(By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, The Gospel Coalition). 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.”
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.
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Indeed, the Presbyterian Church in America has taken another major step forward toward racial reconciliation, in electing its first non-white Moderator of this year’s General Assembly.