of Potomac Presbytery and in direct response to the 2016 General Assembly’s approval of an ethnic and racial reconciliation study committee, Bridges set about creating a fund that would provide subsidies toward seminary scholarships for minorities, minority ruling and teaching elder attendance at General Assembly, salaries for churches wanting to hire minority leaders, research on minority leaders in church history, and support for minority missionaries with Mission to the World (MTW) and Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) campus staff.

“I know from my experience in the church-planting world that wherever we see minority leadership raised up, we see minority or multiethnic congregations. We see a more diverse harvest than the PCA has historically been successful at reaching,” Bridges says.

Laying Out the Welcome Mat

In 2018, the fund awarded 41 scholarships; in 2019, 67 scholarships. Recipients have included African Americans, Asians, and Latinos, and women as well as men. Nikki Ellis, a 34-year-old Black woman, received a scholarship toward a master’s in worship studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. A member of Ponce Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, she says she hopes to use her training to develop liturgical worship expressions in the African American tradition.

“The Unity Fund helped me feel like a real part of this denomination,” Ellis says. “Being raised in this church as a Black woman with something to say is a fairly singular experience that my education will develop for public work.”

Bridges says that Ellis’ sentiment is shared by most people of color who hear about the fund — that its availability communicates to minorities that they are not just welcome, but valuable to the PCA.

Shipman says that an effort such as the Unity Fund will be successful  if it’s driven by a deep conviction that a more diverse church is a fuller reflection of God’s kingdom to come. 

“It’s one thing to say ‘You’re welcome to come to our white church.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘Hey, would you pray about becoming a pastor in our church?’” he explains.

He says that when he told a Black  woman from his church about his idea for the fund, she responded, “If this works, Scott, it will take the ‘Whites Only’ sign off the front door of the PCA and lay out the welcome mat for the rest of us.”

Responding to the Perplexity

In light of current events, Bridges believes the fund is all the more relevant and necessary. And it’s something that nonminority people can contribute to that will hopefully be a practical response to what can feel like an insurmountable chasm caused by racial tension.

He says another African American teaching elder recently told him: “You’re answering people’s perplexity. They want to do something helpful and redemptive, but they’re not sure what that is. Here is a strategic means of doing something in response to what we’re seeing on TV every night.”

Shipman says that an effort such as the Unity Fund will be successful, as long as it isn’t primarily driven by white guilt and shame over past racial sins committed by churches in the denomination, but rather by a deep conviction that a more diverse church is a fuller reflection of God’s kingdom to come.

“It’s got to be a conviction, not something that’s driven by shame and fear and guilt — those things don’t really last. But if you have a conviction from the Spirit, it will last, if it’s a true biblical conviction that I want to see more diversity in our denomination and in our local churches. The Unity Fund is one step in that process.”

His greatest fear: that once the George Floyd murder fades from public view, steps forward such as the Unity Fund will be forgotten, that “the PCA will go back to ‘life as normal.’” 

To learn more visit pcamna.org/unity-fund/.

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