By Jacqueline J. Holness
Had Denzil D. Holness been hired as a pastor in Coward, South Carolina, or Peculiar, Missouri, or any other out-of-the-way American town or city, he may not have been led to take on racial reconciliation in the Christian church. However, since Holness was hired as the first black pastor at Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” it would seem tackling racial reconciliation was God’s plan for him all along.
Committed to Christian Church Principles
Holness became CCC’s pastor in September 1979 and in December 2017, he retired from ministry after 38 years serving that church. Holness began his journey with the Christian church when he was a teenager in his homeland of Jamaica, which boasts the motto, “Out of Many, One People.” Originally a member of the Anglican church, Holness was persuaded by a friend to join the Christian church because of its principles.
“The more I learned about the Christian church, the more I became committed,” Holness said. “For example, we believe that all Christians should be one. We don’t use denominational labels or names. If the world is to be won to Christ, then believers should bear witness to a visible unity in accordance with the Lord’s prayer in John 17.”
Just before Holness graduated from high school, Fred Kratt, a missionary from the United States, visited Jamaica one summer and was instrumental in arranging for the young man to receive a full scholarship to attend Minnesota Bible College, Kratt’s alma mater.
“Prior to receiving that scholarship, I had been under the conviction that the Lord was calling me to the ministry,” Holness said. Although he received a catalog about the school before he started there, he did not realize Minnesota was much colder than sunny Jamaica. “That first winter, it was so cold, I almost cried,” Holness said with a smile.
Fast forward from the 1960s to April 1979. By then, Holness was married to fellow Jamaican Alice May Holness, and they had a daughter, me, and a son, Delvall. They were living in Miami, Florida, where Holness worked as a psychiatric aide. He returned to Jamaica to attend an Easter weekend retreat hosted by his brother-in-law Lloyd Morris. After the retreat, Morris asked Holness to write his reflections about the retreat for a newsletter. In his article, Holness asked readers to “pray that God may open a door for me to devote myself to full-time Christian ministry.” CCC pastor Denver Sizemore, who was looking for a new pastor to lead Central, read the article and contacted Holness. Months later, Holness became Central’s pastor.
Dealing with Racial Conflicts at Central
When Holness began his pastorate, the church, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, was multiracial (it formerly had been all white). Holness was welcomed by the church and community. “After a while, people cease to see color once you establish a relationship,” he said. Still, white members slowly trickled away until the church became all black. Holness doesn’t know why they left, but noted that external pressure may have led to at least one white member leaving. “[Her] mother was always asking her, ‘When are you going to leave that church?’ she told me.”
Since Holness had served as the first black pastor at Mandeville Church of Christ, his home church in Jamaica (which had been founded and led by white missionaries), he expected the experience at Central to be similar. Cultural rather than racial differences, however, were a challenge. Although black, Holness realized his view of America as an outsider was different from the view of his black American congregants. “To me, America has always been the promised land, unlike for my black brothers and sisters here. I also realized that West Indian blacks are more readily accepted than local blacks,” said Holness, whose Jamaican heritage drew other Jamaicans in metro Atlanta to Central over time.
In fact, at one point, a conflict arose between Jamaican and black American members, which led to a communication breakdown. Holness held several meetings and managed to restore better communication. Black American and Jamaican members grew to love and appreciate their differences, particularly when it came to food, and traveled together to the World Convention of Churches of Christ held in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1984. Today, other Caribbean islands and Africa are also represented in Central’s membership.
These different viewpoints, however, also affected the worship experience.
“I sensed that something was missing,” Holness said. “The people were not responding as I felt they should. I learned that those black members who came in under white leadership were feeling alienated from their black religious roots.”
While black members were attracted to the teaching of the Bible emphasized in the Christian church and the length of the worship service (“The worship service did not go over three hours,” Holness said with a laugh), they were feeling repressed otherwise.
“In a typical black American church, you have the call-and-response, such as ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord,’ or you wave your hand and stand up,” Holness said. “But people did not feel free to be themselves. Some members came to me and said, ‘We don’t feel the Spirit,’ or ‘We’re too organized. We need to leave room for the Spirit.’”
Holness decided he needed to learn more about the black American religious heritage, so he enrolled in Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center, where he received his doctorate in ministry in 1991.
“The outcome of that education was the renewal of our worship at Central,” Holness said. “We changed the worship service in a radical way.” A longer order of worship was created, which included more African-American hymns and spirituals and time set aside for public testimonies. Women began to play a prominent role in the worship service through presiding or reading Scriptures, and Holness began to play a key role in the Communion service. “The worship service affirms the African-American religious heritage.”
Facing “White Flight” from Inner Cities
Another issue, however, warranted attention after cultural concerns were addressed.
“When I saw white church after white church fleeing from racially changing communities, I began reflecting on what was happening,” Holness said. “We’ve had several churches in the area close down or sell their buildings or flee.” Observing at least 10 Christian churches in the metro Atlanta area fleeing over a 17-year period provided the impetus for Holness to pen The Jonah Syndrome: White Churches Running from the Inner City, which was published by College Press in 1998. Holness likened the white flight of churches to Jonah’s fleeing to Tarshish rather than preaching in Nineveh, as God commanded.
At the beginning of his book, Holness outlined five conclusions based on his observations, including these two: churches saw “blacks as problems, not prospects,” and “while professing an openness to all ethnic groups, [the white churches] were essentially unwilling to meet the demands of becoming multiculturally appealing and inclusive.” While Central ultimately became an all-black church, Holness credits his predecessor for seeking leadership that appealed to a multicultural church as the church and surrounding neighborhood became multiracial. “Dr. Sizemore felt that the Christian church should have a presence in the black community, and therefore he decided to shepherd the church through the transition and to prepare for a black minister.”
In the book’s conclusion, Holness wrote that these retreating churches “justified their decision to flee the changing community” based on theories such as these: church growth theory, comfort theory, individual freedom theory, congregational freedom theory, pilgrim theory, and community decline theory. Whatever theory or theories were chosen by a church, the end result was the same: “A flight from our Movement’s witness.”
“It is the unanimous testimony of our historians,” he wrote, “that the Restoration Movement was and is a unity movement.” Holness dissected Christian unity, which includes spiritual unity, inclusive unity, scriptural unity, and visible unity. He noted that Restoration Movement founder Thomas Campbell used the phrase “visible unity” several times in his “Declaration and Address.” Holness wrote, “The purpose of the visible unity of Christians is to convince the world that our Savior’s claims are true and to convert the world to this divine Savior.”
Prescribing a Cure in the Christian Church
After Holness outlined “the Jonah Syndrome,” he also advanced “the cure,” which included the roles of churches, Christian Standard and Standard Publishing, educational institutions, historians, and the North American Christian Convention. He also mentioned strategies of inclusion such as pulpit exchanges, joint Lord’s Supper services, joint prayer meetings, and more.
The response to his book was generally positive, but Holness felt the need to do something more. In 2003 he created A Voice in the Wilderness, a quarterly paper that was circulated throughout the Christian church. “My book had not received a wide circulation, so I felt I had to address the ongoing issue and reach as many people as I could.”
In his first paper, he wrote an article entitled “My Discovery at Columbus,” about his experience at the North American Christian Convention in Columbus, Ohio. “Throughout that convention, I struggled with feelings of sadness, disappointment and alienation. Sadness because so few of my black sisters and brothers were present at that rich feast. Disappointment because of our exclusion from playing any visible role there. Alienation because I did not feel at home there at times.” Holness published his paper until 2013.
In 2007, Holness created an annual Racial Reconciliation Service at Central in conjunction with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. White ministers from other Christian churches were invited to speak at Central.
“So few of our white ministers have ever had the experience of being in a black church, so that was the intention,” Holness said. “I remember one who came to Central on one occasion. It was like he was lost. He had never been to a black church.”
In the 20 years since the release of The Jonah Syndrome, Holness has reaped a harvest of results.
“The North American Convention now has a black speaker as one of the main speakers on a consistent basis. The Christian Standard has changed dramatically. It’s not all white as it used to be. They do feature some blacks. They try to be intentional in projecting an inclusive, multiracial image. Our colleges have also become much more aware of racial reconciliation.”
Through it all, Holness has relied on the support of his wife, to whom he has been married for 46 years.
“She has been my right hand,” he said. “Having been a minister’s daughter, she has been extremely helpful and has served over the years sacrificially.” His support system also includes his now adult children, another son, David, born in Atlanta in 1981, and two grandchildren.
As Central Christian Church searches for a new pastor, Holness revealed the secret of his longevity at the church. “I have tried to love my people.”
While this article is about my father, I have attempted to be objective in describing his life and ministry so that other ministers might glean inspiration.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service. Read more on her website (afterthealtarcall.com).