Report of Committee on Brethren and Black Americans

1991 Annual Conference Report

WHEREAS: there are 26 million Black Americans in the United States, and fewer than 500 Black persons holding membership in the Church of the Brethren; and,

WHEREAS: twenty years after the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, there is a re-emergence of Klan-like hate groups and increases in racially motivated violence around the country; and,

WHEREAS: in recent years, legal remedies for correcting racial discrimination in employment, housing, and government contracting have been steadily reversed in the courts; and,

WHEREAS: it has been twenty-five years since the Annual Conference has made a major statement on racial justice in respect to Black Americans,

THEREFORE: we, the members of First Church, Baltimore, meeting in council on April 30, 1989, voted to petition the 1990 Annual Conference, meeting at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 3-8, 1990, through the Mid-Atlantic District Conference, meeting in Hagerstown, MD, October 6-7, 1989, to elect a committee to take the following actions:

  1. Consider the response the Church of the Brethren should make to Black Americans in urban evangelism and service ministries;
  2. Propose a reasonable and appropriate strategy which will help the Church of the Brethren attract more Black Americans to participation and membership;
  3. Determine how the Church of the Brethren will respond to public issues that significantly impact Black Americans (e.g., racism, health care, employment, education, etc.);
  4. Propose a reconciliation and/or training program to help Brethren realize that racism is sin and learn what it means to love our neighbors.

Ruth Gunn, Moderator
Doris Katzenstein, Church Clerk

Accepted by Mid-Atlantic District Board May 20, 1989. Recommend passage on to 1990 Annual Conference.

Approved by Mid-Atlantic District Conference October 7, 1989.

Action of the 1990 Annual Conference: Pat Ecker, a Standing Committee member from the Mid-Atlantic district, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that the QUERY: BRETHREN AND BLACK AMERICANS be accepted and that a study committee bring its response to the 1991 Annual Conference. The delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee and elected six persons as its study committee: Robert Allen, Sue Wagner Fields, William A. Hayes, Kreston R. Lipscomb, Duane Ramsey, and Marian Thornton.


The query, “Brethren and Black Americans,” calls the Church of the Brethren to a new sense of responsibility to confront the racist attitudes and practices that exist within our denomination and in the society as a whole. Although Annual Conference has adopted a number of statements that address the devastating effects of racial discrimination within the church and society, generally we have failed to implement those statements with aggressive programs. It is also a call for a strong ministry that focuses on evangelism and service, particularly in urban areas that often are heavily populated by black Americans.

The record of the past twenty years indicates that there has been little intentionality within the denomination in regard to ministry to or with black Americans. Strong mission initiatives have been launched overseas with people of color, but black Americans have been largely overlooked or ignored in the program and outreach of the denomination. Now is the time to take up this unfinished agenda with vigor and a strong sense of purpose.

Our committee, in assessing the present condition of life for black Americans in the Church of the Brethren, was presented with a picture that is bleak indeed:

  • The number of black persons holding membership in the Church of the Brethren is estimated to be less than 1/2 of 1%.
  • The continuing presence of racism and racist practices in our denomination does not appear to be a major concern of the membership or the leadership of our denomination. Our agenda seems to be primarily directed toward mission work in other countries, church development in areas other than urban neighborhoods, and issues of denominational/congregational survival.
  • In urban areas where there is a high concentration of black Americans, our ministry is weak and we are not attracting black Americans to the Church of the Brethren.
  • There is no comprehensive plan for recruiting and nurturing black leadership in the Church of the Brethren, and no staff assigned to those activities.
  • There are no black persons currently serving in staff positions for the Annual Conference, General Board, or in district offices; and only a few black persons serve as pastors of congregations.
  • There is only mild enthusiasm among our congregations to develop multi-racial memberships, and no major denominational or district programs designed to foster new attitudes and commitments to this goal.

These findings could be cause for despair. But our committee has confidence, that with God’s help, the Church of the Brethren can carve out a better future.

The call to action on the concerns of the query is based upon a strong biblical mandate. Beyond all sociological considerations, as members of Christ’s church we are challenged to build an inclusive household of faith, to affirm the oneness of all humanity, and to do justice in the church and promote goodwill in society.

The biblical basis for ethnic and cultural inclusiveness in the church is clear. Repeatedly the point is made in the New Testament that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female; all people are one in Christ. (Gal. 3:27-28; Eph. 2:11-14; Col. 3:9-11).

The belief that all humanity is created in the image of God has never been questioned by the Church of the Brethren. We affirm the Policy Statement on Racial Justice, adopted by the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches in 1984, that states, in part:

“As Christians hear and respond to the Gospel they confess that all people are called into the fellowship of Christ and through the Holy Spirit create such a fellowship.”1

The statement also reminds us that:

“Within this new creation of God divisions which have formerly separated human beings are destroyed, even those created by racism. All are united in fellowship and freedom by the grace of God in Jesus Christ…the grace of God allows Christians to recognize and appreciate ethnic diversity without confusing unity with sameness. Richness and diversity became the mark of the church from its earliest days…. From the moment of its birth the church has had as its mission to include all people and to unify them under the Gospel into true fellowship with God and with each other.”2

Jesus crossed barriers of race and class that separated persons in and reserved his most harsh criticism for those persons who represented a religious/social system that resulted in exploitation, oppression, and exclusion. Their attitudes and actions were a denial of the new relationships which were to characterize the realm of God. We are called to follow him in breaking down the barriers that divide the human family. (Matt. 15:21-28; Matt. 23).


I. Racism

Our committee, through prayer, study, personal interviews with General Board staff, and extensive surveying by mail, identified racism as a critical factor in our understanding of why the Church of the Brethren has not attracted more black Americans and why we have been slow in responding to their concerns.

Racism is a fact of life in the United States, penetrating most of our institutions, including churches. Racism is a term often misunderstood. Some consider it synonymous with racial prejudice or simply not “liking” persons of other races. While racism includes personal prejudice, of which all people are guilty, it goes much deeper.

In a Policy Statement on Racial Justice adopted by the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches in 1984, a precise definition of racism is given:

“Racism is personal prejudice plus power. Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. This use of power is based on a belief in superior racial origin, identity or supposed racial characteristics. Racism confers certain privileges on and defends the dominant group, which in turn sustains and perpetuates racism. Both consciously and unconsciously, racism is enforced and maintained by the legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political and military institutions of societies. Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of that attitude.”3

Because racism is built into our way of life, it is extremely difficult to unmask it and honestly face the radical changes that need to be made in ourselves and our institutions if it is to be eradicated.

Members of the Church of the Brethren face the subtle temptation of thinking that because there are not many black Americans in the denomination, or because many of us do not live in physical proximity to black people, that the problem of racism is not our concern. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of us benefit from racist practices, without being direct participants, because of decisions and policies already in place in our religious, economic, and political institutions.

The Church of the Brethren has affirmed that war is sin. It is time we acknowledged racism as sin—sin against God and against our neighbors—and mount a concerted effort to combat it. If we do not take on this struggle, there is little hope we will ever become an authentic multi-racial, multi-cultural denomination.

  1. We therefore recommend to the General Board that an anti-racism program be given high priority in its Goals for the ’90s, and that a denomination-wide educational process be developed, to help our church members, congregations, and institutions identify and challenge racist practices in the church and society.
  2. We therefore recommend that the Annual Conference Central Committee consider an Annual Conference theme on race relations and multi-racial and multi-cultural ministry that would focus our attention on this concern in worship, study, and action, and that the year following conference be devoted to follow-up activities in our congregations, districts, and communities.
  3. We therefore recommend that the General Board actively encourage all of our congregations to celebrate the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. birthday (January 15) in worship and/or community settings, and to prepare materials that would help support such efforts.

II. Ministry in Urban Areas

Black Americans are primarily an urban people. While we as a denomination still have a strong rural base, at least 15% of our congregations are located in urban areas. Our congregations which are located in cities need support, training, and resourcing, to help them meet the challenges of ministering in what to many is an alien environment. The cities are also places where because of the heavy concentration of black Americans and other people of color, we have an opportunity to build a multi-racial, multi-cultural church. If we are serious about strengthening the mission outposts we already have in urban areas and wish to reach out to black Americans, urban ministry must be given higher priority in programming and staffing.

  1. We therefore recommend to the General Board that the Urban Ministry staff position be restored to full-time status.

III. Black Ministries

As far as our committee could discern, ministry to and with black Americans is very low on the interest scale in our denomination; and we were hard pressed to identify denominational programs specifically designed to reach and serve black Americans. However, we did discover that many congregations are finding ways to render service to black Americans in their towns and cities.

There is growing interest and emphasis in the denomination on ethnic ministries, but when closely examined the focus is on groups other than black Americans. Other people of color—Hispanics, for example, and more recently, Koreans—have found advocates in the church, and responses are being made to their concerns. There are General Board staff persons (part-time) assigned to Hispanic and Korean ministries, but none to the development of ministries to and with black Americans. We urge the denomination to take a bold step in program and outreach to black Americans.

  1. We therefore recommend to the General Board that a black person be added to the General Board staff, full-time, with responsibility for black ministries, including the recruitment and nurturing of black leadership, and for black church development.

IV. Building Bridges

Carl Bowman, in his Profile of the Church of the Brethren, described our membership as 50%-59% rural by residence, and largely located in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions.4 A large number of our members are therefore out of touch with black Americans and we need to make extra efforts to develop contact and communication with them. For example, our committee thinks that our denomination would benefit from being in dialogue and perhaps joint mission with an historically black denomination, a similar approach to one we have used overseas with some success.

  1. We therefore recommend that the General Board take steps to develop a partner relationship with a black denomination in the United States of compatible theology and outlook. The aim is for mutuality in ministry, exposure to black religion and culture, and the sharing of our Brethren heritage with another group.
  2. We therefore recommend that each Brethren college establish a partner relationship with an historically black college. This relationship could result in exchanges of students and faculty and help introduce the Church of the Brethren to a wider segment of the black community. Brethren colleges are also urged to actively recruit blacks and other people of color as students and faculty.

V. Employment Practices

Our research revealed that the General Board has no black employees in the Elgin offices. That picture does not significantly improve when we look at the other institutions of our church. While Brethren are not likely to make an impact on the total employment needs of black persons in this country, the presence of qualified black persons in key positions could be of considerable benefit to the denomination. We would benefit from having someone to help us understand issues and concerns from the viewpoint of the black community and learn the strength that can come from diversity.

  1. We therefore recommend that all Brethren institutions (General Board, districts, congregations, colleges, seminary, retirement homes) vigorously practice affirmative action in employment.

VI. Theological Education

If we expect to grow toward becoming a multi-racial, multi-cultural denomination, the recruitment and training of black leadership and leadership from among other people of color becomes an absolute necessity. Coupled with that is the need to prepare Euro-American persons for effective ministry in urban areas to and with a multi-racial constituency. The Seminary has a vital role in achieving these goals.

  1. We therefore recommend that Bethany Seminary pursue a policy of intentional recruitment of black Americans and other people of color; seek qualified faculty from among black Americans and other people of color; and include the religious history and heritage of non-white persons in the curriculum.

VII. Response of Congregations to Public Issues Affecting Black Americans

The query refers to two major problems facing black Americans in our society: (1) the reversal of previous gains in the search for equal opportunity, (2) the increasing number of incidents of racially motivated violence.

Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there has been a steady erosion of the gains made by black Americans. Court decisions have slowed efforts to increase opportunities for black Americans through affirmative action programs and minority set-asides for businesses. Many black Americans feel that the Supreme Court and the federal government are no longer allies in the struggle for racial justice. Public support for racial equality and equal opportunity concerns has diminished as the attention of the nation has turned to other issues. The result is that while there is a growing black middle class population, the gap has widened between them and the black poor who are largely shut out from the fruits of the American dream.

In recent years there has been a re-emergence of Klan-like hate groups and increases in racially motivated violence around the country. The Center for Democratic Renewal documented nearly 3,000 incidents of racially motivated violence between 1980 and 1986. Their report states that “not a day has passed (during those years) without someone in the United States being victimized by hate violence.”5 This violence knows no boundaries, occurring on college campuses, city streets, and in small towns. The victims include not only black Americans, but Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Jews.

Many Brethren are seemingly unaware of the daily struggle faced by black Americans. In every urban community people face hunger, homelessness, unemployment, poor health care, and the violence spawned by the traffic in illegal drugs. If we Brethren were to address ourselves to the struggle for justice in our communities, we would often find this to be an area of common ground with black Americans, many of whom have been working for years on these problems. We all have much to learn and gain from working together on these issues.

In the light of these realities, our congregations have the opportunity to help make a difference.

  1. We therefore recommend that congregations become informed about the condition of life for black Americans and other people of color in their communities, and when inequities are discovered, make strong commitments of time and financial resources to local organizations working on these issues.
  2. We therefore recommend that congregations, where feasible, develop a partner relationship with a black congregation as a way to build friendship and understanding and to engage in joint action on issues affecting black persons in the community.
  3. We therefore recommend that congregations encourage their members to take an active part in the political process, identifying and giving support to persons and policies that foster equal opportunity and justice for all people.
  4. We therefore recommend that congregations utilize the resources of the Washington Office of the Church of the Brethren, as it gathers information and invites action on legislative issues that significantly impact the lives of black Americans.
  5. We therefore recommend that congregations stand in solidarity with black Americans and other victims of racial hate by speaking out against overt expressions of racially motivated violence and offering assistance to its victims.


The challenge of ministering to and with black Americans is a formidable assignment for our denomination. It will require bold new initiatives. It will mean re-ordering some priorities. It cannot be viewed as a short term task. If we choose to accept the challenge, we urge that the responsibility for monitoring our progress be lodged with the General Board and that regular reports be presented to the Annual Conference.

On behalf of Annual Conference, we commend this paper to the members and institutions of our denomination, not as a legislative mandate, but as the best guidance we can offer in response to the concerns of the query. It is hoped that thoughtful and prayerful consideration will be given to these suggestions at all levels of the denomination and that we may be able to move toward becoming a denomination that is more representative of the whole family of God and toward a society that is just.


Past Annual Conference Statements on Racial Issues – 1935-1989:

Although early Brethren opposed slavery, assisted in freeing some slaves and helped to establish congregations for black Americans, they were continually aware of the issues related to granting black persons membership in the church. That they were sensitive to the pressures of racial prejudice is evident in the queries that Annual Meetings received and answered. Those responses repeatedly reminded the denomination that the gospel was to be preached to all nations and races and no one could be denied membership in the church because of the color of his or her skin.

The first major statement by an Annual Conference regarding racial issues in the United States and in the Church of the Brethren was adopted in 1935. The resolution called “The Inter-Racial Problem,” urged Brethren “to condemn every form of unjust discrimination against people of other races” and to “insist upon equal justice in our civil courts and equal opportunity in our systems of education…regardless of race, culture, or social status.”6 Annual Conferences continued to address the problems of racism in subsequent years, with the most forceful statement coming in 1963. That paper, “The Time Is Now to Heal Our Racial Brokenness,” was a response to the growing racial crisis in the United States that eventually exploded with violence following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. It was an urgent appeal for Brethren to become directly involved in a mission that would be both courageous and costly: “to heal every broken race relationship and every segregated institution in our society—every church, every public accommodation, every place of employment, every neighborhood, and every school. Our goal must be nothing less than an integrated church in an integrated community.”7

The most recent statement considered by Annual Conference was adopted in 1989. The paper, “Inclusion of Ethnics in the Church of the Brethren,” is an eloquent presentation of the Christian imperative for an inclusive church, while also identifying those characteristics inherent in our tradition and polity that inhibit the inclusion of ethnics at every level of our denomination. The recommendations offered in that report are precise, reasonable, and should be given priority consideration for the 1990s.

Unfortunately, the history of our response to Annual Conference statements on racial issues reveals that the statements often are not carefully monitored to see if recommendations are implemented through appropriate action by congregations, other official bodies of the denomination, or agencies related to the denomination. John William Lowe observed that in adopting the 1935 resolution on “The Inter-Racial Problem,” the “Annual Conference had noble ideals, but no plans to make the ideals real.8 While this does not necessarily describe the present situation in the Church of the Brethren, it clearly points to an ever present danger.

The longest step is the one that leads from statement to action, from word to deed. Let us begin!

Recommended Reading:

Matthias, Dody S. Working For Life: Dismantling Racism. Harrisburg, Pa.: Huperetai.
Cole, James, Filtering People: Understanding our Prejudices. Philadelphia, Pa.: New Society Publishers, 1990.
Gwaltney, John L. Drysolong, A Self Portrait of Black America. New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1981.
National Council of Churches, Policy statement on Racial Justice. New York, N.Y.: National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A, 1984.
Sojourners Magazine. America’s Original Sin: A Study Guide on White Racism. Washington, D.C., 1988.
Wells, Lyn & Williams, Randall, eds. When Hate Groups Come to Town: A Handbook of Model Community Responses. Atlanta, Ga.: Center For Democratic Renewal.
Zeskind, Leonard, The Christian Identity Movement: Analyzing Its Theological Rationalization for Racist and Anti-Semitic Violence. New York, N.Y.: National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.


  1. National Council of Churches, Policy Statement on Racial Justice (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1984), 1
  2. Ibid., 2-3
  3. Ibid., 4
  4. Bowman, Carl, “An Elderly Denomination,” MESSENGER, January 1986 (Brethren Press), 19
  5. Center for Democratic Renewal, They Don’t All Wear Sheets: A Chronology of Racist and Far Right Violence – 1980-1986 (New York: Division for Church and Society of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1987)
  6. Minutes of the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, 1935 The Inter-Racial Problem (Elgin, Ill., 1935)
  7. Minutes of the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, The Time Is Now to Heal Our Racial Brokenness (Elgin, Ill., 1963) 293
  8. Lowe, John William, Jr., The Racial Attitudes of the Church of the Brethren, 1708-1970 (Oak Brook, Illinois, unpublished thesis, Bethany Theological Seminary, 1970) 119

William A. Hayes, Chair
Robert Allen, Jr.
Sue Wagner Fields
Kreston R. Lipscomb
Marian Thornton
Duane H. Ramsey

Committee’s expenses related to travel, lodging, and meals from September 1990 to August 1, 1991       $5,370.00

Action of the 1991 Annual Conference: The report from the Annual Conference study committee on BRETHREN AND BLACK AMERICANS was presented by William A. Hayes, chair. The report was adopted with one (1) amendment by the delegate body, which has been incorporated in the wording of the preceding text.