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Why We Must Have the Difficult Conversation About Our Past

We were naming a room in our church building.

We already had a room named after the long-term pastor of the church, who led the congregation during what was seen by the long-tenured members as the heyday of the church.

Our choosing of a name had come to the point where we were divided into three groups.

One group wanted to name the room “Founders Hall.” We had a plaque at the back of the sanctuary memorializing the two wealthy men who gave the land and the money to build the church in 1866; $40,000 was a lot of money then.

A second group wanted to name it the “Community Room.”

And a third group did not understand why it was so important what we named it or even why it had to have a name at all; I was in this third group.

People were civil and respectful as they spoke, but there was great emotional energy in the room. I sensed something deeper than a name was at stake here.

For most of the church’s first century, the congregation had been all white. As civil rights legislation began to pass and African-Americans began to have access to jobs for which they were qualified but had been denied, they started moving into northwest Philadelphia.

As the composition of the community changed, so did the church. The first person of color joined in 1964. When I arrived in the early ’90s, the church was overwhelmingly African-American.

As the discussion went on in that business meeting, it dawned on me what was at stake: The church was struggling with its past.

When the church was founded and those generous men gave that land and money, the majority of the people in the room that day would not have been welcome in the pews.

As a young, inexperienced pastor still learning my church and ministry, I did not that day share my insight.

I was unsure whether the people in the room could endure intact such a candid conversation that would feel like an indictment of our storied founders.

Looking back now with more history among them, I suspect we would have been all right. It would have been a difficult but good conversation for us to have.

History is like that; it can be a difficult but cleansing conversation.

To have judged those founders by our practices and sensibilities would have been unfair and would have bred a sense of self-satisfaction in us that would have stymied our further spiritual growth.

We are all a product of our times. Our mental and moral horizons are limited, for most of us, by the breadth of vision of our contemporaries.

It is humbling to think about how those who follow us in a century will evaluate our choices and norms.

Recently, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, confessed the school’s role in propagating and seeking to preserve slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and white supremacy.

Communities are struggling with how they should memorialize and interpret the War Between the States, a war in defense of human slavery.

Some have catalogued how housing discrimination shaped the present-day character of the city of Chicago (Isabel Wilkerson, “The Warmth of Other Sons – The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”) and other northern cities.

Others have catalogued the role of slavery and racism in building the industrial base of the entire country (Edward E. Baptist, “The Half Has Never Been Told – Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”).

These are difficult but healthy conversations. Sometimes, to enter well into the future, we need to own our past.

The Hebrews are cautioned before entering into the promise land:

“Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place” (Deuteronomy 9:6-7).

We are stronger communities when we speak honestly and clearly and, yes, with humility, about how we have arrived where we are, both the commendable and the regrettable legs of our journey.

To have difficult conversations about our shared past is an act of confidence in the strength of our present communities, conversations that can open to us a better future.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Kelsey’s blog, “I’m Just Saying.” It is used with permission.

Jim Kelsey

Jim Kelsey is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State.