Tulsa churches honor 'holy ground' 100 years after massacre

Greenwood is “sacred ground,” said Rev. John Faison of Nashville, Tennessee, who preached in church and is the bishop’s assistant for the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.

He said the centenary both honors the victims of the massacre and “celebrates the resilience and resurgence of an amazing people of God”.

Similar memorial services were held at many places of worship across Tulsa and Oklahoma on Sunday, the day before the official centenary dates. More civic activities are planned for Monday and Tuesday, including a candlelight vigil and a visit from President Joe Biden.

The commission that organized the 100th Anniversary of Sunday as the Day of Faith in Unity proposed a guide for worship that each ward could customize, including the scriptures, prayers, and the chant of Amazing Grace.

In historically black churches in particular, the speakers emphasized the need for financial reparation – both for the few hundred-year-old survivors of the massacre and for the larger, economically difficult area in north Tulsa, where the city’s black population is largely concentrated.

“The main problem is that our nation is always trying to achieve reconciliation without doing justice,” Faison said. “Until repentance and repair are seen as inseparable, any attempt at reconciliation will fail miserably.”

Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of the nearby Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, which also has its roots before the massacre, echoed this sentiment in an interview before the service of his own church.

“It is not a tragedy that is left in 1921. It is a tragedy that lives on every day without justice,” said Turner, who protests weekly outside Tulsa City Hall and calls for both redress and a posthumous criminal investigation into the perpetrators of the massacre .

Some churches recognized 13 remaining active wards serving in Greenwood in 1921 as of Sunday 13, including many who had to rebuild their destroyed shrines. Lists of the 13 under the heading “Faith Still Standing” are distributed on posters and other merchandise.

“We don’t want it ever to happen anywhere again,” said Rev. Donna Jackson, organizer of the recognition.

Some historically white churches also celebrated the centenary.

Pastor Deron Spoo of the First Baptist Church in Tulsa, a southern Baptist church less than two miles from the North Tulsa Church of the same name, told his congregation that the massacre was a “scar” on the city.

The church has a prayer room with an exhibition about the massacre, accompanied by prayers against racism. It contains quotes from 1921 white pastors who blamed the black church, not the white aggressors, of the devastation and declared racial inequality to be “divinely ordained.”

Spoo told parishioners on Sunday, “Although we don’t know what the pastor said 100 years ago at First Baptist Tulsa, I want to be very clear: Racism has no place in the life of a follower of Jesus.”

The massacre was also recognized by the South Tulsa Baptist Church, a southern Baptist church in a predominantly white suburb of Tulsa.

Pastor Eric Costanzo grew up in Tulsa but did not find out about the massacre until he was attending the seminary outside the state. When he later saw an exhibition about the massacre at the Greenwood Cultural Center, he realized its size. He later engaged in centenary planning and arranged church presentations about the massacre and visits from Church members in Greenwood.

In an interview, he said he hoped the “bridge we have built between our communities” will remain active after its centenary to “deal with many of the difficult issues our city and culture face”.

Rev. Zenobia Mayo, a retired educator and ordained minister in the Christian Church (disciples of Christ), is also working to continue these conversations after the centenary. She said her family never spoke about the massacre, despite the fact that her great-grand-uncle, the renowned surgeon A.C. Jackson, was one of the most prominent victims.

Elders in the family tried to protect their children from the trauma of racial violence, she said. “You felt like not talking about it was the way to deal with it.”

But now Mayo hopes to have mixed groups of white and black guests in her home about racism discussions.

“If that’s the way it is, let me begin,” she said.

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