The atmosphere in Winston-Salem in 1992 – and the rest of the country – was an intense one, filled with racial tension and controversy. One possible way to combat this divide, according to Stephen McCutchan, then the pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church, would be to establish a safe place for conversations surrounding racial issues.
And so, joining forces with other Presbyterian ministers in the area, the Presbyterian Inter-Racial Dialogue was born.
“(Fellow Presbyterian pastors) Carlton Eversley, Sam Stevenson and I got together for lunch and started talking about what was happening here, and what we could do about it,” McCutchan said. “We decided to start from our common bond as Presbyterian pastors and use that as a starting point to see what we could do to address these race issues.”
The initial conversation took place between members of three local Presbyterian churches: 20 people from Highland Presbyterian, 10 from Grace Presbyterian and 10 from Dellabrook Presbyterian. The group quickly realized that it needed to involve more than just those 40 individuals, and so they began hosting social events to broaden awareness of the conversation among community members.
“More churches began getting involved, both black and white,” McCutchan said. “We began working to help revitalize a local church, Lloyd Presbyterian. We became involved with issues within the local education system.”
The group also established an annual pulpit exchange, providing a time for the local pastors involved in the dialogue to preach to congregations other than their own, further solidifying the shared priority of bringing racial issues to the forefront of the discussion.
Fast-forwarding 20 years, the dialogue is still going strong. On Saturday, the organization will host a sold-out 20th anniversary celebration at Parkway Presbyterian Church as a time to reflect on their years of conversation, connection and involvement, as well as to plan for the dialogue’s future.
“November 10 will be a day of celebration, reflection and, we hope, renewal,” said Touré Marshall, pastor of Grace Presbyterian. “Members from the six churches that make up PIRD will gather to reminisce and give thanks to God for our work, (and) to hear from the founders. We will share a meal and worship together with a combined choir from the churches. We also have time for dialogue for relationship building and dreaming about what’s next for us.”
At the event, to be emceed by WXII anchor Cameron Kent, attendees will receive a copy of McCutchan’s new book, “Let’s Have Lunch: Conversation, Race and Community,” which reflects on the start and development of the dialogue group.
Though the group was developed to specifically deal with black/white conflicts, in the two decades since it was established, Winston-Salem’s Hispanic population has increased significantly. That shift in population, McCutchan said, has meant that the dialogue has expanded to encompass that group as well. And the dialogue group is able to deal with more than just race, too – something McCutchan believes will serve the group well in coming years.
“I think this outreach has developed a framework and now there’s a natural way to have a conversation,” McCutchan said. “When 9/11 happened, for example, we already had these relationships established and were able to host an interfaith service right away. We live in a world in which people tend to use suspicion created by differences to divide the world, and we need experiences to help communities build relationships to remind ourselves that these are real people we’re talking about.”
Randy Harris, the pastor of Highland Presbyterian, has been involved with the dialogue group since he became Highland’s pastor in 2008. He is proud of the organization’s past accomplishments, but also looks forward to the group’s growth.
“I continue to be encouraged by the warmth and depth of the relationships among the PIRD congregations, and their desire to work together,” Harris said. “Alas, like many cities, Winston-Salem is still a community that is divided racially, socio-economically and more, and those divisions call for much work on everyone’s part.”
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