I would buy the scotch and Marj would tell stories.
The quote above was shared yesterday by a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA who will remain nameless for their own privacy, upon hearing that Marj Carpenter had died. Marj hailed from Big Spring, Texas which sounds like the kind of place a great storyteller would come from.
She wrote down her stories and she orally shared them through the years and I especially remember both reading and hearing this one:
In 1864, the states were at war with each other. It was an ugly time and even the Presbyterian Church was divided in two:
- The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America
- The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
In spite of the war, each branch of the Church met for their annual General Assembly – the CSA Presbyterians in Charlotte, North Carolina and the USA Presbyterians in Newark, New Jersey.
While ministers and elders were deliberating on church policy, homes were being burned and church buildings were being sacked. Presbyterians from both the north and the south were killing each other and enslaved Presbyterians were considered less than human by the very church people who had taught them to read the Bible.
Lord have mercy.
If there were ever excuses NOT to care for “other people” it was 1864. The blood and treasure of a broken nation was being devoted to a brutal war that would take the lives of 618,222 human souls – 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South.
Important point to remember: This death toll doesn’t count the tens of thousands of men, women and children who died as a result of being treated as human chattel in this country from the time enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 to that point.
So here’s the interesting thing:
During that General Assembly in Charlotte, the commissioners voted to send an additional missionary to Brazil. In spite of the war, in spite of financial hardship, they realized that God was calling them to reach out to the people of Brazil. Nobody said, “This is not the time.”
During the General Assembly in Newark, the commissioners voted to send three missionaries to Cameroon. In spite of the war, in spite of financial hardship, they realized that God was calling them to reach out to the people of Cameroon. Nobody said, “This is not the time.”
Important point to remember: There were enslaved people in the South whose ancestors had hailed from Cameroon and other parts of West Africa. I don’t know if the Northern Presbyterians were trying to offer some kind of twisted reparations to the West African cousins in the South by serving their kinfolk back home, but – again – Lord, have mercy.
So, here’s my point:
We are living in divided times at this very moment. There is enormous work to do in the now “united” Presbyterian denomination and beyond. There are reparations to be made. There is lamentation to be expressed. I would suggest that my White siblings and I schedule a rending of garments.
We are living in pandemic times with over 118,000 dead in this country and another countless number of People of Color killed since the end of the Civil War by lynchings – both ancient and as recently as last week. Our world is on fire both literally and figuratively.
And lots of people in the Church are saying that this is not the time.
- This is not the time to build affordable housing.
- This is not the time to provide internet access to poor communities.
- This is not the time to grapple with the needs of refugees and immigrants.
- This is not the time to feed hungry people.
- This is not the time to provide job training.
- This is not the time to reach out to our transgender neighbors.
- This is not the time to address domestic violence.
- This is not the time to talk about racial justice.
For the love of all that’s holy, this is the perfect time to do what God is calling and has always called us to do. If there was ever a time, this is it.
This. Is. The. Time. To. Be. The. Church.
Marj Carpenter visited both Brazil and Cameroon and met the leaders who were bringing Good News to the Poor and Relief to the Captives because of the Church’s efforts in 1864. She cried when I heard her tell those stories.
The Church has made massive mistakes out in the mission field from offering toxic charity to perpetuating colonialism. And we are still making up for that – and for so many sins of our past.
But this is the time to do better. This is the time to take risks for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus. At the risk of sounding self-serving, the next time someone in your congregation says, “This is not the time” feel free to hand them a copy of this post.
It is always the time to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. This is that time.
Image of Marj Carpenter who died at the age of 93 on Saturday, June 13, 2020. We give God thanks for a well-lived life. She was the Moderator of the 207th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The 244th General Assembly begins this Friday “in Baltimore” (i.e. virtually in our homes.)