Story of "The Charred Cross"

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As referenced in Sacred Stages, the “Charred Cross” serves as a frightful reminder of the visit paid by the KKK to the lawn of Reverend Ed King, Chaplain of Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi. This cross would soon transform into a dramatic symbol of a church divided—a symbol which, both literally and figuratively, accompanied Tougaloo College students to the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church.

The Methodists, a mainline Protestant denomination, gathered that spring of 1964 for their quadrennial meeting to review church law and practices. Heading the agenda was a motion to desegregate the denomination “from the top down” by uniting with the African American church which was then operating under a separate central jurisdiction. The driving force for desegregation was, in part, propelled by several white pastors from Chicago: Gerald Forshey, Martin Deppe, and Jim Reid. The Tougaloo students also joined in their crusade.

The motion passed, and the conference concluded with a planned merger that would fully integrate the Methodist Church. As they said their goodbyes, the students from Tougaloo gifted the charred cross to the Chicago pastors for the roles they played in that historic reunification. Pastors Forshey and Deppe wrapped the precious gift in paper and returned with it to Chicago. Forshey then passed the artifact along to his friend, an urban sculptor named John Kearney, who preserved the wood with epoxy and cast a human effigy to hang from its side: a crucified Jesus, depicted as a black man.

For 45 years the sculpture has remained in the private collection of Forshey and his wife Florence, only occasionally going on display for local congregations. Then, in October 2008, the cross was presented as a permanent gift to the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple on the occasion of their 175th anniversary. The only condition: that it always remain on public display. As the Forshey's saw it, the Charred Cross belongs to the church, and to this day it remains a powerful symbol of the struggles so many have suffered for their full inclusion in the body of Christ, the church on Earth.