Second conversation on race based on David Weaver-Zercher’s BIC History & Life article.

July 7, 2022

Access to original articles:

Zoom Video Recording:
Passcode: t%!WT3dz

Present:  David Weaver-Zercher, Lynn Thrush, David Swartz, John Yeatts, Sibonokuhle Ncube, Harriet Sider-Bicksler, and Curtis Book

Format:  We followed the same question and response format as last week.

After an opening prayer by Lynn Thrush, David Weaver-Zercher introduced the background reason for writing the article:

In April 2018, Messiah College had a 50th Anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King’s assassination.  During the celebration of King’s life, it struck David as he sat in Hostetter Chapel that a year prior to King’s death his father, John Zercher, had become the editor of the BIC Evangelical Visitor in which he wrote an editorial two time a month.  David wondered what he may have written.  When David looked at the 1968 Evangelical Visitors for things that his father may have written related to MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, he was pleased, indeed surprised at the relevancy of the editorials, feeling them to be on the more progressive side within the spectrum of white evangelical churches.   At the same time, he also sensed an undertone of frustration with other church leaders who did not share the same perspective.    This was the impetus for David’s research and writing on race within the Brethren in Christ.  Starting this project, he wondered if he would find enough material on the subject only to find that was much more material than he could use.  In his research he found that the subject of race not only intersected with BIC urban missions, like the Chicago Mission and the Brooklyn Mission, but also found that it intersected with BIC Missions in colonial Africa.   One of the recommendations coming from his research is that further study needs to be done about the race issue within the colonial mission context in Africa.

David admits that his article is critical of the Brethren in Christ,  its positions and actions taken regarding race.  Having said that, given the history and social context of the church, evangelism was an important tool in the BIC toolkit.  So, it’s not surprising that the Brethren in Christ believed evangelism to be the best way for the church to address the race issue within church and society.  He commented that the issue may be over simplified by putting people into a conversionist camp and an activist camp.  He said it’s rarely that simple.  But as a rule, these were categories which describe the church’s response to race in this period.   

John Yeatts observed that Ron Sider was very influential in helping him and many others to understand how to grapple with the issue of race.  He referenced the quote on p. 42 where Ron writes, “A true evangelical faith is concerned about social sins, not just individual sins. In fact, ‘working at a job where black Americans are excluded and doing nothing about it is just as great a sin as robbing a bank, and voting for a racist is just as sinful as sleeping with your neighbor’s wife.’”   Ron’s influence and legacy in addressing this and other issues is significant.  For example, when Ron was the director of the Philly Campus, all incoming BIC Messiah students spend a week in Philadelphia.  Seeing this quotation from Ron reminded John of this legacy and contribution that he made to the church.

David Swartz has also studied Ron Sider’s influence in his doctoral dissertation, especially focusing on his simple living and rich Christians writings.  Ron became the pioneer of the Evangelical left in which he helped to move the needle of the evangelical movement to embrace a more holistic gospel.  It was Ron’s roots in the Brethren in Christ which prepared him for that.  He grew up within this conversionist conviction that Weaver-Zercher wrote about.  He knew all about salvation as an individualistic experience, but he also brought an Anabaptist understand and conviction with its history of persecution and resisting the state in 16th Century Europe.  With this background Ron then started Evangelicals for Social Action with its progressive evangelical perspective. 

Sibonokuhle Ncube greeted us in the name of Jesus asking where we would be if it were not for the incarnation of Jesus, who came to earth, lived, died and then rose again victoriously.  We live a Good Friday faith.  She also comes, as she put it “in my chocolate brown body believing the Brethren in Christ needs to mount a holy revolution, strengthening her identity as a historic peace church.  I sense that we have a lot of earth work to do, as the quiet of the land.  Globally we have become the silent of the land, and I sense that prophetically this means we have been complicit with the empires in the world, rather than being prophets in our day.   So, I am very interested in race, though I am a guest here in America.  When I came to the States three years ago for seminary, I discovered that I am a black woman.  It’s laughable, but also very sad.  I come from a country where the default status is black, but we don’t really talk in racial terms even though there are some racial sins we need to address. Coming here and discovering that I am a black woman gave me a triple consciousness.  This is to say that black bodies who live in the majority white society in the USA have a double consciousness, as put by W EB De Boise.  This means that on the one hand, black people in this country have to understand and function in the white culture in which they live. Education and social awareness help with this.  The second is the African American culture and context, but I am not African American nor do I have the historic legacy of slavery in my past.  So, while I am black and can understand the African American experience of oppression intellectually, it’s not in my DNA as something I have experienced directly. The third is my African context as a Christian, African, Zimbabwean, woman from a minority tribe oppressed by the majority. This triple consciousness is what informs the way I understand and respond to issues of race.  Given my background as a public speaker, I have to explain my social location.  I have been in spaces where I was working with a white male pastor speaking to black, indigenous and people of color where they said to us, ‘you don’t have the experience nor can you deeply care.  Genetically, you can’t know the travail of our historic and present suffering.”  Even though this is true, what gives me confidence and hope as a minister of God’s shalom is the message itself of seeking healing, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships.  Now to the point of this forum, I have read with interest some of Weaver-Zercher’s article, I share his concern that the Brethren in Christ have not adequately addressed the issue of race relations not only here in the States, but also globally in its history of world missions.”

Harriet commented that Mary Ebersole, one of the respondents, experienced all kinds of memories when reading David’s research because her husband John, did his VS work in the Brooklyn Church.  The article helped to fill in missing pieces from his experience.  Most specifically he and the other VSers had no idea that church leaders, among other things, saw this mission in Brooklyn as a Brethren in Christ attempt to address the race issue in the States.  Now, 50 years later, John and Mary wish they had known that improving race relations what one of the intentions of the wider church.  Later, when Cecil Loney from Trinidad because pastor in Brookly, this kind of background knowledge would have been very helpful when the pastor berated the VSers from the pulpit.  David WZ added that the second pastor in the Brooklyn Church before Pastor Loney was Harold Bowers along with Cathy his wife.   They did well in terms of race relations and integration within the church and community. But when their time ended, Church leadership felt the pastor should be black, and they chose someone outside the BIC.  Unfortunately Pastor Loney had no sympathy with the Civil Rights Movement and the activist approaches they took.  This lack of an African American perspective which engaged with the community undermined the very purpose the church had envisioned, It seemed that BIC leadership believed that if a person has a good heart, that is all that was needed, but this was clearly not the case. In Brooklyn.  Harriet quoting Mary Ebersole wrote on p. 70 “The denomination seemed to believe that good hearted, committed Christians would learn cross-cultural ministry on the fly, or by the Holy Spirit’s prompting.”  Good intensions clearly did not serve the church well in this case.   

Harriet’s second and general observation about Weaver-Zerher’s article was that it was both encouraging, but also really depressing.  It seems that we have not learned from our history.  Jennifer pondering the question, about history repeating itself, picked up on the 1967 survey (p. 9), which came to the conclusion that racially integrating existing BIC congregations in predominately white towns and neighborhoods was practically impossible.  Jennifer noted that in her Project 250 work in demographics, she is hearing the same thing about integration today.   So what lessons are we learning today as the BIC US?  The demographics have changed a bit from 50 years ago, but we need to pause and ponder our history if are to chart a different path forward.

Lynn was wondering about Isaac Kanode (p. 44), the father of Pauline Piefer, and the development of his critical thinking which seemed to be in contrast to what the bishops of the day were saying.  What and who were the influential people and factors in the development of his good thinking on the issue of race? In addition to that, Lynn was impressed with the process that Brantley Gasaway represented in his article.  Quoting from p. 81 Brantley wrote “I am convinced that the Brethren in Christ Church possesses exceptional theological and practical resources for proclaiming the holistic nature of the gospel, promoting peace and reconciliation, and working for racial justice in contemporary American culture.”  Then on the bottom of p. 81 and top of 82 he writes, “Today, many conservative evangelicals continue to view social injustices as peripheral issues, at times even denouncing Christian anti-racist activists as heretical advocates of a new ‘Social Gospel.’  Thus, Brethren in Christ need to ensure that our abstract commitment to social justice—defined as an essential part of the the ‘Mission of the Church’–is taught, embraced, actualized and institutionalized within individual congregations and the denomination as a whole.”  To this end, Lynn commented, groups like the Peace and Justice Project and denominational leaders with a platform, need to use their leadership to help us move towards the goal that Brantley wrote about.  Lynn would like to see the church weave a stronger structure to help address these issues, although he said he doesn’t have a great picture of how the church can fix this whole thing. But having said that, he feels the Brethren in Christ with its synthesis of Pietism, Wesleyanism and Anabaptism has an exceptional theological postures from which to draw.

Both Weaver-Zercher and Swartz referenced the book by Jesse Curtis entitled The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era as an excellent resource.   It covers the same time period and also includes a chapter about Messiah’s Philadelphia Campus with Ron Sider in which the College was trying to address the race issue.  Another important chapter is “Growing the Homogonous Church” a movement that came out of Fuller Seminary and the church growth movement led by Donald McGaveran.   The church growth movement was important in the 1970’s and 80’s but it fostered the concept that it’s easier, and implicitly better, for churches to be from the same socio economic, ethnic group.  Growing integrated church is much too difficult, they said, so churches should not do that.  Jesse Curtis is critical of this homogenous approach which assumes racial issues are not important for the church.  It’s better for the church to be colorblind.  Added to that the homogeneous unit church growth principle became popular at the same time of the Civil Rights Movement.   How convenient; this church growth principle offered both a theological and sociological reason to reject the legitimacy of the social reality of oppression which the Civil Rights Movement was addressing.   Many churches took the bait, including the Brethren in Christ.  John Yeatts quoting Jim Wallis said, ‘The homogenous unit may be the most successful way of growing the church, but it is not the church.’  Weaver-Zercher noted Drew Hart’s experience that when he was on the pastoral staff at Harrisburg BIC, he was enamored with the ethnic diversity of the congregation, but when he went to the BIC Regional Conference and General Conference, he realized just how white the Brethren in Christ really were.  In those settings, people said to him, ‘you are welcome here,’ but he didn’t really feel like he belonged.  

One of the great challenges that Harriet brought up was that even in a church like Harrisburg BIC there is always a dominant culture.  It’s very hart to change that.  As a church, we have significant work to do in addressing this dominant culture mentality, but it’s essential that we do the hard work so that black and Hispanic people feel that they belong.  Curtis added that to bring about this kind of change at a denominational level, leadership is key, and it needs to be more than just the “action boys.” It must be owned and given a priority by denominational leaders, not just activists at the periphery of church leadership.  It’s going to take leaders who are theologically grounded, who know our history and social context, including that of racial theory.  It’s going to take people like John Zercher, Wilmer Heisey, Ron Sider and John Stoner.  It’s true that Ron and John were not in denominational leadership, but they had an important voice on denotationally recognized boards.   Today, its different because there are very few boards and committees like there used to be.  Contrast that with the Peace and Justice Project which began in 2012.  We asked the Leadership Council of the Church if we could become a denominationally recognized affiliated group, such as the Women in Ministry and BIC Historical Society.  The answer was that the Church didn’t want to undermine the unity of the ten core values by emphasizing some over others.  (The  PAJP focuses on peace, compassion, simple living and obedience or following Jesus.  We were however, encouraged to continue our work as an unaffiliated group working at the grass roots of the Church.  More recently we were happy to have Jennifer Lancaster assigned as Project 250 Coordinator.  We see this as one way for the PAJP to be officially connected with the denomination.  Related to that is the international component which Project 250 has because 2028 is not just the 250th anniversary of the BIC US and Canada, but also the BIC International. That is important to us.    

John asked if there is a way we can highlight the work of the Shalom! magazine?  Harriet has done a wonderful job with this publication in the past 40 years. Now, especially as we approach our 250th anniversary, how can we draw attention to this important work because Harriet has kept these social issues In front of us for decades.   Jennifer noted that talking with Harriet they agreed that each year one issue of Shalom! will be dedicated to one of the five Project 250 priorities.  So, this fall, the issue will be on growing the church demographically which seeks to address many of the issues that we touched on this evening.

Curtis challenged us that we yet need to reflect and talk about the future direction of that we want our Brethren in Christ Church to take.   To that end, he commented that one of the potential significant action steps is through the international community.  They are interested in these social issues because at the core they are about life.  Sibonokuhle shared, speaking as a representative of the international community, that as long as we are a gospel centered missional church, we have a lot of work in front of us.  One of the resources that would be helpful for us on the journey is the Intercultural Development Inventory.  ( )  This is a helpful tool which helps individuals and  leaders who aspire to understand cultural attitudes, seeking to transform people at an individual and  institutional level.  This is a helpful tool when addressing the root challenges behind the social issues.   Race relations as a justice issue is very broad.  One of the ways that the prophetic voice of the church can help is by providing tested tools like this to help us along the journey. One part of this tool is the Intercultural Development Indices which helps individuals and organizations identify where they fall along this continuum. So, for example, one can discover different things you can do to move up the scale towards the goal of adaptation and transformation.  In addition to that, there is an important question we need to ask.  Are we open to the truth about where we are theologically as the Brethren in Christ regarding race?   If we do not discuss this at the highest level in our theological forums, begin to fold this into our Christian education, and connect with our theological siblings for resources to help us live into the changes we aspire to make, then we will experience many challenges along the way.  But there are many tools out there which can help us on the journey.   I also think there is a work of repair that is necessary.  I am aware of many narratives back home where the people felt the missionaries were racist. Even though today there are not many missionaries among us, repair is still needed because in the historic context many missionaries worked hand in glove with the colonializing powers in a way that was damaging to the work of the gospel and to community memory.  This memory has been passed on and lives in the minds of the people today. I just want you to know that I am here with you on this journey, I will support you where I can.  May God bless you. 

Curtis specifically thanked Sibonokuhle for her very challenging words.  In her comments she picked up on a needed area of historical writing and research, also identified by Weaver-Zercher’s article and the respondents, namely, the need to study the racial bias of many Brethren in Christ missionaries In the colonial Africa context.  To that end, he recommended that this historical research of racism in the colonial African context be a dual project between two BIC people, a white person who is connected with  and knows this story, and also an African person from Zimbabwe who experienced the other side of the story  Curtis gave a personal story of having been a missionary in London, England in 1980 when Zimbabwe got its independence from the Ian Smith Rhodesia regime.  London was the place where many Zimbabwe activists fled from the Rhodesian government.  Going to England, Curtis met with and felt this criticism of BIC missionaries who were complicit with and silent during the war of independence.  Harriet echoed that feeling as she grew up in colonial Rhodesia in an apartheid system, even though it wasn’t called that.  She just accepted it as a fact of life and didn’t question it or think anything about it. Since then, she reflected a lot about how that part of her childhood affected her attitudes towards race in this country.  So, she thinks the kind of research and writing is really important.  John further commented that he supports this research proposal between a black and white person, but added that he thinks the primary part of the research should be done in Zimbabwe.  To have this study come out of Africa and from our church there, would be very powerful indeed.  David WZ added that there is a lot of material in the BIC archives at Messiah, so that is perhaps the starting place.  He added that there may be research money available through the Historical Society which can help with this project. 

Curtis closed with a word of prayer recognizing the significant contribution that David Weaver-Zercher made through his provocative study. 

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