I consider myself privileged that I was able to attend and participate in the 44th General Assembly in Mobile, Alabama. There’s much that happened there that I am grateful for. I’m thankful for Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan bringing the civil rights resolution last year that provided the impetus for this year’s overture.
I am thankful particularly for my Anglo brothers from all across the denomination and country who advocated for overtures like the one we finally passed, Overture 43. The message that sent to me is, “I see you.” That means that my brothers who I stand in solidarity with as ministers of the Gospel and shepherds of God’s people — saw, acknowledged, affirmed, lamented, struggled with, and cried over what it means for me to be in this denomination as an African-American man.
Overture 43 demonstrates that we are real, not trying to cover up sins of the past or present, but owning them and seeking to grow from them.
I believe this is the message that also is communicated to the black members of our churches now, and those who will be in the future. The overture gives voice to things that many of us felt would never be admitted to — the overture helps to build trust that these things which have wounded our hearts will not be dismissed and swept aside.
I was also very thankful for the incredible work of the Overtures Committee this year in bringing all the 40+ overtures together into a strong unified one that captured the essence of them all. And I must tell you that, as an African-American man, I was proud personally of seeing the chairman of the committee be Irwyn Ince, another African-American brother. He was not there as a “token” or “affirmative-action” placement — he was there because he is a gifted, bold, intelligent, Christ-loving leader, and he did a terrific job leading the committee as well as guiding the passage of the overtures on the floor our last night together at GA.
I think the passing of Overture 43, and the fruit that will come of it, will be a help in recruiting African-American pastors into our denomination. It demonstrates to them that we are real, not trying to cover up sins of the past or present, but owning them and seeking to grow from them. I think it also helps the African-American pastors who are already here in showing the African-American community that we are not “sell-outs” who have turned our back on our own rich heritage in the African-American church.
For me personally, when I first became a part of a PCA church in the early ’90s, I didn’t know any of the history or much about the PCA for that matter. I was drawn to a particular urban church in Baltimore, and I loved its theology and biblical preaching – with its concern for issues of reconciliation and justice – and it turned out that the church was a PCA congregation. I only later learned about the makeup of the PCA outside that church and began to learn about the history.
So for me, the PCA’s history wasn’t a barrier to me coming in, but it was something that caused me to think about whether or not to stay once I started learning. While I am certainly thankful to God for the passing of Overture 43, that’s not the reason I remain committed to the PCA. I stay out of a sense of call by God. I think that sentiment is shared by most other African-American teaching elders. The vast majority of us, if not all of us, are first-generation PCA members — we didn’t grow up in PCA churches. God brought us here from other places “for such a time as this,” both for what we can learn and how the Lord might use us here.
Overture 43 sends a message to my 15-year-old son Joshua, that the PCA can be a place not just for his dad, but also for him.
One thing I’ll note is what I’ve noticed in coming back home from GA: that even with the tremendous work the Lord did among us, in us, and through us, we still operate in two different worlds when it comes to race and class.
As I write this week, our country is in the midst of heartbreaking turmoil over the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, and the deaths of five police officers in an attack in Dallas. Even though we PCA members and pastors left Mobile in great solidarity, we were quickly reminded that our experience of the world is very different.
A couple of weeks ago, when I was pulled over by a police officer for rolling through a stop sign, my first instinct, as usual, was to pull out my license and registration, put them on the dash, and put my hands up on the steering wheel so the officer could clearly see them. I did this because I did not want to be shot. I advise my 19-year-old son to do the same thing if he is ever pulled over. Are we paranoid? Maybe so. But that’s the reality of being an African-American male in America, regardless of where I went to seminary, what my call is, or how many people I’ve served in ministry. But the work we did in Mobile gives me hope that we don’t have to navigate in these different worlds alone anymore — there are brothers and sisters in my denomination who care and will walk with us.
One final joy I’ll mention from GA is that one of my sons, 15-year-old Joshua, was there with me on the floor that last night. He got to witness what happened in the worship service, the passing of overtures, and the warm greetings I received from Anglo brothers from all over the country when the evening ended. The message that sent to Joshua is that the PCA can be a place not just for his dad, but also for him.
Thurman Williams is the associate pastor of Grace and Peace Fellowship in St. Louis. He preached at the Thursday evening worship service during the 44th General Assembly.