I never got an oral interview with Pastor Skyles, I sat in his living room back in late 70's and as I started the tape recorder, this is what I heard, "Boy, turn that machine off and lets talk." as he reached to unplug it. He knew what he wanted to say and said it in any forum. The consultation had nearly 70 participants representing various offices of the Lutheran Church in America, with the closing speaker being Church President, Rev. Dr. Franklin Clark Fry called by TIME Magazine, 'Mr. Protestant." I was in my 2nd year of seminary...RNS.
Pastor Robbin Skyles addressed the September 21-23,1967 CONSULTATION ON RACE,
Held in Pittsburg, PA, September 21-23, 1967
This was given a portion of 'The Report of the Consultation called by the Coordinating Committee on Race Relations Lutheran Church in America'
VI. "PRACTICAL PROBLEMS OF NEGRO CLERGY AND CHURCH OFFICIALS - TWO VIEWS"
Speech by Pastor Robbin Skyles
Mr. President, members of the Lutheran clergy the task that I have this afternoon is one in which I must tell you the practical problems which we Negro clergymen have. We're not particularly mad at anybody but a number of these problems are just problems and they're going to have to be resolved in some sort of way.
The problem of the Negro pastor in the Lutheran Church in a large sense is an unhappy one because they are faced with inequities in almost every effort, even though the church is making a heroic effort to correct some of the wrongs of yesteryear.
history of racial separation in the Lutheran Church goes back to 1827. In that
year the North Carolina Synod recognized that Negroes were not receiving their
riches in Christ. They therefore organized the Alpha Synod composed of Negro
pastors and deaconesses. The sole responsibility was to Negroes of that area. They
got a number of young Negro men and women together. They educated them, then
they were ordained as pastors and also consecrated as deaconesses. They were
organized into what was known then as the Alpha Synod and they rested their
doctrine on United Lutheran Church stuff. They began to do a tremendous work in
that area. Meanwhile the Missouri Synod likewise began its work among Negroes
in 1859. Now before the Civil War, Negroes and masters were segregated but they
could at least worship together in the same church; the
masters would sit on the first floor, and the Negroes would sit in the gallery,
and if the church did not have a gallery the Negroes would
occupy the last three or four rows in
the church. Then after Lincoln freed the slaves and told them they were equal, this situation became untenable and the Negroes had to fend for themselves.
It was considered an unheard of thing for a white man to teach a Negro anything at all, and any Negro who dared to learn anything at that time was beaten within an inch of his life; and any white man who dared to teach a Negro anything was ostracized and so the Alpha Synod could not continue its work among the Negroes because in a large sense it could not get men and women who could continue the work. They could not get men and women to replace those who were dying out. So these missions that had been established by the Alpha Synod fell to the Missouri Synod. And so from about 1865 to 1920 all of the Negro work was done by the Missouri Synod.
The ULCA, one of our predecessor bodies, continued its work among Negroes to a limited degree. There are notes from the biennial reports of the ULCA stating that they were interested in doing something for the uplifting of Negroes to try to bring them their riches in Christ. If you were to go into the minutes of the ULCA, you would see copies of letters written by Dr. Long and Dr. Bagger and some of the other great men of that era, in which they go on to say that they wish they could help to establish preaching points at various places in the South, but at that time the man who was the head of the Board of American Missions said he did not want to have Negroes segregated in the church and for that reason he would not establish any new missions because he was afraid they would become segregated.
Now these reports in the biennial reports go on to say that the ULCA wanted to and did give two or three thousand dollars per year to the American Lutheran Church to further the work among Negro people. They see as artificial "any effort to improve the lot of the Negro people in the Lutheran Church," until the time of the Supreme Court decision on segregation in 1954. Now since that time the church has made some efforts which leaves much to be desired on behalf of the Negro clergy and laity.
A few accusations have been made against the performance of the Negro clergy by those who don't know, by those who have deliberately turned away from the historical background of the present situation. Certain stock excuses are offered for the limited opportunities which the church provides to Negro clergymen. It is said that the Negroes are a financial liability, that they are a risk in the area of stewardship and that the Negro churches are not as productive and as dynamic as the white churches and that the Negro clergymen exhibit poor leadership qualities.
If this is the type of thinking in the church today, then it is the same kind of
racial thinking which characterizes American society in general. All Negro clergymen and
their people are placed in the same category and are psychologically compartmentalized
in all decisions and promotions and assignments by the church hierarchy. One
cannot justify this racial policy which excludes even the exceptionally
qualified Negro clergymen and more
important, a human being, without regard to his skin pigmentation.
First of all let's turn to this charge of poor production by the Negro clergymen. In a large way he is limited by the psychology of Negro religious experience and religious goals. This is really to say the social and economic history of American society. One goal in the worship service has been the catharsis of the oppression and humiliation which has been visited upon him by a racist society. The Lutheran Church format is not fundamentally conducive to this emotional catharsis.
There is also a basic inequality of the instruments and resources
available to the Negro and white clergy. In some instances the white clergy receives deaconesses, interns, and paid help. In some cases the Negro pastors have left the churches and gone on to other places and the budgets have been pushed up tremendously when white pastors came into these churches. The Negro pastor cannot look forward to the denominational assistance on a sustained year-round basis. The white pastor can go into a slum or ghetto situation and is guaranteed the psychological freedom to invest his total creative and executive power in church leadership because he is effectively insulated and isolated from the destructive anxiety and the destructive impact of the ghetto conditions. His tenure is brief and is accompanied by the knowledge that he can leave by request. He knows he can put his name on the transfer list and that he will be out of that parish
within 90 days. This is not the case with the Negro pastor. The white pastor can press the panic button at any time and like a simulated flight of an artificial space craft he can stop this simulated flight at any time and step safely out on the ground. The Negro pastors flight is for real, his capsule is really in motion and really in space. To step away would be disastrous.
We have already mentioned the sermon format which has its roots in slavery and Jim Crow oppression and is designed to lighten and cleanse the hearers, the emotions of the hearers. Of great importance is the singing which unites the congregation in the fellowship which has its own unique overtones born of suffering and generations of prayer. Now the songs of European Christianity often cannot be sung by Negroes and consequently have no religious or psychological significance for him.
Also many times our people go into a congregation
and the pastor puts his hands on their heads,
and he says, "Father in Heaven, for Jesus sake renew the gift
of the Holy Spirit and strengthen thee in faith and growth in grace." Give
release in life. And this is supposed to change his whole community.
He was supposed to forget the songs which Mrs.
Hedgemann spoke of this morning
and which Mr. Michaux spoke of, he is supposed
all 6f that down the drain. He is a new person now, no longer can he sing "I just got over, I am tramping up the King's Highway."
Perhaps you have not
understood what he meant by singing "I just got over." Think
about an individual who lives on just a few dollars a week and he is just
barely making it. He comes out within
pennies of having enough money for his rent and
for his food, and that individual can sing
from his heart that “I just got over" and the Lord is
taking his hand and leading him on out of one crisis and putting his feet on
higher ground. It is impossible for
us as a group' of people to be
excited about a song such as Du Heiliger Geist
Frommer Gott or 0
Gott Sei Dank. They are beautiful
chorales but you-just can't
lose yourself in those songs
because we don't
have that heritage of four hundred fifty years. We
toward Scandinavian or Germanic background and say that
things have come down to us from the greatest of antiquities.
So you see we have a problem here with
the singing that is produced in our churches. The songs of classical Christianity cannot be sung by Negroes and consequently they have no religious or psychological significance. They involve them yes.
situation that is briefly sketched here is
mentioned to explain some of the
differences that exist between Negro and white Lutheran parishes.
Consequently any evaluation of stewardship that is practiced
in the Negro Lutheran Churches must take into consideration the practices
mentioned. Specifically, the church tends
to draw upon the upper Negro middle-class social economic spectrum.
Those who may no longer have any desperate need for the catharsis
and the church oriented ego satisfaction.
I would say they have another type of satisfaction which they
also get and that is that there are
those who feel that if they can have a white pastor this makes them worth more
not worth less and I would say that this is in a sense the way they have their
along with this practice the numbers are small and their growth is
relatively slow. However, proportionately the Negro Lutheran Church does as well as its white counterpart. Reflections upon these facts in our society will lead to a better understanding of how a Lutheran Church sometimes ceases to meet its allocations and becomes a supported mission outpost when there is a racial change in the community.
If the Negro was given the same tools and
resources as his white brother, he would be able to produce in a comparable
manner considering the social economic attainments
of the people whom he serves. Now if we glance at the attainments
of the Negro clergy it will highlight the limitations of which he must always
be conscious. There are only sixteen Negro pastors in the
Lutheran Church on the American continent and at least fourteen serve in parishes.
In thirty-two synods of the Lutheran Church in America
there are no Negroes in the power structure except the Dean of South
Chicagoland District of the Illinois Synod, and there is one Negro layman on the Executive Council of the church. There are no Negro pastors or laymen teaching in any of the seminaries or colleges of the LCA, to my knowledge. None of our Negro clergy are ever asked to speak at collegiate graduations or as chaplains of the church at large for a general convention and only recently has one Negro pastor been asked to be the chaplain at a synod convention.
Now we have some Negro pastors who have served in the church for over twenty years and have done a tremendous job of pioneering. You know we used to go to the "last suppers," I used to call them; the synod presidents would call up all the mission pastors and there you would have to sit and listen as he tells the story of these tremendous pastors who have gone out to the suburbs and have been doing a tremendous job. As a matter of fact they didn't build the church yesterday. They took the bars down and then had to hurry up and get out of the way because people were running over them. But they never took into account that the
Negro pastors were walking up and down the street figuratively with two sticks of dynamite in each hand trying his best to blast his way into somebody's house to get them to come to church. But we were never given any kind of credit at all for anything we ever did and none of us yet has received any honorary degrees from any of our colleges or seminaries.
clergymen has little mobility and that mobility which he does have is
horizontal from ghetto to ghetto, from Watts
to the Hough District, from Harlem to Brownsville and always invariably into
dying areas. Like pouring brine into the open wounds, the Negro pastor knows
that he will not be called into a flourishing parish even when it has become
all Negro. He knows that such a parish will be given to a white man. The Negro
clergyman knows he will never go to such a prosperous
parish as St. Johns, Allentown, or Trinity in New York, and he knows that it isn't likely that he will be called to be the assistant to the president of a synod. He also knows that he will not be called to a church which is highly organized and has maintained its position over a long period of time. The church has consistently excluded, either by intention or oversight, the Negro or other non-white persons from consideration for election to be pastors or assistants in white or predominantly white parishes.
Now theoretically we have the same opportunities and privileges as white pastors to be selected as pastors of congregations; sort of like we have the privilege of being selected to be the president of the United States. How then does the Negro pastor not get the recommendation
of the synod president as required in the constitution of the synod? If he does not, he cannot entertain the call. What then is the picture that the Lutheran Church presents to the perspective of the practicing Negro clergyman when he has no mobility or real acceptance as a human being? He sees this approved in the Christian church. This policy in practice is just as racist as anything in the American society. He sees a church which in effect denies open occupancy of pulpits.
This does not necessarily mean that every Negro pastor wants to serve a while congregation. He doesn’t. It does mean that the freedom of selection should be a part of church policy even to the point of hierarchical positions for those who are qualified. I don’t believe that Negroes should e given the position just because he is a Negro. I do not believe in professional Negroism. When the church can present a better picture of an all-inclusive ministry to the Negro clergy, vertical or horizontal, then the Negro pastor will feel encouraged to do his work, but mor importantly, he will go out and see what he can do to try and develop an indigenous ministry for the Negro churches.
It was MY privilege to be asked by the Lutheran School of Theology of Chicago to go out and see if we could find young men who wanted to study for the ministry. I went to Howard University, Morgan College, to Central States College, to Lincoln University so see if we could get young men to come into the ministry to serve this great need which we have for Negro clergy of the Lutheran Church.
The first question which they asked me was this: What chance do we have for advancement? After we have done our work, do we have the same privileges and rights as any other pastor? I said to them, “of course you do, look at me. I am the dean of the church. As you see I am in an all white area and this can happen to you.” But my takers were very few. I got two or three nibbles but I think they were scared off not because the didn’t want to come and do the work, but because we are now in 1967, nearly 1968. and things are moving rapidly now. The church is going to have to reset its values and begin to consider men on the basis of their ability, I hope.