A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Memorial Mandate
February 13, 2020
In Hebrew Scriptures, God’s people are commanded to erect memorials to help them remember God’s saving acts in very specific times and places. One of the most well-known is Samuel’s memorial stone to God’s deliverance, a stone he called “Ebenezer,” signifying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12) Across the ages God’s people have set memorials – whether physical monuments or specially-marked days – to assure they don’t forget their heritage of God’s saving work.
One such memorial has been put in place across our society, which has set aside February as “Black History Month.” While not specifically a faith-based memorial, Christians should be in the forefront of its observance, given all the ways the Christian community has been blessed and strengthened by its African American members. The commitment of white and black Christians alike to honor this memorial is a concrete demonstration of our conviction that in Christ the walls of hostility that separate races from each other are forever abolished. (Ephesians 2:13-16 )
By mandate of the Pittsburgh Presbytery Manual, “Black History Month shall be celebrated annually at the stated meeting of Presbytery in February.” Some mandates merely bind us, while others also bless us. This is surely one of the latter.
I am personally blessed by participating in some great Gospel music in the African American tradition at February’s presbytery meeting. I spent a few years playing piano for an African American Pentecostal congregation (which helps explain why I play the way I do!). This music always nourishes my soul, and I am so grateful that our Presbytery Manual assures that I will be granted such a blessing at least once each year.
We all are blessed to hear the stories and the preaching that emanate from our African American church heritage. That heritage has always stirred up the church to stay true to its calling as a champion of both justice and evangelism. It has drawn us back time and again to remember that they are inseparable in the Gospel. Without its abiding witness among us, we would be far more easily divided between “justice-Christians” and “evangelism-Christians.”
While I count our Manual mandate to celebrate Black History month a blessing, it also troubles me that we need a mandate to make sure we do so.
The positive side of making this a mandate is that it demonstrates a commitment that runs deep enough in our DNA that we know we must ever cultivate it. We celebrate Black History Month because we believe that knowing and honoring our African American heritage is critically important to our identity as God’s people.
Making this a mandate is also an act of confession. We confess that we need a mandate to assure that we continue something so vitally important, because without so binding ourselves we may let this commitment slide.
We make promises to express our deepest values, and we make promises to assure that we don’t abandon them. Today’s presbytery meeting will continue to keep faith with our promise to observe Black History month when we gather in February. We meet today at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary at 1 p.m., and I urge all who are able to come and join us in celebrating our African American heritage with an inspirational worship service. Our local Black Caucus is extending this celebration of our African American church heritage with a special gathering at Bethesda United Presbyterian Church in Homewood on Saturday, February 22, 1 p.m. – 4 p.m., with guest speaker the Rev. Dr. Warren Lesane, Executive and Stated Clerk of the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic. Everyone is warmly invited to that event as well.
What promises does your congregation make to assure that it doesn’t forget to honor and nourish our African American heritage?
Keeping the faith,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister