SPRINGFIELD – As the Ebbert United Methodist Church continues to make efforts toward “dismantling racism” – its weekly book club has been reading “Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism” – it’s been hard to ignore the legacy of former associate pastor Austin Ray.
The former pastor, who helped lead the church during the 1980s, was on a mission then to break stereotypes. Today’s congregation is carrying on a 150-year effort to work through racism within the church.
Ebbert’s current pastor June Fothergill leads the discussion group that is reading Drew G.I. Hart’s book, “Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Looking at Ebbert’s history, its progressive leadership stands out and considers Ray’s pastorship a historical milestone.
Fothergill has been involved with anti-racism activism for most of her pastoral career, and she said the book club has discussed Ray and the church’s efforts to address race through the years.
“With all that history, things come up,” Fothergill said. “The few people that are still around (from that time) have good things to say about him.”
Fothergill provided archived newspaper stories of Ray’s presence at the church, one of which documented Ray’s impact on the 500-member church. It began, the stories say, as an experiment to see if his leadership would be well-received or rejected by the congregation.
Ray joined the church alongside his wife Eunice and their six children to “see how a bi-racial pastorship would work,” the Eugene Register-Guard’s reporter wrote at the time. The senior pastor at that time was Rev. Gene Walters from 1981-84.
Ray said his goal was to make it work.
Intent about serving his congregation while breaking stereotypes, the reporter characterized Ray’s preaching style as a blend of Marxism and Christianity.
“I’m sure a lot of people question what I say merely because I’m Black,” Ray told the Register-Guard in 1983. He found that he wouldn’t be questioned if he cited his speech from books, he said.
The congregation was said to be out of its comfort zone initially, but embraced the change. Under Ray’s preaching of “love ethic, civil rights and a little Marxism,” the article’s author wrote, the church would grow in acceptance of him over the course of three years.
Marion Malcolm, current board director for Community Alliance of Lane County, remembers Ray’s struggle to adapt when he was a part of the serving committee for CALC.
“It wasn’t easy for him. He told me adults wanted to touch his hair,” Malcolm said. “It’s an example of people not being totally enlightened about what it means to be culturally sensitive.”
Ray’s perspective adjusted over time, too, and as trust grew between Ray and the church, he became more involved with members’ lives. Ray told the Eugene Register-Guard in the 1980s that a Southerner in the church invited him to a family dinner, something the man said he thought he’d never do.
Walters, who joined the church at the same time as Ray, said the experiment was a success and the church had benefited from Ray’s efforts.
“People were very open. They wanted to get to know him,” Walters said in the article. By the end of his time in Springfield, complaints were “muted and few.”
After four years of preaching, Ray and his family left Springfield for Lexington, Ky., to pursue his doctorate in alcohol treatment and pastor a 700-member congregation.
PHOTO PROVIDED An article in The Register-Guard referred to Austin Ray’s “bi-racial pastorship.”
“Our ministry here has had some impact on the thinking of the church,” he’d said in spring 1984. “I don’t think the church can ever be the same.”
Efforts to address racism continued after Ray, and in 1991 Rev. Vern Groves declared Ebbert a “racism-free zone.” The idea was proposed by Tim Finch, an 8th-grader whose Eugene school had a “racism-free zone,” said an article in The Springfield News.
Groves told The News that racism is more of a subtle attitude.
“It’s no longer OK to be an overt bigot. You have to be a subtle bigot, and I think that’s saying we’ve made some progress.”
The decision aligned with the Methodist belief that racism is a sin. Fothergill said Ebbert is always working toward “dismantling racism.”