Every week, Elbert McGowan preaches to a congregation that’s one-third African American. They sing songs found in both Presbyterian and African-American hymnals. The congregation does more hand-raising and clapping than a typical Presbyterian crowd, while the theology is solidly Reformed.
Elbert McGowan grew up five minutes from Trinity Presbyterian Church on the north side of Jackson, Mississippi. He passed by it daily. Never once did it cross his mind that one day he’d end up the pastor in that building. In fact, he never even considered entering the door.
That’s because the church was exclusively white, and McGowan is black.
Trinity was born in 1950, one year before 13 parents in Topeka filed what would become Brown v. Board of Education and five years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her bus seat. Many leaders of what would become the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) barred blacks from membership, defended white supremacist organizations, and taught that the Bible opposed interracial marriage and supported segregation.
Set in an all-white neighborhood in north Jackson, Trinity wasn’t exempt. But as its white neighbors left for the suburbs and black neighbors moved in, Trinity didn’t budge.
One move, one church plant, and two pastors later, McGowan doesn’t just drive past anymore. He pulls open the church doors every day. He has an office and a desk with photos of his family. He runs the meetings; his kids run down the hallways.
And every week, he preaches to a congregation that’s one-third African American. They sing songs found in both Presbyterian and African-American hymnals. The congregation does more hand-raising and clapping than a typical Presbyterian crowd, while the theology is solidly Reformed.
“What the Lord is doing in and through [this church] is nothing short of astonishing,” Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) chancellor Ligon Duncan wrote. “Only God could accomplish what has been done here.”
Nearly 70 years ago, Presbyterians built Trinity on the last paved road on the north side of Jackson—the address was 640 East Northside Drive. The neighborhood that sprang up around it was full of small, A-framed, wood-plank houses, tossed up one after another for returning World War II veterans. Trinity was a neighborhood church; membership peaked in 1968.
By the time McGowan was born in 1978, the white residents of Jackson were moving out. In 1960, the city was 36 percent black. Forty years later, it was about 70 percent black; by 2010, it was nearly 80 percent black.
Trinity’s neighborhood was no longer full of white veterans, and attendance was falling. But the church didn’t follow members to the suburbs. Instead, by the late 1990s, Trinity members were doing door-to-door evangelism, running a neighborhood soccer program, and tutoring children after school. They even put pastor Mike Ross’s sermons on the African-American radio channel.
“The Lord kept giving us opportunities,” said Steve Lanier, who was then Trinity’s director of outreach and missions. “In a church of about 400, about 100 of them were involved in outreach every week.”
But even though they were pulling African Americans into church for programs during the week, none came back to worship on Sunday. After years of stretching out, Trinity still didn’t have a single black member.
Then, one Sunday in 2000, Loretta McGowan—desperate for help and half by accident—walked in.
She could not have imagined how that one morning would change the direction of her family—and of the entire congregation.
Breaking the Seal
“My dad had been addicted to crack cocaine most of my childhood,” Elbert McGowan said. His addiction was devastating for his family, both emotionally and financially. Looking for “a place to belong, to be equipped to handle suffering, to be shepherded,” Loretta moved her family through several denominations.
“They were all tied to my mother wanting to be able to cope,” he said. “By the time I left for college, my dad was hitting rock bottom, and she wanted something substantive.”
And then Loretta heard Mike Ross on the radio. She’d listen to him on the hour drive to the factory where she and Elbert Sr. both worked.
She liked Ross. And she knew where his church was. And since he was on the African-American station, she figured he was black. So Loretta decided to visit.
She showed up late, and Lanier, who was ushering, had to send Loretta and her friend up to the balcony, since the seats in the main sanctuary were full.
But it doesn’t take a civil-rights activist to know that sending your only black guests up to the balcony isn’t the most sensitive move. Lanier knew it immediately—“Uh-oh. That ain’t good.”
As soon as the service was over, he raced back to the steps so he could catch them on their way down.
“I want to thank you for coming,” Lanier said.
“Uh-huh,” Loretta answered grimly.
“We don’t seat black people upstairs,” he quickly explained, with a friendly grin. “We seat late people upstairs.”
She started laughing, and so did he. The next week Loretta was back, on time and with Elbert Sr. in tow.
The Conversion of Elbert McGowan Jr.
Loretta’s son, Elbert McGowan Jr., was in college by then, and had been to church “maybe three times in five years.” A student at Alabama A&M University, he joked with his parents about their being the only black members in an all-white church. “It was so foreign,” he said. “It was unheard of.”
But one Sunday when he was home, he went with them. He was impressed with Ross’s preaching, how he stayed tethered to the biblical text.
“What warmed my heart was not only the faithful preaching, but also the holy living,” McGowan said. He knew Trinity had been working with his dad, getting him into a Christian rehab center and drug testing him at church. (Today, Elbert Sr. is a deacon at his son’s church; he also coordinates food ministry and does church’s landscaping. “He’s a new man,” McGowan said. “He’s at this church several times a week serving.”)
“I’ll never forget the pastor’s wife made me a copy of all the tapes from a sermon series he was preaching,” McGowan said. “She mailed them to me with a letter that said, ‘I’m praying for you.’”
He listened to them all.
“Finally, I ended up reading the Bible for myself,” he said. “And I became a believer in my living room in Ohio.”