“You’re A Presbyterian? How Did That Happen?”

Being that I’m black, I often get asked: “Wendell, you’re a Presbyterian? How did that happen?” I’ll tell it this way: It was late summer in 2006 and I was not sure where I was going. It was a bright Sunday morning and I was driving my family to church through the narrow lanes of Cherokee County, Georgia. My wife and I are children of South Los Angeles county [read: Compton and Watts]. Living in the South was culture shock enough. The prospect of getting lost in the woods of north Georgia had me on edge. Not enough of an edge to admit to my wife that I was lost, mind you, but on edge all the same.

We were in Georgia because I had been fired from a job in Washington D.C. We had been in D.C. because I had been fired from a job in Hartford. We had been in Hartford because the company I was with had transferred me to Hartford from Los Angeles to run a new branch that never ended up existing. All of that happened inside of three years.

We were the inverse of a military family. I didn’t wear a uniform and each new station was the result of a demotion. Join corporate America and see the U.S.A. (while driving a U-Haul).

The geographic and professional transitions were jolting but we were also in the middle of a more serious move from the Evangelical/Baptist/Arminian world to the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed world. The Baptist church we belonged to in Virginia decided to remove a statement affirming the Bible’s inerrancy from its doctrinal affirmations on the church website. They did this not because the church no longer believed it but because the church didn’t want outsiders to be offended because the church believed it.  The quietest, meekest, and longest standing members led the church into that logical bog. The meek folks promised they had many friends and acquaintances who would to start attending the church but that terrible word— inerrancy—made coming to church impossible. The congregation voted to put inerrancy out to pasture (in the name of “unity”) after a discussion that lasted until well past my bedtime.

The I-Monk

That night I fought through numerous disruptions of my dial up internet connection (youngsters, ask your parents what that means) until I eventually landed on a site called The Internet Monk. For a monk—and a cyberspace monk at that—the Internet Monk had quite a few long and combative running arguments going with other blog writers. I was reading through one of his rebuttals in a clash over who could really preach and move a congregation versus who was just a mumbler behind a microphone and I read this sentence: If you want to hear good preaching click here. I did so I clicked the link. It led me to Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C. At 3:00 AM I listened to one of Mark Dever’s customary hour long sermons. The next Sunday my family was in the pews at CHBC. Score one for the Monk.

That first Sunday at CHBC then Associate Pastor Michael Lawrence preached from Colossians 3:3. For the first time it penetrated my infantile brain that Christianity was not a DIY project. I sat in my seat weeping. It felt like a conversion experience.

It was at Capitol Hill Baptist that I started hearing about confessions and creeds. Quite often I was asked how long had I been Reformed. I had no clue how to answer the first couple of times I was asked because I in my mind I was wondering “why do these people think I’ve been in prison? I’ve never even been arrested.” Eventually, I learned what was really behind by the question. It wasn’t because I’m black.

I started reading Reformed writers beginning with John Calvin. I quickly learned that what I knew about the historic Christian faith wasn’t entirely correct and my knowledge so limited it could fit inside of a matchbox. It was as humbling as it was illuminating. It did a great deal to lower my levels of Know-It-All-Religious-Jerk. Please note I said lower not eliminate. I still have quite a lot of jerk in me.

Someone—I don’t remember who—put a book titled Black and Reformed in my hands. It came in handy when after I was inevitably tossed out of another job I landed in the metro Atlanta area—home to one of the authors of the book, Pastor Michael Leach.

What a great man he is.

Pastor Leach patiently and elegantly elucidated the finer points of Reformed doctrine to me. I would stand in his kitchen and while eating his food argue with him about infant baptism—especially infant baptism. Despite his many years of study he was wrong and I was right. Case closed. He would shake his head, chuckle, and say, “You’ll make a good Presbyterian one day.”

I wasn’t a Presbyterian, yet, but I was willing to give it a shot. Unemployed and with plenty of time on my hand while stuck at my in-laws’ house I starting reading through the Westminster Shorter Catechism with my family.

I also had time to pore over another blog post with a provocative link to click. This one was titled: For All My Baptist Friends Who Wonder Why Abraham Circumcised Ishmael click here. I did. It was written by some gadfly named R. Scott Clark. The scales of the Mosaic covenant started falling from my eyes. We found a PCA church in the area and started attending.

On my way into our first PCA service I could see in my mind’s eye Pastor Dever in the pulpit at one evening service while we were members denying the often made charge that his church was a gateway drug to Presbyterianism. “Sorry, Mark,” I thought as I passed through the doors.

The Morgans

At this PCA church we met the Morgans—a magnificent family who remain our friends to this day.  The Morgans are wonderfully ignorant people. They didn’t know it was a big deal to have a black family at their church. They didn’t know they were supposed to either ignore us and hope we’d go away or rush over to us and ask about the NBA or how much time we spend dancing at home (those examples don’t come from the top of my head, by the way).

They introduced themselves. They spoke to us like they were glad and not puzzled that we were in their church. They did this every Sunday. In a short time they invited us to their home. We had Jesus and homeschooling in common and the homeschooling commonality was a tangential overlap, at best. They were homeschoolers. We were people who couldn’t afford private schools just trying to keep our kids out of public schools. So, we sat in their living room and talked about Jesus.  It became a habit.

In the decade my wife and I had attended white churches the Morgans were the first white Christians to invite us to their home to get to know us on a personal level. I’m not sure who the Branch Rickey and who the Jackie Robinson was in that scenario.

I only mention it because white shaming is all the rage in certain evangelical and Reformed circles. If you spend any time on social media you’ll learn that according to a few very loud voices there is a white supremacist hiding in every session and in every pulpit and it’s the duty of Christians everywhere to expose them and mark them with a scarlet R. The Morgans – true Southerners and Georgians i.e. the most likely racists in all the world according to the braying mobs- were the people who cemented us into the Reformed world through their goodness and sincerity.

And, yes, Georgia is full of racists. Almost every day I heard or saw something that made me think I was on the set of Mississippi Burning Part II. I would come home from work and my wife would inform me of the latest racist insult thrown at her and our daughters during the day while she was out running errands.

The slurs and slights piled up. I would daydream about recreating Sherman’s March to the Sea but this time with flamethrowers and napalm. The very easy thing to do would have been to find the closest black church and go back to worshipping with people who shared my culture and my characteristics. I didn’t because what I thought I had found in the reformed faith and practice was too precious to leave in favor of racial comfort.

Back to the car ride and my growing unease at being lost.

After finding a job and moving to a town with a store that sells Klan regalia I was nervous about finding a church. I knew it would be a church with a white congregation but we couldn’t count on being taken in like the Morgans had taken us in.  It turned out the only reformed church I could find was miles away through the woods in what I thought surely had to be the last redoubt of the Confederacy. So, with no smartphone GPS to assure me, I packed my three little girls and my jewel of a wife into our car and set out to meet with God on the day He appointed.

Grace Church

We found the church. Grace Church (at the time independent but now part of the PCA). It was a tiny congregation of about 20—white—people. We were late and bundled in just before the pastor, Robbie Hembree, started preaching.

Pastor Hembree stood up and read 1 John 4. He preached from versus 20 and 21. He was reading with a drawl that surely makes him a racial suspect in this era:  “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen . . .”.

I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “We’re in the right place.”

We joined the tiny congregation. I could tell there were a few people who had some, let’s say, reservations about us but we let that be their problem not ours. We did our best to be open and inviting even though we were the newcomers. These were our people now and Pastor Hembree had set the tone.

The church grew. Pastor Hembree baptized two of my daughters (Sorry, Robbie, I should have let you baptize all three). Hey, I’m a slow learner.  Why do you think I kept getting fired? We made friends and we grew in the Word. We were blessed abundantly by that little church in the woods. I thought we were lost and headed for danger but God’s good providence is real. I can testify to it.

The short answer to why I’m a Presbyterian is the most Presbyterian answer I can give: because God willed it. Through the firings, the moves, and the unlikely forbearance and charity of strangers God moved me and my family from the comfortable social cocoon of the black church in particular and the Baptist world in general to the Reformed tradition.

It has not been a perfect, problem-free fit but it has been my pleasure to be here. I plan on staying.

©Wendell Talley. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Thank you, I smiled through the whole story!–and by the way, whatever happened to the days of just sitting in living rooms and talking about Jesus?

  2. Wendell may say that he’s a slow learner, but he certainly has a talent for writing. His story flows smoothly and evenly in a manner that makes one feel as though he’s sitting in your living room, telling it.

    • Thank you for reading. Dr. Clark is a tough grader I hear. I’ll see if I can sneak another one past him

    • Dr. Clark wrote this: “Lord willing, you’ll be seeing Wendell regularly at the HB.”

      Great news, and great testimony from Wendell. The best response to accusations that conservatives are racists is to prove the accusations false by pointing to proof of people in the pews (or in this case, in electrons) who have chosen a church that cares about its confessions and not about the color of people’s skin.

      You know enough about the Dutch Reformed world and what I saw growing up in Grand Rapids to know that racism can be present in places that have nothing to do with the South. It’s a heart problem, not a North-South problem, or even an American problem, and it’s not new.

      If even the Apostle Paul had to rebuke the Apostle Peter on this subject, we shouldn’t expect our churches never to have issues. When they come up, we need to deal with them. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that different ethnic groups in Europe of the 1500s hated each other passionately despite all having white skin. However, our Reformed confessions are not only colorblind but are drawn from numerous nationalities, and were written at a time when theologians of German, French, Dutch, English, Scottish, and many other ethnicities figured out that grace is more important than race.

  3. This was such an enjoyable and encouraging article I was forced to share it on social media! Thank you for writing it and sharing the story of the Lord’s providence in your life and that of your family. I look forward to more of your work.

  4. Great story and greater testimony. Thank you Wendell. More than a little disheartening to learn that there is still so much racism out there…..I guess I’m naive from all my years in the military and from living in Vermont where it was either kept well hidden or was less prominent.

    A quick story if I may: Like most churches in rural Vermont, our small church is 99% white. During the Children’s Message portion of the service our white pastor (the late Norm Koop) called a young black man forward and asked the children, “What do you see different about Elijah and I?” One of the children answered, “You’re old.” We all had a good laugh and Pastor Koop proceeded to recompose himself and teach the children his intended lesson about racism. But the thing that struck me most was that these little children did not even see the color of Elijah’s skin…..it didn’t matter to them a bit…..he was just a nice young man. I was convicted that day. Racism is a learned behavior and I pray that one day soon we will be able to put race-based hate behind us. God bless the little children…..may we all be as wise.

    • Thank you. Racism is definitely learned. At a fundamental level our similarities infinitely outweigh our differences.

  5. Excellent article! I loved Wendell’s story. I’m a non black guy… not even sure how to describe myself, not that it even matters, in my mid 60’s now – played a lot of basketball with my friends in the Oakland Boys clubs. I hear the stories of how people are treated but have not seen it. All I know is that we all just got along fine and appreciated each other’s game on the court. I would get yelled at for not taking a shot when I had it but I loved the fact that the guys thought I had a good shot.

    I liked that Wendell could was able to fit it in… that’s the way we should always be. Thank you Jesus. Our good size congregation in Castro Valley CA has a pretty good mix of folks… I love it.

    Thanks for sharing and great humor along the way. Also… the comment about his “jewel” of a wife and his 3 girls speaks volumes. I think I need to read this post again. I also think if you are in the SF Bay area we could probably spend some good time at the starbucks hanging out… I sense that kind of kinship.

    pete latona from CA

    • I love Oakland. East Bay over SF every day of the week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up in San Leandro or somewhere close.

    • I love Oakland. East Bay over SF any day of the week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up in San Leandro or somewhere close.

    • San Leandro… next to me in Hayward/San Lorenzo
      You must know EB… nobody knows of San Leandro
      Haven’t been to SF in years… EB has the feel of my little town… like C Valley
      Please let me know when you are in area… petelatona@sbcglobal.net
      Maybe even a rendezvous at Barney’s in Piedmont!

  6. I’m from Compton too, grew up in Our lady of Victory RC Church neighborhood, I’m Hispanic, we (wife and kids) used to live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Greenville, Soiuth Carolina, been Reformed Protestant since 1997, sadly never met any Morgans. We are in the Reformed tradition, by Gods will, for other reasons.

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