This year America commemorated the lives of two important African Americans who through their brave determination helped to end racial segregation and injustice in this country and the world. On February 4 the nation celebrated the one-hundredth birthday of Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. June 12 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who, not long after President John F. Kennedy delivered his address to the nation on civil rights in 1963, was shot in the back at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, by a white supremacist.
As we remember these two fighters of injustice, it is fitting to remember that it was the plight of black slaves on the sugar plantations of the Danish West Indies that brought the first Moravian missionaries to the New World over 280 years ago. Upon learning of the deplorable conditions of these black slaves, Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf immediately made plans to send missionaries, among them Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann, to St. Thomas, and thus on December 13, 1732, began the first Moravian missions in America. Two years later in 1735 Moravians arrived in General James Oglethorpe’s Georgia colony to carry out mission work with the Creek and Cherokee Indians.
In spite of this very early and promising mission endeavor among the black slaves in America, Moravians unfortunately were no faster in integrating their congregations than other denominations. However, a full decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the inner-city Second Moravian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, became the first truly integrated American Moravian congregation through the dedicated ministry and extraordinary self-sacrifice of the Rev. Francis E. Weber (1898-1989).
Francis Weber, or “Fannie” as he was fondly called by friends, grew up in the Watertown, Wisconsin, area, and after graduating from Moravian College and Theological Seminary he and his wife Myrtle, also a native of Watertown, served congregations at Embden and Alice, N.D.; Berea, Minn.; Ephraim, Sister Bay, and Ebenezer, Wis., (where he spent his longest pastorate and which he and his family always considered home), before accepting a call in 1952 to Second Moravian Church in Indianapolis.
Soon after arriving in Indianapolis, the racial ethnicity of the neighborhood around Second Church began to change. As African American families moved into the community, overnight entire blocks of homes sprouted “for sale” signs as white families fled to the suburbs. Always mindful of his Moravian heritage and his calling to preach the Gospel to all of God’s children, Francis Weber encouraged his members to invite their new neighbors to worship with them. It was only by a slim majority that the church council voted to stay in the community rather than to relocate to the suburbs.
However, as membership dropped from 250 members to less than 100 and financial support declined, it became difficult to maintain the church or even to pay his salary. During the last two years of his ministry at Second Church, he received no salary and performed the janitorial work in the church himself. To support his family during this time, he restored old Studebakers. For his pioneering efforts in promoting interracial understanding and for bringing about the first truly integrated congregation in the American Moravian Church, the Indianapolis City Council of Churches in 1961 honored him with the Brotherhood Award.
For twelve years he held firm to his convictions and steadfastly preached God’s unending love and forgiveness through His son Jesus Christ in spite of unkind remarks, threats, and enormous financial strain on his family. Although it was at first difficult to attract new black members who were unfamiliar with Moravian music and forms of worship, the hiring of a black organist became a major turning point. Later some former white members even rejoined the church.
Weber retired from the ministry on October 1, 1963, and in the words of his daughter Lois Weber Mims the struggles of those last years of his ministry made her father a more serious and introspective man, but not a bitter one. His life reminds us that the Lord may call us to carry out His work not in missions thousands of miles away, but right in our own backyard.
Let us commemorate this year the life and incomparable dedication to the cause of racial understanding of this extraordinary Moravian pastor, the Rev. Francis E. Weber, who never lost sight of his real mission. Sixty years ago he had a “dream” as he lived and preached the words of one of his favorite hymns:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There’s a welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
Dr. William E. Petig teaches German at Stanford University and is a life-long member of the Ebenezer Moravian Church, Watertown, Wis., where he was baptized by the Rev. Francis E. Weber. Information for this article is based on reminiscences of the daughter of Francis and Myrtle Weber, Lois Weber Mims, and those of the late Rev. Earl Shay, who succeeded Weber at Second Church in 1964. Due to declining membership Second Church was officially closed in 2006, and the building was sold.
From the September 2013 Moravian Magazine