How One Deep South Presbyterian Church Left Segregation Behind

Photo from Redeemer Jackson

Elbert McGowan grew up five minutes from Trinity Presbyterian Church on the north side of Jackson, Mississippi. He passed by it daily. Never once did it cross his mind that one day he’d end up the pastor in that building. In fact, he never even considered entering the door.

That’s because the church was exclusively white, and McGowan is black.

Trinity was born in 1950, one year before 13 parents in Topeka filed what would become Brown v. Board of Education and five years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her bus seat. Many leaders of what would become the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) barred blacks from membership, defended white supremacist organizations, and taught that the Bible opposed interracial marriage and supported segregation.

The past is ugly, so much so that the PCA confessed and apologized for the actions of its leaders even though the denomination wasn’t formed until nine years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Set in an all-white neighborhood in north Jackson, Trinity wasn’t exempt. But as its white neighbors left for the suburbs and black neighbors moved in, Trinity didn’t budge.

One move, one church plant, and two pastors later, McGowan doesn’t just drive past anymore. He pulls open the church doors every day. He has an office and a desk with photos of his family. He runs the meetings; his kids run down the hallways.

And every week, he preaches to a congregation that’s one-third African American. They sing songs found in both Presbyterian and African-American hymnals. The congregation does more hand-raising and clapping than a typical Presbyterian crowd, while the theology is solidly Reformed.

“What the Lord is doing in and through [this church] is nothing short of astonishing,” Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) chancellor Ligon Duncan wrote. “Only God could accomplish what has been done here.”

Changing Neighborhood

Nearly 70 years ago, Presbyterians built Trinity on the last paved road on the north side of Jackson—the address was 640 East Northside Drive. The neighborhood that sprang up around it was full of small, A-framed, wood-plank houses, tossed up one after another for returning World War II veterans. Trinity was a neighborhood church; membership peaked in 1968.

By the time McGowan was born in 1978, the white residents of Jackson were moving out. In 1960, the city was 36 percent black. Forty years later, it was about 70 percent black; by 2010, it was nearly 80 percent black.

Trinity’s neighborhood was no longer full of white veterans, and attendance was falling. But the church didn’t follow members to the suburbs. Instead, by the late 1990s, Trinity members were doing door-to-door evangelism, running a neighborhood soccer program, and tutoring children after school. They even put pastor Mike Ross’s sermons on the African-American radio channel.

“The Lord kept giving us opportunities,” said Steve Lanier, who was then Trinity’s director of outreach and missions. “In a church of about 400, about 100 of them were involved in outreach every week.”

But even though they were pulling African Americans into church for programs during the week, none came back to worship on Sunday. After years of stretching out, Trinity still didn’t have a single black member.

Then, one Sunday in 2000, Loretta McGowan—desperate for help and half by accident—walked in.

She could not have imagined how that one morning would change the direction of her family—and of the entire congregation.

Breaking the Seal

“My dad had been addicted to crack cocaine most of my childhood,” Elbert McGowan said. His addiction was devastating for his family, both emotionally and financially. Looking for “a place to belong, to be equipped to handle suffering, to be shepherded,” Loretta moved her family through several denominations.

“They were all tied to my mother wanting to be able to cope,” he said. “By the time I left for college, my dad was hitting rock bottom, and she wanted something substantive.”

And then Loretta heard Mike Ross on the radio. She’d listen to him on the hour drive to the factory where she and Elbert Sr. both worked.

She liked Ross. And she knew where his church was. And since he was on the African-American station, she figured he was black. So Loretta decided to visit.

She showed up late, and Lanier, who was ushering, had to send Loretta and her friend up to the balcony, since the seats in the main sanctuary were full.

But it doesn’t take a civil-rights activist to know that sending your only black guests up to the balcony isn’t the most sensitive move. Lanier knew it immediately—“Uh-oh. That ain’t good.”

As soon as the service was over, he raced back to the steps so he could catch them on their way down.

“I want to thank you for coming,” Lanier said.

“Uh-huh,” Loretta answered grimly.

“We don’t seat black people upstairs,” he quickly explained, with a friendly grin. “We seat late people upstairs.”

She started laughing, and so did he. The next week Loretta was back, on time and with Elbert Sr. in tow.

The Conversion of Elbert McGowan Jr.

Loretta’s son, Elbert McGowan Jr., was in college by then, and had been to church “maybe three times in five years.” A student at Alabama A&M University, he joked with his parents about their being the only black members in an all-white church. “It was so foreign,” he said. “It was unheard of.”

But one Sunday when he was home, he went with them. He was impressed with Ross’s preaching, how he stayed tethered to the biblical text.

“What warmed my heart was not only the faithful preaching, but also the holy living,” McGowan said. He knew Trinity had been working with his dad, getting him into a Christian rehab center and drug testing him at church. (Today, Elbert Sr. is a deacon at his son’s church; he also coordinates food ministry and does church’s landscaping. “He’s a new man,” McGowan said. “He’s at this church several times a week serving.”)

“I’ll never forget the pastor’s wife made me a copy of all the tapes from a sermon series he was preaching,” McGowan said. “She mailed them to me with a letter that said, ‘I’m praying for you.’”

He listened to them all.

“Finally, I ended up reading the Bible for myself,” he said. “And I became a believer in my living room in Ohio.”

Sea Changes

McGowan started attending a church in Ohio, where he was working as a mechanical engineer with GE Aviation. It was there he was discipled by several men in the church, and there he learned how to share his faith.

He was relocated to another GE Plant in Madisonville, Kentucky, and heard of a man spending his retirement years doing prison ministry. The man’s eyesight had deteriorated until he could no longer drive himself, so McGowan offered to take him.

They would spend two hours in prison every Tuesday afternoon, evangelizing and discipling. “I saw a lot of men who looked like me and had similar backgrounds,” McGowan said.

He loved the ministry, and he was good at it. Eventually, “I had [my fiancée] and my mom and Steve [Lanier] all in my ear, saying, ‘You should think about ministry.’”

“I’m thinking, I’m about to be a husband,” he said, worried about giving up the financial stability of his job. But his fiancée was game, so in July 2004, just weeks after his wedding, McGowan quit his engineering job and moved to Jackson to attend RTS.

Meanwhile, Trinity was also wrestling with its future. “We had been doing a lot of growing, and we needed to kick our building up a notch,” Lanier said. The church purchased a larger building across the “railroad tracks” of Interstate 55, eight minutes away.

The trouble was, not everybody wanted to leave.

“Some folks said, ‘We’ve invested in this neighborhood for seven years, intentionally engaging it from a Reformed theological perspective,’” Lanier remembered. “We cared about the vacuum we’d leave and what church would occupy that space, if any. After establishing relationships and love for the neighborhood, some couldn’t fathom leaving.”

So Trinity decided to plant a church in their old building (though because of presbytery rules, the Mississippi Valley Presbytery technically ended up doing the planting).

Redeemer Church was born nearly full-grown—89 people wanted to stay behind. Not surprisingly, they were the folks who had been running the soccer program, the Wednesday kids’ programs, the door-to-door outreach.

“None of the ministries we were involved in lost anything,” said Lanier, who stayed behind as an assistant to the pastor. “Those who stayed were invested in outreach to the neighborhood.”

Redeemer’s immediate neighborhood is 88 percent black; to the south, the population is 75 percent white. “We’re right in the middle of this perfect parish of all kinds of people, and a socio-economic mix,” Lanier said.

Redeemer was fiercely determined: This time around, the congregation would be multiethnic.

Bold Plan

Seeking to be a multiethnic church in Jackson was a bold plan. Black families in the city generally live in black neighborhoods, attend black schools, and worship at black churches. White families do the same in their own circles.

Other multiethnic church plants had failed, including one in the 1990s from heavyweight First Presbyterian Church, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the state.

In addition, at the time Trinity left Northside Drive, you could count its black members on two hands.

Two of them were Elbert Sr. and Loretta McGowan. Four others were Bryant and Ronjanett Taylor and their two sons. (Ronjanett now serves on the denomination’s women’s ministry team.)

The Taylors were attending an African-American Missionary Baptist church when Bryant read John Piper’s Desiring God.

“I was eating it up, and afterward I said, ‘That book was really good. I want to see if he’s written anything else,’” Taylor said. He picked up The Pleasures of God next, and read the chapter on election with his Bible open to Romans chapter 9.

“I came to embrace what I found out later were called the doctrines of grace,” he said. He wanted a church that held to the truths as well.

So he called RTS and asked if they knew of a church that “held to these truths and was also open to all of God’s people.” They told him to check out Trinity.

“It was a love for God and his Word that led us to Trinity, but the love of the people is the reason we stayed,” he said. “They were welcoming, hospitable, friendly, and inquisitive.” Trinity was so welcoming that the Taylors had to keep a schedule of all the invitations to people’s homes.

There were some culture shocks—most noticeably the music. “We grew up in African-American churches singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ very slow and melodic, before every sermon. We were like, ‘Man, we’ve been here two months and we haven’t sung ‘Amazing Grace’ yet,’” Taylor remembered.

“One day we noticed ‘Amazing Grace’ was on the bulletin, and we were excited. And then hearing the pipe organ and the pace, we knew it was not ‘Amazing Grace’ sung in the style and tempo we were familiar with. We were like, ‘Oh, never mind,’” he remembers with a chuckle.

The Taylors were giving up “legitimate comforts and preferences” to attend Trinity, but as they did, God softened their hearts and expanded their comfort levels, Taylor said. When an intentionally multiethnic church plant was proposed, the Taylors were eager to support it.

But Taylor—and Loretta McGowan—questioned the first step that brand-new Redeemer Church took in that direction.

Wanted: Black Pastor

Elbert and Karen McGowan with their two children

“We were looking at our community and said, ‘With our racial history in the PCA and the South and the nation at large, if we are serious about reaching our neighborhood, we’d better do it with an African-American pastor,’” Lanier said.

But after that announcement, the first phone call Lanier got was from Loretta. “Are you crazy?” she asked him. “We’ve got something really good here. Don’t mess it up by starting a fight.”

“Loretta, we aren’t doing something goofy,” Lanier said. “If we aren’t intentional about looking for an African American, we won’t get an African American.”

He was right: Of the approximately 3,500 teaching elders in the PCA in 2004, just 26 were black.

Twenty minutes later, Taylor called.

“Hey, I hear we’re trying to get an African-American pastor,” he said.

“Yes,” Lanier said. “We’re in a community that’s African American, and we want to be serious about that. We have a humongous history to jump over, and we can’t do that without sincerity. And we can’t get more serious than getting an African-American pastor.”

But Taylor was worried about the exclusivity of race.

“I want to be careful that we don’t fall into the sin of judging by appearance, like Israel did when they chose Saul because he was taller than everyone else,” Lanier recalls Taylor saying. The theology of the pastor is more important than the color of his skin, he said. “Why don’t we just say we’re looking for a man who can minister to all of God’s people?”

Lanier assured him that all Presbyterian teaching elders—whether black, white, pink, or purple—had to go through the same credentialing. “We’re going to look for a man of color and of character,” he said.

Reassured, Taylor hung up.

Immediately, Lanier called the church planting leaders and said, “I just found the chairman of our pastoral search committee.”

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition – Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra