The hosts of Between the Pew recorded a special episode exploring the question “Why do we stay?” The question itself is more complex than it seems, and, within the denomination, there may be as many answers as Black attendees. The AAM team spent time discussing their own answers.
To Howard Brown, when a white person within the PCA asks “Why do you stay,” it triggers something in him. To him, the subtext in that context is along the lines of “If you protest what’s going on in this country, then maybe you should go back to where you came from.” Behind this question, he hears “You should feel privileged to be here. Be thankful and grateful, Negro, for being in such a great denomination.” The stinging implication is “Don’t cause issues for people who have the privilege of being more right than you newly arrived Black folk.” But as an ordained teaching elder who’s been in the denomination half of its existence, Howard believes the Lord has so much more he would love to bless this denomination with “if people would just trust that we have the best interest of the Lord in mind.”
When Black people ask, it depends on whether they’re in the denomination or not. If they are, he assumes they’re asking because something he’s said makes them feel uncomfortable. With them, it also feels like a veiled request not to mess up a good thing, like, “I feel happy to be here” or “Don’t rock the boat.” Howard sometimes finds it hard being in this position and is troubled by others so easily interpreting one Black person saying something as every Black person saying it.
When he gets this question from a Black person outside the denomination, it feels like, “Why haven’t you escaped the plantation? Why are you taking such abuse?” These people seem to genuinely want to know how it’s good for Black people to be a part of something where they’re suffering in these ways. Even though his answers may be the same, the question from each of these groups feels different.
Kellie Brown agreed that coming from white people, this question sounds just one step away from “Go back to your country.” But then she’s had other conversations with white people where they see how hard it is and they hate it for us. From them, this question means, “God have mercy.”
Trusting the Questioner
Charles McKnight added that perhaps more important than those other categories is the nature of his relationship with the person asking and the context in which they’re asking that question.
Sometimes it’s from people he’s known long enough to know there’s an angle and it’s not a positive one. It doesn’t feel good when he feels like God has told him to co-labor with someone, but they look at him like, “Why you in my house?” But recently, he’s experienced more of the other side where he has white brothers and sisters ask out of genuine concern, “Look, I can barely make it. So how in the world are you still doing it?”
One particular sister – a counselor who used to be in the PCA – explained to him that Black people are experiencing all kinds of trauma simply by existing in their skin in this space. That made him pause. Charles said. “Sometimes it’s like, “Dang, yo, I’m glad you asked.”
Similarly, Alex Shipman also receives the question differently depending on his relationship with the person asking. “I only have certain conversations with certain people. I’m not going to trust you with deep parts of my soul when I have no idea your angle. You have to have a certain type of relationship with me to ask me certain questions. And that’s one of those questions.” A good relationship allows him to engage on those deep levels because he knows it’s coming from a place of love and care. His current presbytery has been his support and, even though it’s still lonely and can be hard, knowing he has white brothers who understand him and walk with him has made his journey a little easier.
Kellie’s short answer is always “Because God wants me here” which she doesn’t say that to be holier than thou. Instead, it’s her way of saying, “Back off, bro, you ain’t got nothing to do with why I’m here. I’m here because the Lord has ordained that. And I’m submitting to his will.” When people are sincere, she opens up more. Sometimes, however, when she’s been really honest, she has leveled people with her response so she never really knows how the truth will be received. Her greatest fear is that someone will weaponize her words against her or keep others at bay.
What particularly triggers Kellie is when her brothers say they’re glad she’s he’s here because it’s generally followed by “We need you.” Yet she has never felt needed. Accepted, yes. But never needed. Jenell also feels uncomfortable when she hears “I’m glad you’re here” at an event where she is the only Black person. She immediately wonders if it’s because she’s the only Black person there. While she knows it’s possible they say that to every single person walking through the door, it still gives her pause.
Howard feels strongly he’s not called to say what the PCA wants him to say. “I’m ordained in the PCA to save it. I’m not called to try to make the PCA look good in ways it isn’t. One vow I and members take is for the peace and purity of the church.” To him, that means speaking into the life of believers in the PCA and playing a role together in shaping the denomination.
When groups of people lack peace and churches lack purity, his vows compel him to say something. Howard explained, “The real issue is that people have idolized the institution they’ve built and, in a way, the institution has become more important than what God has called us to say.” He speaks the truth because it’s what he’s been called to.
Kellie also recognizes God’s hand in her continued involvement in the denomination. “God’s called me to this and I cannot escape it,” she explained. God gave her a vision for an indigenous reform movement in the African-American community back in 1984. In the beginning, having just come from the Black church, she felt seduced by whiteness. She had just come from a Black Baptist church where she’d seen a lot of foolishness and coverups as a teenager. She was dismayed by the Black church and the white church filled that vacuum. “This is it,” she thought. “This is the right thing. Families are together. You have no crazy Black pastor just coming up with foolishness but ‘Can’t nobody touch God’s anointed.’” She was traumatized in some ways by her Black church experience. Twenty-some years later and she’s still in the PCA.
Alex, who researches the history of African-Americans and Presbyterianism, shared that his first response also goes back to his calling. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel called. I’ve built relationships and feel an obligation to mentor and help shepherd young African-American men and women coming into the denomination. I’ve done my research on the history of African-American Presbyterianism, so I don’t apologize for being here.”
His research has led him to see himself as standing on the shoulders of those who’ve gone before. “I can faithfully serve God in this denomination because of the shoulders I’m standing on. If they did it, then God will give me what I need so I can do it and flourish, too. Looking into the history has really helped me.” When those he’s not close with ask why he stays, he gives them a history lesson and educates them on the Black fathers and Black mothers who are Presbyterian who no one had ever taught them about.
The history of Black brothers and sisters in the PCA goes back further than one might think. “We have a right to be here. This is our denomination. We’re Presbyterian. It’s going to look different because we’re Black and have a different flavor, but this is where I want to be.”
When asked, Charles likes to add now that he’s here because of the other Black brothers and sisters here. He desires to use his gifts and his experience in the denomination to help them navigate this space to God’s glory. “I got a bunch of brothers and sisters here – Black brothers and sisters – and I don’t want to leave them.” He explained. They are not just his community, but his family. He continued, “We’re small in number but, man, we’re family. Regardless of whatever craziness might be going on, there’s a deep-rooted soul-level sense of family created when you’re all going through it. I don’t want to leave them.”
Kellie also feels a similar connection to the PCA but likens her worst days in the denomination to an abusive marriage where the PCA is like the abusive husband who keeps hitting her, her siblings, and kids when nobody can see it, but then tells them to suck it up and smile and publically say how great they are. She’s wondered how long she can stay in this kind of relationship..
But then, like Charles, she feels like the PCA is her family. “I can’t leave my family, even though I’m getting beat up,” she said. “How can I leave all my cousins and my nieces and nephews and sisters and brothers to keep getting beat up?” Kellie is unsure if she will ever be seen and treated in her full humanity, let alone the dignity God has given her. But leaving the PCA means leaving her people too.
Even with her share of bad days, at the end of the day, Kellie is Reformed. “I believe this stuff. If the PCA is my father, the Black church is my mother. I’m Reformed and I can’t help it. ”
Charles’ answer is also because he’s Reformed. A motto of the Reformation is “Reformed and Always Reforming.” He said, “There are some dark angles and corners of this denomination and either y’all don’t see it or y’all ignore it.” But he is dedicated to taking a Reformed approach to the Reformed tradition. Being truly Reformed means calling out what God does and doesn’t like and pointing out what work still needs to be done. Charles added, “I believe we ain’t even really started in some aspects in our tradition.” The Lord has allowed him to see things it seems others don’t and has given him a microphone, literally and figuratively, to actually say something about it for the purity of the church.