For Reverend Cathi King and the members of First Presbyterian Church in Tecumseh, spiritual growth often requires challenging societal norms and expectations. Their study of scripture, especially the teachings of Christ, inspires them to demonstrate their love of neighbor by working for justice.
The church is part of a national Matthew 25 Initiative launched by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA). According to presbyterianmission.org, this initiative calls...all of us to actively engage in the world around us: to act boldly and compassionately, to see our neighbors through Jesus’ eyes, and to serve those who are marginalized or in need — people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, strangers, poor or oppressed in other ways and in need of welcoming. There are three planks to the initiative based on Matthew 25, verses 35-40, according to Reverend Cathi: to build congregational vitality, eradicate systemic poverty, and dismantle structural racism.
Some of the work to be done is external, but Reverend Cathi and her congregation also focus on the internal personal changes required to make the world more loving, peaceful, and equitable for all people.
The topic of racial justice – an interest of many within the church already – became a stronger focus in April 2019, when members of the congregation took a bus trip to visit important Civil Rights locations in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, accompanied by a few Adrian Dominican Sisters. The trip was organized by Carole McConnell, who was inspired by the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.
“There was a further awakening there,” Reverend Cathi said. Participants shared the power of the trip, which included a stop at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, with the congregation after they returned.
Inspired by this trip and other community work, the church decided in July 2019, to become part of the PCUSA Matthew 25 Initiative and begin to work on the third plank, dismantling structural racism. Last fall, First Presbyterian launched the first of several book studies on racial justice to help educate members about bias and white privilege. “By the spring of 2020, the world tuned in to institutional racism and the focus of our work picked up momentum. The gospel of Jesus Christ always stands against systemic oppression and toward liberation and life.” said Reverend Cathi.
These conversations are not easy. “Discussion of racism, whether personal or systemic is uncomfortable. For most of us, it’s a new awakening about our role in the system.” said Reverend Cathi. She believes this is important for change and growth. “If we are going to dismantle structural racism we have to start with our own lives,” she said. “Everybody is on their own individual journey. Everyone’s story is unique. This requires a lot of listening. Personal stories provide opportunities to discover where and why prejudice exists in each of our lives. Discussions also provide an understanding of how systemic racism has benefitted white Americans.”
It’s been a challenge to have to hold these conversations remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Yet,” she said, “it is also a perfect time for study and learning. We are all immersed in a culture of racial bias,” she said. “There’s resistance to this conversation because it is a hard conversation. It doesn’t feel good to have it. But we encourage people to stay in the conversation, to take a deep breath. This is a lot to take in. It’s like driving on a dirt road with a lot of deep ruts. It’s not easy.”
From the internal discussions, First Presbyterian Church Tecumseh was inspired to increase community activism. New ministries have started to grow, including support for the advancement and leadership of young black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). “We are sensitive to our role in this and want to collaborate with organizations led by people of color,” Reverend Cathi said. “We are in the early stages of that. We want to partner with others within the county interested in really supporting BIPOC youth, particularly young women.”
Inspiration for this ministry started with a Care Challenge this spring within the congregation that gave $10 to each child to give away in love for someone or something. Children in two families spent their money on ministries that supported issues of racial justice, then discussed the positive outcome of the experiences with the rest of the congregation.
Another new ministry for the church reaches out to families adversely affected by national immigration policies. “There are a number of people in our county who are vulnerable because they are immersed in immigration proceedings: waiting for legal asylum or citizenship, renewing DACA status, anticipating deportation, or in need of support for remaining family members of those who have been deported,” said Reverend Cathi.
Tecumseh Presbyterian Church welcomes the community to be part of its journey to understanding and action. “This is a great time to be involved in book studies and online opportunities,” Reverend Cathi said, “We strive to create a welcoming space for people to be vulnerable and explore this together, staying grounded in the faith-based initiative. We can’t let the politicization of these issues divide or deter us.”
“The reality is, after 400 years, we are all still living with racial discrimination. So much learning and work is needed,” said Reverend Cathi. “There are a lot of ways to exempt ourselves from this conversation, and we have a responsibility not to. Why do you ever go into the middle of heartbreak? I believe that’s how we grow as followers of Jesus, working for a more just and loving world.”