Judith M. Dinsmore
On the weekend of February 1–2, Covenant OPC in St. Augustine, Florida, hosted Building Bridges Instead of Barriers: Reforming Race Relationships in the Church. Tarence Dickerson, an elder at Covenant, was the impetus behind the conference. “I was hoping and praying for a more common voice to weigh in on this conversation,” he said.
Instead of there being a common voice, Dickerson observed that conversations about race relations, including in the Reformed community, “are not actually handled very well” and tend to be divisive, not unifying.
In contrast, the conference stage exuded gentleness and respect. “Race relations in the church was a palpably personal issue for many of the attendees,” Jacob Valk observed. Not an OP member, Valk is a traveling filmmaker for Ephtwoeight Productions who landed in St. Augustine for the conference. “Yet the discussions and talks were quite balanced and measured,” he said.
The OPC has not issued a resolution or statement on race since the GA’s comprehensive 1974 Report of the Committee on Problems of Race. Yet the OPC’s recent silence doesn’t mean that its members aren’t praying, studying, and acting in response to racial issues. Building Bridges was proof.
The speakers indicated, however, that OP churches could be doing more—perhaps much more—to pursue racial reconciliation.
“Racial reconciliation hasn’t been on our radar screen,” Alan Strange said in a panel. “Why can’t we be biblical and confessional and racially reconciled?”
Conference speaker and PCA member Gabriel Williams worried that Christians do not pursue racial reconciliation because they think it is inevitably tied to liberalism. “I’ve been very concerned with how much political allegiances actually govern our discussions on the topic,” he said.
Most OP churches and church plants continue to be majority white, a reality confronted in another panel. Dave Holmlund, regional home missionary for the Presbytery of Philadelphia, observed that “sometimes we are too quick to assume that we’re healthy but simply not seeing God bless in a certain avenue of mission. This conference has helped me to see that [we may not be] seeing fruit in that mission because we’re not healthy in that area of church life.”
An African American, Tarence Dickerson frequently has to spell out to people why he goes to a “white” Presbyterian church. “It isn’t about the color,” he tells them. “It’s about the reverence for the Word of God.”
That reverence marked Building Bridges as well. “We were truly fed from the Word at this conference,” attendees Gail and Jerold Barnett said, who hail from Oklahoma and have been members of the OPC for more than forty years. “There are many biblical examples of diverse peoples being brought together to worship. This conference emphasized our need to work toward the same.”
In addition to the speakers who have been featured in this issue of New Horizons (see pages 4–13) the conference included Dr. H. B. Charles Jr., Dr. Dennis Johnson, Dr. Joel Kim, Diane Olinger, Dr. Gabriel Williams, and Dr. Anthony Bradley. All conference addresses are available online on Covenant OPC’s Youtube channel or via Covenant-opchurch.org.
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, May 2019.