(By Kelsey Davis, Montgomery Advertiser; Alabama.) A black woman walked into First Presbyterian Church in the early 1970s, taking a seat midway up the pews. As soon as she sat down, a white woman stood up and left.
“She was not going to sit through that service with a black person sitting in the church,” Dan Reid, now 59, remembers from his youth. “I was ashamed of that white lady, to be honest with you. Ashamed of the prejudice she showed.” His father was a deacon of the once bustling congregation.
That instance was symptomatic of an attitude that plagued the church since at least 1956, when it adopted a motion decreeing, “no member of the Negro race (will) be received as a member of our Church or seated in the sanctuary for regular worship.”
People referred to it as “that church that wouldn’t let black people in.”
The one that stationed deacons outside its doors on Sundays and turned away African-Americans who wanted to worship there.
That in 1961 did nothing when violent protests of the Freedom Riders spilled into its parking lot next to the Greyhound Bus Station. Young men and women, both black and white, had boarded a bus that would stop in Montgomery in an effort to show the nation that the South still was not accepting desegregated transportation, despite what had been ordered by the courts. When they arrived, they were severely beaten.
“When that riot happened,(First Presbyterian Church) was literally right next to it. That church should have been open, and the membership of that church should have been trying to reason with the crowd to calm down. At the very least should have been providing sanctuary protection to the Freedom Riders,” said Reed DePace, pastor of First Presbyterian.
The proclamation, the sins of omission, the decades of blatant racism took a toll on the congregation.
Membership dwindled from the thousands to its current membership of 50. In 2000, when membership was around 160, First Presbyterian sold its downtown location to First Baptist, and moved east to Chantilly in Pike Road. First Baptist now uses the building to house Hope Inspired Ministries.
Where roughly 600 people once would show up for services on any given Sunday in the 60s, it is now down 30 whom regularly attend church.
DePace sees the church’s decline in membership as a direct result of the sins of their forefathers’ prejudice, a manifestation of their spiritual inheritance.
Because of this, and because they’re sorry for what happened, the congregation of First Presbyterian Church [PCA] has spent the better part of the past two years confronting that past, learning why they should repent of it and hoping for new life in light of it.