The title sounded harmless, but of 4,500 Southern Protestant clergymen invited, only 300 attended the First Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations, held in Nashville last week by the Tennessee Council of Churches and the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen. Those who came and many who did not knew their reasons well: to the troubled South, human relations mean race relations, and to many white Southern pastors, the No. 1 problem is how to preach Christianity while Jim Crow sits in the congregation.
Dr. Benjamin Mays, Negro president of Atlanta's Morehouse College, stated the case clearly for the clergymen (three-fourths of them white, the rest Negro) who showed up. "We speak the same language . . . worship the same God . . . and fight for the same flag . . . Wouldn't it have been wonderful [of the 1954 school desegregation ruling] if the church had led the Supreme Court? But the church didn't lead, and it didn't follow. We lack the moral courage to act." For the next two days, on the desegregated Methodist campus of Scarritt College for Christian Workers and in the buildings of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, also desegregated, the churchmen sought sources of courage and plans of action.
Testimony that the South's Protestant churches have not totally ignored the race issue came from Dr. Herman Long, director of the race relations department of the Board of Home Missions of the Congregational Christian Churches. He estimated that there is a minimum of 160 unsegregated Christian churches in the South. Further, he said, there are interracial ministerial associations in some 20 Southern cities, e.g., Richmond, Nashville. But in "about 20" churches and institutions, white ministers who have tried "to exert a positive . . . Christian leadership" in racial issues have been "displaced."
In Case of Fire. Dr. Merrimon Cuninggim, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, ticked off the South's "moth-eaten and decrepit" defenses of segregation (e.g., "The Negroes lack our standards in health, morality and marital fidelity"), scoffed in answer: "Then, if so, let's get to work on them. What do we do when the house catches fire, even the back room? Take a walk? . . . Most of us are getting tired of seeing ministers and laymen react as Southerners first and Christians second."
In four seminars the clergymen took up the problem of acting like Christians first. Some proposed answers: more seminary training in interracial work; Negro and white congregations should exchange ministers occasionally; church members should be sent to interracial conferences. White and Negro ministers should bring their congregations together for joint counseling before school integration begins, as Nashville clergymen plan to do before the first-grade classes of their city's schools are desegregated next September. Protestant churches should sponsor lectures on the focal points of whites' fearsintermarriage, Negro health and morals, etc.as New Orleans Roman Catholic churches have done.