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Blazing New Trails on Well-Traveled Ground: Arkansas pastor recognized with McCall Racial Justice Trailblazer award

By Grayson Hester

Preston Clegg, pastor of Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, Ark., doesn’t like the idea of missing out on joy.

Preston Clegg was honored with CBF’s Emmanuel McCall Racial Justice Trailblazer Award in 2021 for his efforts on behalf of racial justice in Little Rock, Ark. “How do I teach my people that justice work is not an addendum to the Gospel, it’s not an add on, it’s not like the gravy on top but it’s part of the biscuit,” Clegg said during a recent episode of CBF Conversations. “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly. You know, that’s not a woke talking head on television. That was Micah,” he added.

In January 2019, Clegg joined scores of Little Rock residents in celebrating the inauguration of the city’s first democratically-elected Black mayor, Frank Scott. Having been friends with Scott long before the ceremony, Clegg, a white pastor of a predominantly white church, was invited to lead the closing prayer.
Despite its being a political event, the inauguration, to Clegg, felt “high and holy.” And his inclusion in it was nothing short of an honor.

“It was the sort of honor that doesn’t make your chest poke out or your head expand; it was the sort of honor that makes your knees tremble at the glory of it,” Clegg said. “I felt like it was the dawn of a new day in Little Rock; maybe that is a little utopian. But there was an energy in that room. It was a public, city government gathering, but it felt like—there was enough spirit in the room that day that it felt like church broke out.”

The word Clegg kept reiterating was “joy”—joy at the celebration, joy at the invitation, joy at witnessing history being made.

He chose the word “joy”—and not mere happiness or excitement or even optimism —because the feeling came as the result of intense spiritual work, an intrinsic component of the work to which he has devoted his life. Clegg is one of CBF’s three 2021 recipients of the Emmanuel McCall Racial Justice Trailblazer Award.

Second Baptist Church called him as pastor in 2013, but neither his nor the church’s respective journeys with racial justice began there. Second Baptist has garnered a reputation as a predominantly and historically white church that views racial justice as “intrinsic to its identity.”

“I very rarely have to convince congregants that addressing public issues is also of gospel concern,” he said. “The Gospel of Jesus has to do with kingdoms and public allegiances as much as private and personal identities.”

Six decades before Clegg stepped into the Second Baptist pulpit, the church advocated for the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, an event known to many by its shorthand, “The Little Rock Nine.”

What the church lost in membership during that time, it gained in scars—the kind that are a testimony, not unlike the ones which graced Jesus’ post-resurrection hands—and in identity.

In a country where virtually every white church in America would say racism is wrong, Second Baptist actually pairs the declaration with action. It is a trail blazed with sparks that Clegg now walks and hopes to fan into flames.

“The flame has matured. This is the massive and challenging and yet vitally necessary next step that many white churches need to take today,” he said. “If every church in America is against racism, why do we keep doing it? Why do we keep supporting the policies and systems that keep doing it?”

Of course, no flame can burn without oxygen. And for Clegg personally, the realities of racism have been, for his whole life, as ubiquitous as the very air.

He grew up in the Arkansas Delta, a region similar to the Mississippi Delta in its geography, its demography, and, not by accident, in its history of anti-Black racism.

“I came to Second with the full knowledge of that history,” he said. “I grew up in the Delta of Arkansas; racism is part of the oxygen there. As such, I’ve cared about racial justice for a long, long time. It’s one of the reasons I’m here; and it’s one reason, amongst others, that the church called me.”

And although passion for racial justice predates his 2013 arrival to downtown Little Rock, the corresponding societal and systemic awareness, requisite counterparts to passion, did not fully fan out until the 2016 presidential election.

As with many white people in the U.S., this election ushered in for Clegg what some call the “Great Awokening,” a moment when any preconceived notion of a post-racial society, or even one making inexorable racial progress, was abruptly shattered.

“It was a seminal moment,” he said. “We have to do discipleship differently in the church, especially in terms of racial justice. We have a hard time spotting [racism] as white people. We don’t disciple people well to think systemically.”

Moving beyond mere interpersonal animus into more abstract territory—the systems undergirding education, health care, criminal justice, etc.— is difficult work. But it is necessary.

Clegg reoriented both himself and his ministry to this more systemic-focused approach. This led him, in 2018, to take a sabbatical wherein he studied systemic racism in New York and Washington, D.C., and embarked upon a Civil Rights tour of the South.

“I immersed myself in specific ways that racism has morphed in this country, specific ways I as a white pastor can teach people to spot it and hopefully redeem it,” he said.

Since then, the church has specifically engaged in intensive internal and external work to do just that.
Clegg, who typically sees himself as a more narrative pastor who guides people into drawing their own conclusions on Scripture, has preached more frequently and less ambiguously on the realities of systemic racism.

And when he’s not behind the pulpit, the church will invite Black preachers from Little Rock and beyond to share similar (if more experiential) messages. These preachers are some of many Black teachers Clegg and the church turn to. One of these is Jemar Tisby, the author of The Color of Compromise, a New York Times bestseller. It is impossible to do antiracist work without hearing the voices of those who have suffered from it most.

As many white people have done since 2016, the church has studied several books on antiracism by both white and Black authors alike, including Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman.
And Wednesday night services, a time churches typically reserve for choir practices or dinners, have been retooled for racial (de)education.

“We’ve tried to educate our people on why these issues have a disparate impact on people of color and why we can’t in good conscience be quiet about it,” Clegg said.

And quiet Second Baptist certainly is not. Externally, the church is striving to match its internal discipleship and study with advocacy and action.

Clegg frequently contributes op-eds to Little Rock’s newspaper, most recently on Arkansas’ lack of hate crime legislation and the pressing need for it. It is one of two states not to have such legislation on the books.

CBF’s Rev. Kasey Jones discusses in-depth with Clegg about his and Second Baptist’s racial justice journey in the January 25 episode of CBF Conversations. Watch this conversation with Clegg as well as conversations with 2021 McCall Trailblazer Award recipients Cheryl Adamson and Rosalío Sosa at http://www.cbf.net/conversations

The church can be seen praying with its feet at protests or rallies, calling for reform on issues as diverse as Arkansas’ capital punishment record, voter registration, and, most visibly, the state takeover of Little Rock’s school system.

Clegg is often the only white voice on panels called to address systemic racism, a position he fills with much grace and responsibility.

This is, of course, because Second Baptist stands all but alone as a downtown church, predominantly white, that sees racial justice work not as an accessory to the Gospel, but the very Gospel of Jesus Christ itself. 

“I believe that the social gospel is Gospel. It’s not an addendum,” Clegg said. “If you want to care for the people in your pews, if you have one Black person, if you have one person of color, if you, as a church, know and love one person of color, then the issue is not abstract politics. It has a real-life impact upon people we know and love and call sister and brother. We share the communion table with them. What does that demand of us?”

To hear Clegg tell it, it demands complete spiritual transformation. It demands, not simply a vote or a book club or a social media post, but a whole reorientation of a white person’s life from racism to justice, from whiteness to Christlikeness. It is, in short, a road littered with crosses.

“When I hear white pastors and churches say, ‘That road is a hard road for us to take; it would come at a cost for us,’ that is true. It absolutely would,” he said. “If you go into this thinking, ‘This will help me grow my church,’ I bet it doesn’t. If the fruit expected is immediate ecclesial and pastoral benefit, you’ll be disappointed because you’re misguided.”

Growth and transformation are meant to be painful. Ask any teenager who has hit his or her growth spurt. And it requires a pastor as much as a prophet and a counselor as much as a community. It also requires humility and confession, repentance and reparation, thus making churches an ideal setting for this kind of deconstructive work to occur.

But on the other side of it is, as mentioned earlier, it brings profound joy and glimpses of communion and growth that would never have been possible otherwise.

“We’ve had families join our church in the pandemic,” he said. “After the murder of George Floyd, that red-hot summer of racial justice, people came to me and said, ‘My church had nothing to say; the silence was so loud, and I could not in good conscience stay there anymore.’ They saw us speaking out and thought, ‘That smells like Jesus to me.’”

More importantly, the people of color in Second Baptist’s congregation know that the church will advocate on their behalf and love them as much with a prayer as with a protest. That, to Clegg, is a gift.
And at the end of the day, Clegg is not one to miss out on joy. Had he not been called to Second Baptist in 2013, had he not breathed the oxygen of racism in the Arkansas Delta and decided to breathe back out antiracism, had he not decentered his own experience in favor of those of people of color, had the church not stood for desegregation in 1957 and continued that work to this day, he likely would not have been closing out the inauguration of a Black mayor with prayer. 

“I don’t think I would have been in the room. I would have missed the joy of that,” he said. “Maybe that’s the grace and light of all this: Even though this way is laced with crosses, it’s also laced with joy and dancing and the God who redeems even the worst of us.”

And as for the church he pastors and the people and the history he carries with him every time he speaks, he receives any award on their behalf and with deep humility. “There are people who have been doing this work longer and better than I have,” he said. “I only receive the McCall Trailblazer award while making this confession: I can’t answer the ‘why.’ I’m honored by the award; it’s one of the great honors of my life for this award to be given to the white pastor of a predominantly white church. I think racial justice work is Gospel work. And it’s worth it.”

One thought on “Blazing New Trails on Well-Traveled Ground: Arkansas pastor recognized with McCall Racial Justice Trailblazer award

  1. Our lord is not limited, proceed. John 14:15 if you love me, you will keep my commandments. God’s blessings shine on you, Fred

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