Raymond Brown, first president of the National Convocation, and Charles Webb Sr., former president of the National Christian Missionary Society, mark the establishment of the National Convocation in 1969.
Raymond Brown is a bridge.
The last president of the National Christian Missionary Convention (NCMC) and the first president of the entity that grew out of it, the National Convocation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Brown, 83, is a living link between the past and the present. He is keenly aware of the issues that led to its creation and knows why it is still relevant today.
"One of the difficulties we have is that we had hoped in 10 years there would be no need for the Convocation," Brown said. "But here we are almost 40 years later. We still have it and we still have a tremendous need for it."
A brief history
According to Convocation’s website, the African American Convention movement began around 1830 to oppose slavery and the forced relocation of free African Americans to Africa, and to address other social concerns. From 1867 through 1910, numerous African American Disciples Conventions were organized. These "separate but cooperating" conventions were deemed necessary because African American Disciples realized the white power structure precluded their sharing leadership. As well, these conventions recognized the African American church as the only organization in American life that grew out of the unique African American experience of enslavement. The Conventions addressed specific African American issues and needs and were instrumental in developing leadership for African American congregations.
In 1917, at the recommendation of national evangelist Preston Taylor and William Alphin, the NCMC was formed as an auxiliary of the International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ). Its aim was to "cooperate in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" and to "foster and maintain a program of Christian education."
The NCMC merged its staff and services with the United Christian Missionary Society (UCMS) in 1960 and was aided financially by units of the church.
"These entities, units such as Church Extension and some others, would no longer provide resources directly to the Convention, but the underwriting of that staff would come through the regular financial procedures of the church," Brown explained. "That was a tremendous help."
The UCMS had been formed in 1919 to combine several organizations working in foreign missions. In 1969, the International Convention (which became the General Assembly), the NCMC, and the UCMS adopted principles for merger.
The National Convocation was instituted to lead the church toward harmony, inclusiveness, and unity across racial lines. Its goal was "to provide an instrumentality within the structure of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a forum for the discussion of pertinent issues related to black church life in the context of total church life." It was to respond proactively to the ministry needs of African American Disciples. According to Brown, all the business procedures of the NCMC were transferred to the General Assembly, but the NCMC retained its corporate identity.
The position of administrative secretary of the National Convocation resulted from the restructuring.
"Our agreement was that we would have an administrative secretary with executive status located in the Office of the General Minister and President," Brown said. The merger also mandated employing three African American staff members in the Division of Homeland Ministries (now Disciples Home Missions).
"We have leaders in the church and parts of the church who don’t understand the merger agreement," said Timothy James, administrative secretary of the National Convocation. "They don’t know the story, and they don’t understand what all was involved in coming together."
One church, one mission
A fourth-generation Disciple who has served as a pastor and with Church Extension, Brown had a firsthand view of the merger.
"Our whole object was we were going to be whole church together," he said. A central tenet of the National Convocation states, "Under the ONE God, the ONE Church has ONE mission in the world." But there was not blanket acceptance of the merger.
"Sociologically, this was the time when blacks were seeking their independence, and here we were talking about giving up ours," Brown said. "There were some who indicated they didn’t trust what was going to happen, but they were willing to go into the process."
The unique history of African Americans in the United States made the National Convocation necessary. The ongoing struggle for acceptance and equality makes it still relevant today.
"African American Disciples are struggling to try to find our place in the denomination and the world still," said Harold Collins, who ended his tenure as president of the National Convocation in July. More minorities are becoming Disciples, he said, and people will not feel they are part of the denomination if they don’t see people who look like them in leadership roles. "We need to be persistent in educating our people about what (being) a Disciple means. ... That’s why it’s critical that we continue."
"We need to change perception by doing what the merger calls for — providing services and leadership to our ethnic congregations and, in our case specifically, African American congregations," James added. "I think people don’t understand, and they think they’ve done enough."
A future and a hope
Brown is not stuck in the past. He keeps an eye on current events and evaluates their impact on the future of both the National Convocation and the Disciples. He is especially monitoring developments promoted by the new Mission Alignment initiative.
"The model of Mission Alignment is trying to go back to the same thing we had," he said. "It’s trying to set up ethnic minority persons on certain levels, including African Americans, which to me is just like what we were before we all merged. From our perspective, the services provided to African American congregations have diminished."
But William Lee, himself a former National Convocation president and immediate past moderator of the Christian Church, believes Mission Alignment will have a positive impact. He says the conversation sparked by the initiative will encourage more people who don’t know about the merger agreement to join the conversation about the church’s future.
"The issue of Mission Alignment is not changing the merger; it’s a case of how do you look at the merger and make it applicable and operable for 2008," Lee said. "You cannot expect something that was created in 1968 to be able to sit right down and fit in 2008. Things have changed."
Mission Alignment, Lee said, will force African Americans to ask, "Where are we on the continuum now? What are we doing? Is there a danger the church will regress instead of progress?"
"Not if I can help it," Brown said. "Hopefully we can keep moving forward into the future. The National Convocation will serve until, as we originally intended, there is no longer any need for it."
Milestones in the history of the National Convocation
Source: National Convocation homepage, www.disciples.org/convo/history.htm