Tulsa Pastors Honor ‘Holy Ground’ 100 Years After Massacre

Rev. John R. Faison, Sr. kneels in prayer after preaching at a joint service for the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre at First Baptist Church of North Tulsa, Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/John Locher)

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — When white attackers destroyed the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood 100 years ago this week, they bypassed the original sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of North Tulsa.

By the church’s own account, the attackers thought the brick veneer structure was too fine for a Black-owned church. The mob destroyed at least a half-dozen other churches while burning and leveling a 35-square-block neighborhood in one of the nation’s deadliest spasms of racist violence. Estimates of the death toll range from dozens to 300.

On Sunday, First Baptist’s current sanctuary throbbed with a high-decibel service as six congregations gathered to mark the centennial of the massacre and to honor the persistence of the Black church tradition in Greenwood, as shown in the pulsing worship, call-and-response preaching, and heavy emphasis on social justice.

Greenwood is “holy ground,” said the Rev. John Faison of Nashville, Tennessee, who preached at the service and is assistant to the bishop of social action for the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.

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

Similar commemorations took place at many houses of worship throughout Tulsa and across Oklahoma on Sunday, a day ahead of the official centennial dates. More civic activities are planned for Monday and Tuesday, including a candlelight vigil and a visit by President Joe Biden.

The commission that organized the centennial designated Sunday as Unity Faith Day and provided a suggested worship guide that each congregation could adapt, including scriptures, prayers, and the singing of “Amazing Grace.”

Particularly at historically Black churches, speakers emphasized a call for financial reparations — both for the few centenarian survivors of the massacre and for the wider, economically struggling North Tulsa area, where the city’s Black population is largely concentrated.

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

The Rev. Robert Turner, a pastor of nearby Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, which also traces its roots to before the massacre, echoed that sentiment in an interview before his own church’s service.

“It’s not a tragedy that’s left in 1921. It’s a tragedy that continues to live each day that lacks justice,” said Turner, who protests weekly outside Tulsa City Hall, calling both for reparations and for a posthumous criminal investigation of the massacre’s perpetrators.

Some churches on Sunday recognized 13 still-active congregations that operated in Greenwood in 1921, including many that had to rebuild their destroyed sanctuaries. Lists of the 13, under the heading “Faith Still Standing,” are being distributed on posters and other merchandise.

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

Some historically white churches also observed the centennial.

Pastor Deron Spoo of First Baptist Church of Tulsa, a Southern Baptist church less than two miles from the similarly named North Tulsa church, told his congregation that the massacre has been “a scar” on the city.

The church has a prayer room with an exhibit on the massacre, accompanied by prayers against racism. It includes quotations from white pastors in 1921 who faulted the Black community rather than the white attackers for the devastation and declared racial inequality to be “divinely ordained.”

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

Also recognizing the massacre was South Tulsa Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in a predominately white suburban part of Tulsa.

Pastor Eric Costanzo grew up in Tulsa but didn’t learn of the massacre until attending seminary out of state. When he later saw an exhibit on the massacre at the Greenwood Cultural Center, he recognized its enormity. He later got involved with centennial planning, arranging for presentations at the church about the massacre and visits by church members to Greenwood.

In an interview, he said he hoped that the “bridge we created between our communities” remains active after the centennial to confront “a lot of the hard topics our city and culture faces.”

The Rev. Zenobia Mayo, a retired educator and an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is also working to continue those conversations after the centennial. She said her family never used to talk about the massacre, even though her great-great-uncle, renowned surgeon A.C. Jackson, was among its most prominent victims.

Elders in the family sought to protect their children from the trauma of racist violence, she said. “They felt not talking about it was the way to deal with it.”

But now Mayo hopes to host discussions on racism at her home with mixed groups of white and Black guests.

“If it’s going to be, let it begin with me,” she said.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

"99.8% of U.S. deaths are of the unvaccinated. If you heard of an airline of that percentage dying, whereas a 0.02% on another, you’re switching flights." -- Dr. Jimmie Smith, Macon-Bibb County Health Department, Georgia.
As a scholar of religious studies, I frequently use critical race theory as a tool to better understand how religion operates in American society.
Inspired by their faith, four LDS students built new study resource that has revolutionized how hundreds of thousands of aspiring physicians study for their exams. "It really started because we just wanted to help people," one said.
We're now in one of the holiest seasons of the year for one of smallest and oldest religions in India -- one with a long history in the United States.
Organizing on-campus vaccination clinics, calling thousands of students, hosting informational webinars with medical experts – these are some of the ways in which IFYC’s Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors (FIVA) have been raising awareness around the COVID-19 vaccine on campuses and high-need communities across the nation.
Last year's winners, listed below, created a range of initiatives, from virtual retreats and criminal justice initiatives to book clubs and racial equity workshops.
Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot.
What will the campus chapel, and the chaplaincy, look like more than a century from now? Let the adventure begin.
The issue is not the presence of religion in the public square. Instead, the question before us is how to express those religious commitments within in a pluralistic society.
We don’t know what the year 5782 – as it is in the Hebrew calendar – has in store for any of us. But we have the power to act in a way to do right by each other and bring a little more peace and love and joy into this profoundly broken world.
The following interview features Dr. Toby Bressler, senior director of nursing for oncology and clinical quality at the Mount Sinai Health System and vice president of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association.
Part of what I found so beautiful about our conversation is that we both agree that American pluralism is not simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of a diverse democracy, it is also a kind of sacred trust that God intends us to steward.
After 9/11, there was increased intentionality in widening interfaith relations to include a broader number of faith groups and discussions. Twenty years later, it is not unusual to see interreligious conferences, joint advocacy efforts and disaster relief teamwork involving faith groups ranging from Adventists to Zoroastrians.
Twenty years later, we at IFYC, like so many others, collect the shards of memory, recollecting, reconstituting the trauma and horror of that day. And the sacredness is in doing so together.
As we approach this significant anniversary of 9/11, we must work to infuse the day with purpose and pluralism. Pay it Forward 9/11 is bringing people together to do 20,000 good deeds for the 20th anniversary.
In the first month since 9/11, The Sikh Coalition documented over 300 cases of violence and religious discrimination against Sikhs in the U.S. and has since grown to become the largest Sikh advocacy and civil rights organization in the country.
“If you were to quiz these students on what happened on 9/11, they think they knew what happened, but nobody really explained it to them,” Lisa Doi said. “I had to think through, how do you teach this history to somebody who doesn’t really remember it?”
My prayer is that for as long as we remember 9/11, that we will take time to listen to the stories of loss that break our hearts, and join together in finding ways to heal the division, violence and hate that continue to tear apart our world.
It has been 20 years, but the pain of that day is still present in so many places.
20 years after the 9/11 attacks, four remarkable people took profound suffering, loss and grief and “somehow managed to not center enemies. What can we learn from that? How can that be a teaching to the culture?”
Now the entire planet is our garden, and Rosh Hashana is our chance to remember that we are all descended from the original gardeners — that we are here, each of one us, to tend our chosen plots as best we can.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.