Discussion of David Weaver-Zercher’s Article: The BIC and Civil Rights, 1950 to 1965

June 30, 2022

Archived Zoom Recording: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1tL95oTbw_rU007G0zzrrFdfU0yU_pGnq/view?usp+drivesdk

Access to original articles: https://www.granthamchurch.org/peace-social-justice

Present: David Weaver-Zercher, Lynn Thrush, Jennifer Lancaster, Brantley Gasaway, Curtis Book, and Julie Weatherford

Questions discussed:

1. Is there a quotation from the article that was particularly insightful, helping you to understand the Brethren in Christ history of race?  (Be ready to point the group to the passage and why it was insightful.)  

2. Is there a quote or part in our BIC history on race that raised a question or challenged you?

3. How should we as members of the Brethren in Christ respond to our history at both a personal level and also a denominational, structural level?

Back story from DWZ about the writing of his article:

In April 2018 Messiah College had a commemoration day to remember the 50th Anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr life and his legacy.  Shortly before King’s assination , David’s father, John Zercher, had become the editor of the Evangelical Visitor.  David was interested to see what his father may have written regarding that historic event.  David was happy to see what he wrote, but also noted some frustration with how the BIC had engaged in the Civil Rights Movement up to that point.  David then became curious about that history and with encouragement from Devin Mazulo-Thomas, decided that the history of the BIC not only with the Civil Rights Movement but also race was something that needed to be investigated and written about.  That was the impetus for this project.  In his research and writing David eventually came to the conclusion that within the BIC there were two camps: those that believed the gospel compelled Christians to engage in social issues, such as race, and those who believed that these issues were not a critical component that Christians should engage in.

Regarding the first question, Curtis picked up on the thesis statement on p. 329 with said, “…some Brethren in Christ leaders believed that the development of conversion oriented urban missions, targeted specifically at blacks, was the best way to solve America’s race problem.” The question for him was the source of this belief, because from his personal experience at Fellowship Chapel in the 1970’s, addressing the race issue, was not part of the church’s DNA but rather the power of the gospel to transform lives.   David noted however, that a key impetus for the BIC beginning urban ministry in the 1950’s and 60’s came from the NAE, which believed that urban missions was a key way to solve America’s race problem.  This motivation was particularly influential in the starting of Pilgrim Chapel in Brooklyn. 

Talking further about the flawed assumption that preaching a strong message of salvation will address the race problem has been shown to be false in American history.  The American south in the 1950s had the largest percentage of white evangelical Christians, but the south was not the seedbed of racial justice. In fact, it was the opposite.  Most of MLK white support base did not come from the south, but the north.  This brought up the question about what conversion really means?  Also, what is the responsibility of the church in society?  Is it evangelism alone, or do we also have a mandate to address social issues such as racism?  The consensus was that personal salvation alone, will not by itself address racism in society or any other social sin. 

Another observation that was made was the following; the BIC were never on the forefront of addressing social action.  That said, the General Conference statements on race in 1963 and 1964 were encouraging steps.   The 63 declaration was a position statement against racism, and the 64 statement while supporting the previous anti-racist sentiment, went on to criticize social activism such as marches, boycotts and sit-ins used by Civil Rights activists. The question for discussion was the impact of those two statements both at an individual and denominational level.  The response was that while General Conference topics were discussed and talked about, the impact that these articles had in the church was little. That said, there were some activists in the church at that time, most specifically Ron Sider and John Stoner.  They had influence and many people were listening to them.  But overall, the impact of addressing social justice as an integral part of the gospel had little impact for the average Brethren in Christ person.  David quoted Eber Dourte, who said,  “I never realized that my congregation and I might be part of the problem.”  Most congregations didn’t feel that denominational resources should be invested in that area.   In other words, it was easier to raise money for missions in Africa than resources for social justice in one’s neighborhoods and cities in the United States. The mission of the church was not politics, nor reforming structures, it was evangelism and a narrow understanding of discipleship. This goes along with a separatist understanding of the Anabaptist church that we are not to engage in politics or reforming structure.  David recognized that his criticism of the church is harsh.  He noted that their context in the 1940 and 1950, when they looked at the world around them with all its civil unrest, that the BIC used what they had in their tool kit.   Evangelism.  That is what they went with when addressing the social issues of their time.   At the same time, the BIC were influenced by the NAE.  We already talked about that influence which encouraged them to break the racial divide by starting  urban missions through cross cultural evangelism.  At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the NAE was a conservative evangelical organization that was cautious about Civil Rights activism.  Both factors affected the Brethren in Christ.  In addition to that, theologically the NAE was dispensational and as a result did not have a theology of present-day obedience or activism, rather, it focused on the future coming kingdom of heaven.  There wasn’t a theological framework for “thy kingdom come; they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

At the same time, we need to recognize that social change in the United States in the 40s, 50s and 60s was a very slow process.  The Brethren in Christ with our rural and separatist Anabaptist background, was not on the cutting edge of social change.  Today, the Brethren in Christ may be more aware of the issues of racism in our society and be in a better place to address it.  That said, in other areas such as nationalism and economic injustice, our children may judge us as being too slow and ineffective. 

Another point was brought out, and this not just with the Brethren in Christ but across denominations.   It is hard to recognize the difference between the elite and popular views on social issues such as race.  Official statements issued by denominational leaders are good but what impact does they have with people in the pews.   This is hard to measure, but in many ways action at the grass roots is where we begin to have societal impact.  In other words, how do we really make a difference?  A fertile ground for making a difference may occur when there is a cogent proximity of influential people addressing an issue and good communication.  For example, in the 1970’s when people like Perry Engle went to Messiah’s Philadelphia Campus and had exposure to Ron Sider.  That influenced his whole life and ministry.  But to have change, it’s not just influential people, they also need to be in a structural position where they can effect change.  Two examples: John Zercher, as the former Evangelical Visitor editor, is someone who had both influence and a structure to effect change.  Hank Johnson, pastor of Harrisburg BIC has a lot of influence at a congregational level regarding the issue of  race, but he doesn’t have the same influence at a denominational level.  It was noted that Jennifer Lancaster as the denominational coordinator of Project 250 is in a position where that kind of influence may happen, but it takes time.  The role and influence of the Peace and Justice Project was also noted.  Yes, it’s a grass roots denominational organization without an official structure, but its relational influence which helps to keep social issues in front of the church leaders is important.  Another group that we need to be aware of is the advisory team of the Leader Council.  The team is made up a good mixture of women and people of color. It not only addresses issues coming out of the LC but also Project 250.  This will be important going forward because 2028 is the 250th Anniversary of the Brethren in Christ, not just here in the USA, but around the world.  As such Project 250 plans to bring these international voices to the table, and this includes the cultural and social context of our international churches.  One of the comments that Bishop Lynn made is that he would like to see a stronger International BIC Association giving the international body a structural role within the Church to help all of us address some of the social inequities of our time.

One of the challenges that David brought up is that it is very hard for denominations that are historically white to make a change towards radical integration.  So, for example, in predominately white congregations, talking about race is a hard conversation,  often avoided.  On the other hand, in an integrated congregation like Harrisburg BIC, silence about racism is not an option.  The context demands that you address it.    One example of racial change within a historically white church is the Evangelical Covenant Church associated with North Park Seminar and Dennis Edwards.  They made a significant move towards denominational integration in the 1960’s, 70s, and 80s.  Today they are able to have those difficult conversations about racism and what their church can do to address it.  The ECC is a possible resource for the BIC if we want to hear from a church that has walked this path. 

In terms of congregational resources which help churches navigate difficult conversations is MCC’s 2021 education resource called Peaceful Practices.  Recently MCC uploaded on its website a resources which not only helps churches talk about racism and but also critical race theory. As a curriculum, Peaceful Practices includes action ideas for one’s local church and advocacy like talking to one’s state and federal representatives.  Let’s keep this resource in mind as we try to engage in this conversation. Bishop Lynn also mentioned that this fall the Great Lakes will be going through Peaceful Practices as a Conference. Julie Weatherford said that at her Riverside Congregation (California) they dedicate one Sunday each month during the education hour to go through Peaceful Practices. So far, it’s been really good.   

We were reminded that theologically we need to remember that all this connects to our biblical understanding of Jesus and the kingdom of God as a central component of our faith.  It’s not peripheral behavior for Christian social activists.  Today, it’s easy for Christianity to be siloed, limited to living out faith in ones limited circles.  Rather we must grow, learning and engaging with those who challenge us.   

This concludes our conversation from Part 1 of David Weaver-Zercher’s article Sympathy and Disfavor: The Brethren in Christ and Civil Rights, 1950 – 1965. Next week, we will continue our discussion on Part 2: Words Empty and Hollow? The Brethren in Christ and the Challenge of Race, 1967-1975 along with the four responses to his articles. 

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