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Interview with Gregory Busby

Busby, Gregory
Crawford, Vickie
Date of Interview: 
Religion; African Americans and religion; Women and ministry; Ministry; Gender roles; Religious calling; Afrocentricity; Family life; Call and response; Sermons; Civil Rights Movement; Freed slaves; First United Presbyterian Church
The Reverend Gregory Busby discusses his role as a minister at First United Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He talks about what he sees as the challenges facing today's pastors: youth outreach, the equal representation of women in religious leadership positions, and balancing the demands of the ministry with the responsibility of family life. Busby describes the characteristics of African American church services and relays his own philosophy in leading a church, planning sermons, and the impact of the church on the greater black community. Busby recounts the history of his own church, as it was formed and erected by former slaves in Charlotte, NC following the Civil War. He also discusses the importance of African American ministers in leading the Civil Rights struggle in the latter-twentieth century.
Charlotte, 1860s-1990s
Interview Setting: 
Interview conducted at First United Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC
Levine Museum of the New South, Amazing Grace Series
Interview Audio: 
VC (Vickie Crawford): At First United Presbyterian Church here in Charlotte. I'm interviewing Reverend Gregory Busby. And the interviewer is Vickie Crawford. So why don't we just pick up where we left off
GB (Gregory Busby): Oh, OK.
VC: about the role of the church. And you were--.
GB: The biggest thing that I learned, I guess, not even growing, up but in seminary was that the black church, if you think about it, was historically the one institution that we as a people had to call our own. We, if we were lucky to work, we worked for somebody else usually. If we were being educated, until we started building our own schools, it was in school set up for us. Pretty much, the church was that one institution where come Sunday everybody was somebody, and it was everybody's time to shine. In fact, I think that church, the black church has been there for just that reason, not just to affirm our people but also to help people in times of trouble and times of needing some self definition, redefinition, an advocate for those who had no voice. That's what the black church was and I believe, still is today.
VC: How do you see your role as a minister. What are some of the challenges before you as a, as a pastor?
GB: I think my biggest challenge is combining, nurturing the saints that you have, quote, unquote, on your church rolls and at the same time seeking to minister to those who are without. And that's part evangelism, trying to bring new folk to your church. But I think it's also being available when somebody comes unannounced on your doorstep and you're in the middle of whatever, but they need their light bill paid or whatever. I think it's also being involved in your community, and that is knowing that so goes the fate of this church or this neighborhood over here. As someone has once said, you know, if you don't respond when they come after them, when eventually they'll come after you, and there's nobody left to speak for you. So it's--. I think trying to be an advocate within and without, that's the biggest challenge of how do you balance all of that.
VC: How did you come to--? How did you make the decision to become a minister? Did you make it--? Did you always know this or--? Could you talk about that?
GB: Yeah, be happy to. I guess I was one of those reluctant type of ministers. Id had a sense that something might be there around my junior year of college. I had an unusual case where three people I knew in the school I went to died within a nine-year period. And none of them were older than 36 years of age. And when you're twenty, that gets your attention in a hurry because I had that theory, you know, you're young, you get your degree, you get married, maybe have some kids, go on (about your) life. But what had happened, a school buddy died right before we were coming back from band camp. He had gotten me involved with student government. Pre-law advisor died Christmas Eve; somebody else on my birthday, so a lot of those things sprang forth. I left somebody out back in Cleveland. For me, I didn't really know it though, even with all of that until maybe two years later. I started getting active in my church in Cleveland. And people would hear me give Minute for Mission, lay kind of talks like that, and they'd say, "Oh that's so good. You sure haven't, shouldn't be a minister?" And I'd, well, I'm a speech major, I'm a broadcasting major of course I'm supposed to sound like that. But then I moved to St. Louis two years after that, and people who didn't know me as well. I'd do the same kind of talks, active in their church. And "Are you sure you're not running from your calling?" So for me it was a ten-year process of finally going to seminary with the idea. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be here, and if I'm not, I sure hope God will send me back. [Laughter] Unfortunately, God kept confirming good grades and, you know, placements in a internship church, Radcliff Church in Atlanta. And a lot of different things have brought me to this point today.
VC: What do you, what do you like most about your job, your role as a minister?
GB: The biggest part I like is the visitation. I enjoy visiting people in their homes. But I also, for some reason, I enjoy visiting them in those crisis moments, not that I have all the answers, or can just command them to be well with a touch of a hand, that type of thing. My mother was a nurse anesthetist, and I think I've become sensitive to being around hospital settings for that reason. And I think also just knowing that people are looking to you for some sort of strength, even if it's nothing more than sitting quietly in a hospital room as a diagnosis has been given to them or their loved ones. But to me, that's the biggest part that I guess comes naturally to me. And I'm like anybody else. I like what comes easiest to me, and, that would be it.
VC: Could you talk a little bit about preaching and the role of preaching within black churches. The significance of it, and what are some of the texts that are often called up?
GB: OK. One significance that's never lost on me is what a former pastor told me in starting out. And he said, you know, black preachers are accused of a lot of things, but nothing can kill his or her ministry more than to be accused of not being able to preach. So the biggest thing you have to find is to carve out that time with everything else that we do to really study, as the Word says, and to show yourself an approved workman to (divide) that word of truth. So it's a real struggle with that and a wife and two kids to find that time. But I think the other part is not just finding a text because it speaks to you one particular day but knowing your congregation and its struggles and what its going through at a particular time so that you can use those old texts in today's situation and try to marry the two together. I guess one that's a really favorite text for me or one that I know is well known is the text in Luke about the prodigal son that I just preached this past Sunday for a homecoming in Maysville, South Carolina. And I like that particular one. I call it, "Coming Home Again." I've preached it in different places because if you think about that story and the whole message of church, in the black church in particular, as much as we have been misquoted and misrepresented for a lot of different things, the church is still about welcoming sons and daughters who strayed away from home back into a loving relationship with God. And to me, you know, if whatever text I pick or whatever, it's got to come back to that central point even if it's a justice issue, it's an empowerment issue, or whatever, that you're hitting tangentially, you still have to bring people to the fact that God loves you. God's not mad at you. You shouldn't feel estranged at God. If anybody ran away, it was you. God's still here. God wants you to come home. That kind of thing. So that's one text that I guess, recently, still lives with me. There's a text in the Old Testament of Isaiah 40, where it talks about those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles, walking. You want me to start preaching? [Laughter] But that has been a source of inspiration to our people because waiting on the Lord, we sometimes say, well does that mean like waiting on a Charlotte transit bus? No. Is it like waiting until your number hits the lottery? No. But knowing that again the Lord has your best interest in mind. The Lord has not vacated your situation and indeed he will be there if you'll dare to trust him and to walk through with him. Don't ask a preacher to quote a favorite text. [Laughter]
VC: What is the significance of that to the larger struggle of our people collectively?
GB: Yeah.
VC: That, that text. That's, that's interesting that--.
GB: Yeah. Yeah. That's one that is used a lot. I think it's significant in the sense that God never promises any people you won't advance without struggle. For we as a people to say that desegregation is not fair. Well, I don't want to say that's life, but in another setting, it's not an unpredictable or its not something that another group has in different forms experienced when we say this resurgence of the religious right, if you will, and the unreligious right. It says to me that even in the midst of these enemies, if you will, that the Lord who caused you to be birthed, African American or whatever your walk in life, is also the one who wants to make your life count for something. And even when others count you off their political polls and last hired, first fired, still, fifty years or a hundred years when that first came out, that if you wait on him in the sense of allowing him to not just do the next step but tell you what that next step might be. Maybe you're waiting on the Lord because you need a new job. Well, you can wait on him, but I do say in the meantime you should be applying [Laughter] at different agencies and filling out applications. So that to me is and example of trying to illustrate what that means for us as a people. The other part is just a renewing of your strength. It doesn't mean that if you're beaten down that you have to stay that way. You look to God for your strength. It may come through a minister. It may come through the other people in the church, some religious mother or father you look up to. But waiting on the Lord in that sense can not only renew your strength but help you to mount up with ings--, wings as eagles and that kind of thing.
VC: What is the role of the church for, in your family life? How does it--? How do your religious values and your role as a minister, how does that kind of merge with your role as a father and as a husband?
GB: Yeah, yeah. It has to. I was raised in the traditional Christian family in the sense that when I was young boy, not much older than my son, I was taught by my grandmother little stories out of the Bible as bedtime stories, you know. We talked about this man named David and Goliath, that type of thing. And that has carried over in that most of the models I see for what a marriage should or shouldn't be I learned from my parents marriage and other successful marriages I saw as a youngster coming up in the church. I think it impacts it in the sense that there's an old saying we have called, "practice what you preach." And that is that I can't certainly get on the Promise Keepers band wagon and say you got to be a better husband and a better father and this, that and the other, and then I'm up here at church at every meeting there is from Sunday through Saturday, and my kid knows me when I'm shaking his hand at graduation, maybe. So it's, I think back to, I want to keep saying a balancing act, but I do think that you have to lead by example as well as by what you say. You have to continue to affirm your wife as the one in your life above any other who will look for time and attention in ministry and all of that. But it does convict you at times of what you need to be you're [Laughter] reading the word versus what you're called to be elsewhere. So it is a struggle to do that at times, but I think that you look to the church biblically and also experientially, what you have seen as examples of good family relationships and values that you get your clues from.
VC: What has changed about the black church and what has stayed the same, remained the same in terms of historically, the historical role of the church in the black community?
GB: Um-hum. I think the church is probably the one institution in our community that for all it stands for doesn't change as readily as perhaps [Laughter] some of us in the clergy or even in the laity would like to see. It has, to say it positively, it has changed a lot in this whole business of Afrocentricity. And that is accepting the black presence in the Bible as not an accident but, hey, we really do have a place in the scriptures, and it's OK for us to wear Kente stoles and even clothing in worship and sing gospel music in a Presbyterian church. It's OK and that kind of thing. It has changed gradually in that respect. I do think, though, that the challenge for not just this congregation but all of our congregations is we have not done as good of a job as we would like to think we have in terms of ministering to our youth as they're with us and certainly trying to retain or recapture them once they're gone beyond high school and college and start on families of their own. I'm not so sure we're as relevant beyond maybe the preached word and, of course, to sing songs that they recognize off gospel radio. I don't know if we're doing all that needs to be done to really address some day-to-day needs that they have versus, you know, the traditional here was little Jesus, meek and mild, that type of thing.
VC: Oh, OK. What is distinctive about the black church experience in terms of looking at the music and the preaching and the, the ritual of the service itself? Could you talk about some of those things?
GB: Yeah. For the most part, people experience the black church experience as a lively, you know, responsive, caller response type of thing between the preacher and the congregation. The music is usually upbeat. Certainly it's meaningful to produce a wide number of emotions. There's an expected response of people to not only the song word but the preached word with an altar call prayer, those kinds of things. They're constant. Again, I think the black church experience though is different, each church you go to. Some have joked and called Presbyterians the "frozen chosen." So that you would [Laughter]--. You might want to edit that out, but [Laughter]--. But there's a case where some churches that you don't have necessarily that same energy produced in the of worship experience. But there is still, I think, that expectation that something's going to happen here that will move you even if you sit as solid as a rock, but will move you either here or here or certainly, you know, emotively that you'll feel better about the situations you brought coming in. May not remove them, but you might feel a little better to go on, that kind of thing.
VC: Can you give me an example of call and response--.
VC: If you were, for example
GB: [Laughter]
VC: like in the pulpit and, something--. A piece of what you said last week, this past Sunday.
GB: OK. I mentioned how, you know, you, there's home can be like a prison to some or that it can be like a full place to other. And then there would be full place, or that kind of thing. What I said last Sunday was something like home is the one place where you can be your whole self and others can be their whole selves. You can kick off your shoes. You can loosen your necktie. There would be an "Amen," "Amen," "Amen," in most settings, [Laughter] or that kind of thing. You could loosen you pantyhose. You might run around naked if that's your choice, but it's OK because be it ever so humble, there's not place like home. One of the characteristics that black preachers use is to take an idea and build upon that to set a part- at least that is my preaching style. Take an idea in the abstract and try to use that to develop something else. And you try to pick, at least for me, things people can relate to in their everyday life. Who doesn't take off their shoes when they come home at the end of the day or loosen their tie or other parts of clothing, or whatever. The point is, is that you can be home with that, and then I brought it to the sense that the prodigal son was home but didn't feel at home. He wanted to get out and seek his fame and fortune in another world and that kind of thing. Maybe they made a tape. I might have to get a call [Laughter] and response for you that way. [RECORDING INTERRUPTED, THEN RESUMED]
GB: How different it might sound.
VC: How do you get your ideas for a sermon?
GB: Mine come--. I try to bring them out of everyday life as I was saying a minute ago. I, I like to see what's happening in the local and national news for starters. I try to think about how things hit me in my everyday life as far different problems, you know. How, you mentioned the husband-father thing a minute ago. But how do you get by when you've done all you can do and that's not enough. Or how do you make ends meet when the well is dry and you're on unemployment, those kind of things. I look for those as common themes to the human experience. And then I usually I--. Some ministers are like me. I follow the lectionary which is a pre-printed thing the Catholic church prints out from Sunday to Sunday. I either read it first; it has different themes for each week. I'm not married to it in the slavish sense of the word, but assuming that there isn't something there, those kinds of things I'm thinking about that I may going through or somebody I know has gone through, I make those the starting point for a text and then try to take text and marry that to what was then, how that relates to now and those kinds of things. This particular one coming out this week is, "Getting Rid of Grudges." And it's a lectionary. It's based on the text when Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery. And I haven't even written a word [Laughter] of this, but it would, you know, you would think in terms of what's it like to hold a grudge and to see somebody every day that you really don't want to see and yet you've got to see them and you deal with them, and what would God really--. That kind of thing is how I get a lot of it. Sometimes watching television when you're not even thinking about it something will, will hit you. I think that's what we mean by you have to be open to God's spirit, not just when you're sitting up here in your office or in your home study but sometimes as you walk the streets. I think it was Tillich or Bonhoeffer, one of our earlier twentieth century theologians, said you always have to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper another. And I think his comment is certainly relevant in '96 as it was the earlier part of the century. And he may have said it. I think it was Paul Tillich-
VC: Hmm.
GB: But you can look it up. [Laughter]
VC: Thinking about Tillich, I'm, I'm thinking about the Civil Rights Movement now
GB: Yeah.
VC: and the role
GB: Yeah.
VC: of the black church in fostering and mobilizing the Civil Rights Movement.
GB: Um-hum.
VC: Could you share your insights about that and--?
GB: I had the opportunity to take a class in seminary called Martin Luther King as an agent for social change. And we got a chance to tour Montgomery and Dexter Avenue Baptist where he first started by becoming president of that movement. Again, at the risk of repeating myself, I think people came to the church because that was--. The traditional black preacher was not at the beholdens of say any of the power brokers of that era or day for their job. They could speak out because there were no economical repercussions behind what they had to say. I think the church was also the one organized body. We had, you know, fraternal and civic and other groups in those days, but it was the church that really got to the masses of people and could mobilize folk, not just at Sunday, but we were used to coming back Sunday evening for evening services, midnight prayer services on Wednesday or mid-week choir rehearsal. So the church had that, I guess, historical gathering role if we talk about the modern Civil Rights era of the late 40s, 30s, 40s, on through the 60s and early 70s. And people, again, have looked to the preacher to be that one voice of opposition that doesn't have to knuckle down to anybody else. Not just because of their own personal influence, but, the hopefully, the hundreds of people that are behind him or her that he or she spoke for in those days.
VC: You mentioned "her".
GB: [Laughter]
VC: So will you talk about the role of women in the ministry now and.
GB: Yeah.
VC: And how that's seen by people in church and what are your ideas about that?
GB: Well, I, I, welcome it. I've had women to preach for me on a number of occasions, and not just women's day, [Laughter] I might add. Yet I'm saddened. Again, this is where, I don't think, where the church has necessarily kept us in step with society as we would like to think. I'm in a denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, has been ordaining women to ministry since my birth year, [Laughter]1955. And yet you can almost count on one and a half hands how many hold pulpits here in Charlotte, alone, or Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. They're very few and far between, and it doesn't get much better nationally. This a denomination that affirms women in the priesthood. As you may or may not know, the black church has not the best record in that itself in the more traditional mainline Baptist, AME, AME Zion reg="AME Zion Church', etcetera. A lot of people take that scripture out of context that says women keep silent in the church or, you know, it's, it's an indemnity for a woman to be up and speaking with her issue of blood type of thing. I, I hate that the church can't be broader minded than that, to recognize that there are many sisters in Christ who can out preach most of us brothers on a good day. That also had a more compassion spirit at times. But, again, that's perhaps something that I can't really answer why it is, but I do think that women have always had a place, if you look at the scriptures, in leadership capacities and maybe it's a phenomenon of our misunderstanding of what a women's place is, why we don't see more women affirmed in pulpits and pastorates. There are chaplains and other forms of ministry being done, but there seems to be a real avoidance when it comes--. I can only think of two female pastors I know of in this whole country, not irrespective of denomination.
VC: Hum. Well, First United Presbyterian has a historic role in the Charlotte community.
GB: Yes.
VC: Could you talk a bit about that, the early history of this particular church?
GB: Sure. This particular church had its roots, I guess, in the Civil Rights era of another time and generation. It was around 1863, '64, '65 or so, we had a group of free blacks who were worshipping and--. [RECORDING INTERRPUTED, THEN RESUMED] First United Presbyterian Church has one of the more unique histories in all of black churchdom in Charlotte. We trace our roots back to right around the close of the Civil War. It was around 1864 or '65 that a group of free blacks were worshiping in the balcony of the First Presbyterian Church, which is on the square here around Trade and Tryon Streets. And they had gotten fed up with this second-class spiritual citizenship, if you will, being relegated upstairs. Much like the AME story is told out of Philadelphia. And it was for that reason that they wrote to the Northern Presbyterian church, which by the way, the churches had split on slavery issue. The northern Presbyterian church was against slavery. The Southern Presbyterians, of which many Charlotte churches at that time were, were in favor of, affirmed it. Anyway, it was upon that writing that three missionaries from the Northern church were sent to Charlotte Mecklenburg area to found different churches. McClintock Presbyterian Church predates us by about a year, and Matthews-Murkland is two years older than our predecessor church. But, in any event, in the fall of 1866 the Colored Church of Charlotte was commissioned by that, at the time, the Southern, Northern Presbyterian Church and it was for that reason that they had a separate identity from the First Presbyterian congregation, a separate facility. I believe it was on Davidson Street somewhere. I'm not exactly sure of the address. But they began to worship as a free community of their own, and it was somewhere around the latter part of the nineteenth century, 1895 to be exact, that this very building in which we sit was reconverted. And the neat part of the story is that these black men and women on their own free time in the evenings, some would hold candles for brick masons to lay bricks. Some did their own plumbing. All that masonry and other kind of work that goes into making a building they did. And in 1895 the Colored Church of Charlotte became Seventh Street Presbyterian Church in which, again, was an all-black congregation. We've got our first black clergy leader, I think, around 1903, or something like that. That same period of time in the early twentieth century, a church became formed, some say or I'm told, out of a Bible school that started in Seventh Street Church. But in any event, the Brooklyn Presbyterian Church in 1911 was commissioned in the old Brooklyn neighborhood of Charlotte, and it too had a rich history of self affirmation and its own black pastoral leadership and sense of self identity. In the mid 60s as we all know when Brooklyn suffered the fate of urban progress, the Brooklyn Presbyterian Church was destroyed or in, on the (marks) of everything else, to be destroyed. And the Catawba Presbyterian in those days, which governed the black Presbyterian churches-as I neglected to say that, but we could talk for hours. Even in the midst of a white a denominational structure, the black Presbyterians of this region had their own presbytery, which meant their own decision-making and governance and those kinds of things. In any event, in 1967 the former Brooklyn Church which was scheduled to be demolished and Seventh Street Presbyterian Church were merged to become First United Presbyterian Church, our name of today. And here we are in our twenty-ninth year. So it's in that spirit that there's a whole lot of history. Some of the original educators of this city came out of here. Some of the people who like the initial principals at old Second Ward High School, First Ward Elementary School, and among others, just naming those few, [Laughter] but just a whole myriad of leaders in education and business and industry that still carries through today. [RECORDING INTERRUPTED, THEN RESUMED] And how Moses was a reluctant call to ministry. And I preached this sermon here the Sunday I was installed, the morning before I was installed that afternoon, because it was saying to me at time and it still says that Moses came out with excuse after excuse after excuse. "Lord you can't be calling me. I, I'm not ready to lead people. And, I--." "Well, I'll give you a staff; they'll follow your staff." "Well, I can't speak well. I stut, stut, stut, stutter." And, "Well take your brother with you. He'll speak for you." My point was simply that we all make excuses with God, why we don't want to go, "Oh, I can't this. I got--. I'm too busy. I've got sorority. I'm in this. I'm in that." But God looks beyond our excuses and says no matter what you think about yourself, I say you've got the right stuff, baby. I did talk about some community things, too. Because, for instance, for all the media says about all these young boys killing women at the Hilton who were carjacked, they don't talk anything about all those graduating with honors from all of these schools around here and this, that and the other. You've got the right stuff because how on earth could we as a people have went through a hundred some odd years of what we've going through to even be around in 1996 (and before at the time). But that kind of stuff--. I think that's the kind of preaching that seminary influenced me to be about is you can't just quote the same old scriptures, you know. Make it relevant for today and give me, sitting out there in that pew, something to hope for. Put yourself in that--. When you were sitting out there Sunday after Sunday, what was it going to take have you put your clothes on the next day and say I'm going to face the man, or I'll face these adversaries, of I'll face this unhappy home life, or whatever it might be. That's to me the key of preaching. You can go back and get that [Laughter], but it really is. The key of preaching that way is to put yourself in others' shoes. And then I, I did think what I was saying earlier, I have to say to you again, it's not just what you say in that pulpit, you know. People forgive a lot of things in the pulpit, because after all you've got the authority, the office, and all the trappings and all that up there, but when we relate eyeball to eyeball, and I call and say I'm in the hospital and you're too busy to come. Or mama was sick and you did hear about it and I just gossip. I know you heard about it and you didn't want to respond. That's, is that really love beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things, that's 1 Corinthians 13. Another favorite we like to preach a lot. The love chapter where people talk about it at weddings a lot. "Though I have the tongues of mens and angels but have not loved, I am like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol." The point is, is that, for me at least say my ministry, if I don't try to represent Christ my savior as best to somebody who maybe doesn't quite buy my ideas of how to run the church or doesn't quite understand why I don't pick this song versus that song first to sing, or why you saw this person versus that person, those folks who have the right to differ with you are as much as a soul that Christ died for as those that are slapping you on the back when you blow nose [Laughter] or whatever little thing you. And that's a challenge for any minister, if their being honest with you or with anybody, is to be that loving or at least that showing love doesn't mean you like what everybody does, but forbearing it enough not only to take some but try to redirect in some direction where somebody should be going.