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John (Jack) H. White

Jack White has been connecting people all his life – connecting them to one another and to creative ministry or educational opportunities here in Western Pennsylvania. Since his retirement as president of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Jack has stayed active and involved and today has a wealth of knowledge and stories about his pioneering work in both the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas. We didn’t have to ask Jack many questions; we just pointed him in the right direction and he carried it from there.

JS: Well good morning, this is John Stanko, back at you for another Urban Heroes interview. This is our second year, our second class of recognizing in our communities who make headlines for all the right reasons and who don’t make headlines because sometimes they’re working behind the scenes. And today I am with Jack White. And Jack, welcome to the Urban Heroes program.

JW: Thanks John.

JS: Jack, as we get started, tell us a little bit about your resume and background, and what has occupied your time in your life.

JW: I was born longer ago than I’d like to admit, although would you like me to admit it?

JS: Sure, sure.

JW: June 14, 1936, in a town just north of New York City, called Newburg. It was a city changing like all cities, even changing at that time. Went to public schools. In 1954, I came to western Pennsylvania. My parents were Reformed Presbyterians, believers, though I had not embraced Christ as a young boy. As a matter of fact, was quite rebellious, more rebellious than they knew. And it was at Geneva College, my freshman year in 1954 that I came to know Christ in a personal and dynamic way, through the influence of my roommate, who is still a very dear friend, and as a matter of fact teaches in Pittsburgh in the North Allegheny School District. He’s retired now, but until relatively recently taught there.

So that’s where life began. I intended to teach history, I love history and still do. Loved it then. Actually did my student teaching at Beaver Falls High School and in my senior year at Geneva was offered a job at Beaver Falls High School, and decided as my life was growing in Christ with lots of Christian service during Geneva years on gospel teams and evangelistic teams that maybe God was doing something else in my life.

I wanted more theological training. So after wrestling with which seminary I’d go to, I went to the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. That started in 1959. Went there through ’62, and that’s when my life started touching urban ministry in a very direct way. For three years, I was in various ways, everything from just a locker boy in the pool to ending up in my year after seminary was graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh, actually directing many of the programs at what was then called The United Presbyterian Community House on the North Side of Pittsburgh. It’s now ACAC’s office building and ministry building and so forth. But that was a great experience.

In those days, the North Side was changing, even in the 1960’s, rather radically. I spent a lot of time in Allegheny Hopsital emergency room with kids and at least parts of their families, ran basketball programs, Bible studies, all kinds of things like that, and that was a great introduction. In the midst of having graduated from RPTS and at the time going to the University of Pittsburgh to work on a master’s degree, I was doing a bit of preaching here and there and I preached at a church in Beaver Falls called College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church.

And I was not a candidate – the pastor of that church about 6 months prior had passed away very unexpectedly. I had had some contact with the church before, during my college years. But they heard me preach and had a call for a pastor, which in those days was quite an open thing. It wasn’t a tradition to have a search committee and all that sort of stuff, which they have now. And lo and behold I got a majority of the votes on the first ballot and they ended up calling me and I was young, unhumble, too proud, whatever I was then, 25, I took this church in Beaver Falls, which was at that point it was quite small, had not had much college ministry though a lot of contact with the college, so I always passed through there for eight years.

JS: And how many years were you there?

JW: I was there for eight years, as a pastor of College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church. And then in 19…just keep on going?

JS: Yes, please. This is great. The thing if you’re born in 1934, you’re going to have some history. We need to hear it!

JW: Hey John, don’t make it worse than it is! It was 1936!

JS: ’36! Sorry!

JW: But what’s two years among friends. In 1970, well, a lot of the leadership of the college was on my Session, they were my elders, if you could imagine, and the bond in various ways, the Lord knit the bond with the then president as a man that I still honor and respect in a great way – Edwin Clark. He invited me to become what, it was a half-time teaching in the Biblical Studies Department and half-time an effective chaplain. At that point it was called Dean of Religious Services. And that was the position that I took at Geneva, with the understanding that I would be part of his cabinet. There were other people on that cabinet, Dean of Students, the Dean of the Faculty, and I was one of those.

JS: And this is 1970.

JW: This is 1970. And over those years, on into the early 1980s, that position morphed into Director of Church Relations. As Geneva began to rediscover its Christian roots and try to define it more fully, I became very much involved in that both as a pastor and then on staff. And that was part of the rationale for the decision that one of my ex officio functions was to interview prospective faculty members and all that. But it was somewhat that these folks really understood the heart of the evangelical Gospel.

JS: And you of course are out of pastoring at that time.

JW: That’s correct. This is full-time at Geneva. And so, more and more into church relations, which got me out into the community. That’s how it begins to touch the urban scene. I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, because of Geneva wanting to attract folks from the Philadelphia area. I had good contact with churches. So I would go visit pastors and all that kind of good stuff.

And one day, while I was in Philadelphia, I got a call from a fellow who had been a friend, he worshipped at College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church and he now was an urban pastor. His name was, Wilson Cummings, he was a very key person; humble and quiet guy – a Pittsburgher. He grew up in Wilkinsburg. Now had gone to seminary and became part of a church plant on Broad and 15th Street, right down in the heart of the city of Philadelphia.

And, he said, “I want you to meet a guy named Bill Crispin, who is also church planting in the city.” By the way, these are both white guys. And it’s a long story, but Bill Crispin, said, “Look. I have spent the last 6 months…” I’ll tell you the story. Bill and his wife move into the city, they get one of those row houses in downtown Philadelphia, and there’s a knock at the door. He goes to the door and there’s a black guy at the door, and the guy says, “Hello, I’m Reverend So-andso, welcome to the community, but I’ve got a question for you.”

It was probably not truncated quite like this… “But I’ve got a question for you. Are you going to come to the city and do your own thing? Or are you going to find out what God is doing?” in what was then called the black church; we call it the African-American church now. And Bill said, “The Lord gave me enough grace at that moment to say, ‘Well, up until now, I was going to do my own thing, I guess. But that sounds like the right thing to me.’”

[So the man said,] “Give me three to four months of part of your life and let me just take you around with me and meet the guys and gals, mostly guys.” He did that, and one of the things that he discovered was that African American church leaders and pastors wanted and needed more theological training. This is not white folks saying “You guys need more training” this is these folks saying that. Because as you know many of them are still bivocational and so forth.

So, Bill went to his alma mater, Westminster Theological Seminary, and they started a weekend theological institute, and brought what for many of us in the evangelical and theological world, were there big name teachers, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, John Stilton, and they would teach these guys, and they loved it. Absolutely loved it. And the professors loved it to. It was giving them some contact with people, you know reaching people for Christ, and doing what the church was about.

So they started saying, “Okay, we want to go to seminary.” And they said, “Well, you have to have a baccalaureate degree to go to seminary. That’s where I come in. Wilson had said to Bill, “You’ve got to meet…Jack can help us. Jack’s an old friend.” And I said, “I can’tpromise anything, but let me go back and talk to Dr. Clark and see what he says.”

So Dr. Clark had a great heart for this sort of thing. I don’t know why really. He always had a sense… Well, you know the Geneva history; abolitionists, the first class after the end of the Civil War was predominately freed African Americans. And, some of the earliest African American college graduates are graduates of Geneva College. All that sort of thing. I think he knew that history, and I did too, and he loved it.

And we were trapped! How could you deny that here was an opportunity! So Dr. Clark said, “Well let’s try it.” To sort of ease into it. And that’s the rest of the story, as far as Philadelphia goes. I spent the rest of my life… Just about two weeks before my dear wife went to heaven, somebody was saying something to her about me, and she said, “Well his second home is in Philadelphia.” And the reason for that was spending a lot of time, and this is right in the heart of the city; we ended up forming an association of white and African American churches and doing the CUTS thing in Philadelphia.

JS: And that’s the Center for Urban Theological Studies.

JW: Correct. Now it’s close to 40 years now. They had 147 students.

JS: And they’re now affiliating with Lancaster Bible.

JW: They didn’t get approval with Middle States until July. We were able to recruit 147 students, and that doesn’t even include 2 more cohorts before the end of the year. Anyways, so it’s a good deal for them, for Geneva. In the meantime, the same thing is happening in Western Pennsylvania; at RPTS, a little bit at Geneva; people are coming to Geneva and wanting to take courses. But also at RPTS. And Bruce Stewart, then president of RPTS, invited me to come to a meeting at Tom Smith’s church in the Hill District. Do you know what church that is?

JS: No, I don’t.

JW: I don’t either. Problem is, I should have kept a diary of all of this. Anyway, a group of guys, some of the guys that were at RPTS, some of the guys just in the community, and it was all guys as I recall…many of the leaders, as Tom was, and one guy, I think it was Leroy Walker said to me, “Why did you do it in Philadelphia and you didn’t do it in Pittsburgh?” And I just sat there and said, “I will give you one answer, which is not a completely good answer, and that is: There is a community in Philadelphia that wanted it. But that’s not an excuse.” It’s a good, relevant, convicting question. And that was the birth, I mean it took a while to pull it all off, of beginning to offer, what grew into the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry.

JS: Wow. And when you look back now, can you see God’s hand preparing you for city work? Or was this just something that you do?

JW: Well yeah, I mean it wasn’t conscious. It goes all the way back to the North Side. I loved that work, and did a lot of it when I came to Beaver Falls, and I had the sense that there was a little community called Eastvale, which is kind of a challenged community.

JS: But opportunities!

JW: Yeah! And a place called West Mayfield, what we would call Section 8 housing. Huge projects. We had a mission West Mayfield, College Hill Church did, and we would go door-to-door and invite people to vacation Bible schools. So there was always that tug at my heart because of the North Side. And I didn’t hesitate a moment in Philadelphia, from my side, my work was what Geneva really adopted. Dr. Clark gets all the credit. I mean, people often say, which is not true, that I was the founder of these things. That’s not true. Bill Crispin in Philadelphia. And for the Geneva side, it was the boldness of a man who is very, very cautious about everything, as the President of Geneva has said, “Yeah, let’s try it.”

JS: So really it was the hand of God; the time was right.

JW: And here I am, linked to Dr. Clark through a whole set of deep circumstances that actually continue today with his son who’s come back to Christ. He has to be rejoicing in heaven. Dr. Clark and I went through that together.

JS: You mentioned your family. Tell us about your family.

JW: My wife is Norma, who has been fantastic in the midst of all this. Very supportive of these things, very supportive. And we have two daughters: Natalie, who’s the oldest; she’s 41 and is a physician’s assistant at UPMC in the lung transplant division and has four kids; four boys. And I laugh and they were at the party on Saturday and helped with my headache. And then our daughter Stephanie, who has three children; the oldest is 22, a Marine, and just completed his Marine boot training. And a 13- year-old and a 6-year-old.

JS: So what was their take on all this urban involvement? And were they involved? Did they see it? Was it something you were able to impart to them that you talked about? What’s your recollection there?

JW: Although, I’d say that one of the weaknesses of my life was not getting them, the two girls, as deeply involved as I might have. They were very much aware of it. I would say that oldest grandson, Stephen, is ironically more involved in it. He would fly with me to Philadelphia once in a while; would come into Pittsburgh with me. He’s played in the gym there, at the Allegheny Center thing when meetings were going on. But I’d have to say, to my shame really, no, they weren’t resistant of it or anything like that. But they didn’t own it and have it owned in their lives.

JS: As a theologian, as a student of the Bible, what were you seeing alongside your involvement that gave you theological underpinning for urban ministry, and doing the things that you were doing in the partnerships in Philadelphia and Beaver Falls and Pittsburgh?

JW: Well, two things that I think of immediately. The first, and a very important thing, is that the Gospel is not just calling people to faith and repentance. But it is holistic in offering people a cup of cold water, in Jesus’ name. That’s speaking to people where their need is. So I’d always own that in a theological way. Harvie Conn, the professor of missions, and really one of the leaders in city urban mission, and Roger Greenway, both of those guys, and there are various books on these subjects, shaped me deeply. Harvie’s book Doing Justice and Preaching Grace is, I think, one of the finest, simplest, little books that I still commend. I think we still use it in our community ministry, a DCP program. So my theology was shaped in that way. So I couldn’t deny that the Gospel was more than just inviting people to know Christ as their Savior. It began there, but it had a lot more.

And secondly, I’ve always been deeply involved, and deeply committed, to true biblical ecumenism. We need each other, across denominational, racial, and ethnic lines. And that’s John 17, Jesus prayer is about. The whole book of Ephesians, I think, from beginning to end. How do you rebuke the demonic? You rebuke the demonic by being one in Christ. Francis Shaffer said, “There’s only one judgment the unbelieving is allowed to have, biblically allowed to have about the church, and that is ‘Do they love one another?’” And so, to do things ecumenically was at my heart. That was one of the reasons I got involved in church relations at Geneva. You may know that because of that, because of Geneva, I became the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

JS: I didn’t know you were the president of any [organizations].

JW: Yeah. And the president back in those days, in the mid 80’s, was really the Chairman of the Board. But the title was president and I was an executive director. Subsequently became involved as the chairman of the board of World Relief Commission, which is the compassion arm around the world of World Relief. So I had the privilege, like you have, of traveling to many, many, many, many places. Well, you know what it’s like. And I would say, not principally, but pragmatically, you can do it together, things that you can’t do alone. And CUTS and CUBM is an illustration of that. It’s a great, great illustration of this kooky little Reformed Presbyterian church with all their strange quirks, combining with Pentecostals, charismatics, to uphold the essence of the Gospel, both in its fundamental sense and its sense of compassion. But that’s really biblically what’s shaping.

JS: And that’s one thing I’ve admired and noticed about you is your ability to relate to people, build relationships, to welcome people into your world and sphere, and just make them feel very comfortable. What were some of the challenges for you? I mean you’re going out from Beaver Falls, a reformed tradition, you’re in the inner city and you’re with a lot of people who don’t look like you, who theologically don't look at things like you, don’t think like you. What were some of your impressions?

JW: Oh, John, I could tell stories. I’ll tell you one story; I’ll see if I can tell it while leaving the people out. We’d have monthly meetings at CUBM, this is just an anecdote to kind of tell you the trauma and blessing of my experience. And, this one brother, African-American brother, would look at me and say “Why does Geneva have to collect a tuition?” And I’m not exaggerating, every month, maybe with slightly different words, he would ask that question. And I’d answer. And I’d say, “Well, in order to get the scholarship aid, it has to be an accredited institution, that receives the tuition, and blah, blah, blah.” And he’d come back next month… I’d drive down the car and pray, “Dear, Lord, make it so that this guy doesn’t ask that question again. I don’t think I can stand it another time.” And every time he would ask it. And thankfully, the Lord gave me patience, and I just answered the question, steaming inside, but answered the question. So I went to the leader at CUTS in Philadelphia, and I said to him, “Verly, tell me what’s going on. Something’s going on. Tell me what’s going on.” He laughed and he said, “Jack. When the white guys collect the money, they control the program.” And I said, “Verly, I missed it.” I mean, I cried, because I thought, here I’ve been spending, by that time, 10 or 12 years rubbing shoulders with these guys and gals and I still wasn’t sensitive. So it’s been that kind of experience. I remember in Philadelphia, about our fifth or sixth year a guy named Willy Richardson, who’s now known in the African American community, he looked across the table – Willy can be this way – he looks like an angry guy, and he said, “Are you guys going to leave like every other white organization has left?” What are you going to say? I mean, I’m not even the president… I finally got enough grace to say, “Willy, my real answer is I don’t know, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to make sure I don’t leave.” And there’s a certain irony to that story isn’t there? But anyway, it was a humbling, growing experience of sensitivity to a wonderful expression of the Gospel that was God’s grace to me, was a blessing to me. One more experience?

JS: Sure!

JW: Also I taught some classes at CUTS. I mean, I’d make the commute to Philadelphia to teach some classes; one day a week. And, I was teaching a class in the Old Testament, and had always done something at Geneva when I taught this class about “sin is not only personal, it’s systemic, when I was doing Genesis 3.” So I started into this explanation and a couple of the guys in the class raised their hands and they started these stories from the streets, about the rats, and about city government, and I finally said, “My God, I’m going to just sit down, and listen to you.” In other words, they got it, and the white folks, especially young kids at Geneva, it was like I was talking to the wall. Because they had heard all the time, that your sin didn’t have a systemic impact on life. So it was a humbling learning experience which was God’s gracious gift to me.

JS: And it’s what I call the awkwardness of the cross-cultural ministry that causes you to grow and learn. When I was in Alabama, I went to a black church and thought for sure that they would understand what I was trying to do, and the Gospel trying to bring people together, and he just very honestly said to me, “When folks like you show up, bad things happen in our church. People start deferring, they act differently. And historically, the only place we’ve been able to rule ourselves and govern ourselves is in our churches.” And so he said, “We love you, but please understand if we’re not that excited.”

And I was crushed, I was devastated. But I learned, and I heard him, and I knew that I had to do a lot more work to earn the trust and to build bridges that would enable me, if God wanted me to, to make any kind of impact. But really, the impact was on me more than it was on them. And that’s really what you’re saying. Any words to someone who’s thinking about the city, about urban ministry, urban work; what words of wisdom would you have for them?

JW: Well, the cities are where the Gospel, the church needs to concentrate these days. I think of the end of Jeremiah, and all that biblical impact, let alone the reality of what’s happening in urbanization. And secondly, I would say that it’s a great opportunity to express our true unity in Christ together as we seek to impact these communities. And for white folks not to think of it as a needy community, that we need to help. As you and I have experienced. It’s a place where we need to go and learn what God is doing. God is doing great things in the city, and white folks need to go. The challenge to Bill Crispin rings in my ears; are you going to do your own thing or are we going to find out what God is doing in some of these other ethnic and racial communities.


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