Interview with Laurie Maffly-Kipp: Laurie Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor on faculty at the Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Trained in 19th century American religious history, her teaching includes courses on African-American religious life as well as race and religion.
How did you choose your site? What intrigued you about that particular place?
I was first drawn to Christ the King UCC because I had heard about the minister, the Rev. Traci Blackmon. I knew that she was well known in the community and had been very involved around issues of social justice so I was intrigued about the church. I had just moved to St. Louis and wanted to visit United Church of Christ because my husband and I were looking for a church home. It intrigued me to find out how a predominantly African American congregation would be involved and participate in social justice issues in the city. This was right after Mike Brown was killed and as a result of her work in the community Rev. Blackmon became even more prominent as the church engaged in the larger struggles that were going on in Ferguson.
What kinds of questions do you find yourself asking about the site, and how are those questions shaping your exploration of the place?
Because I’m a historian, I am interested in the church itself and how it ended up in Florissant. It started as a German immigrant church downtown and overtime moved out to the suburbs. Its movement represented larger migratory patterns in the area so I was curious about that history. I was also particularly interested when I found out that before the 1970s it was a predominantly white congregation and only gradually made the shift in the 1980s and 1990s to what is now an all Black congregation.
What challenges are you encountering with site-based study?
The challenge has mostly been methodological. As a historian, I am used to working with archival documents and texts that are there whenever you need to see them. The rhythm of archival work is much more in the researcher’s control. Doing interviews and ethnographic work makes me much more dependent on unexpected meetings, on just showing up and hearing whatever I can and working from there. I am not on my own schedule. I am reliant on the timing of people when they have the time to talk to me. It’s just totally different from what I was accustomed to, and it is filled with great surprises and some unexpected challenges.
What were your expectations about the project and site, and what have you found that has surprised or even shocked you, and forced you to revise those expectations?
It's a puzzle to me to see how this church has managed to maintain its presence in this community despite a shifting environment and various economic and political struggles and understandings of race. In some ways the church’s history reflects the decline of mainline Protestantism in general, but also the perseverance and courage of African-American religious people in the face of so many challenges. On the national level the United Church of Christ, Christ the King’s umbrella denomination, is less than 2% Black, but this congregation is Black. There’s a disjunction between what’s happening at the national level and what this church has been able to create here in St. Louis, and those differences provide a fascinating window into the larger struggles of race and religion in the U.S. right now.
How has collaboration played a part in your research process?
I have relied on relationships with church members and pastors at every turn. I’m looking for information on how and why the church changed in the 1970s and 80s. To answer that question I’ve depended on conversations with people like Traci Blackmon and older church members to give me information about the church. It has been vital. I didn’t know what to expect when I started because I’d never done work that’s this contemporary. For a while I thought this project would be about historical written sources but in fact it has developed through the process of conversation with people. A few weeks ago, during a conversation an older member of the church said, “Oh, you might want to see what is in our safe!” Which shocked me. I said, “What safe?” and the church member said “Oh, it's downstairs. It has a lot of old books.” To which I replied, “What books?” And through this conversation I learned that the Church kept a safe full of documents “that didn’t get sent along when we did this digitization of church records.” So some of the research has been unexpected and the product of good luck, which again is not something I am used to but has proved vital to the project.
How do you plan to incorporate visual content into the publication?
There are wonderful pictures of the church itself that I would love to incorporate. The church was built in 1960 at the height of the modernist trend in architecture and it has been strikingly well preserved. I want to present that as part of this puzzle of its multiple layers of historical significance. Right inside the doors of the church are older pictures and mementos that track the changes in the church over time. The pictures go from the early twentieth century when the church was all White German to the 1970s and 1980s when the pictures start to show a mixture of Black and White faces. It’s one way of demonstrating the ways that this African American congregation maintains continuity with its German roots and incorporates that past into their sense of what the church means.
How do you see your research going beyond an academic contribution?
I’ve found it to be so much fun and so intriguing to find ways to blend my interests in this new community with my historical knowledge that might ultimately be of benefit to broader communities. I hope it is of some value to the members of the church itself to see its history presented, and recognize the ways it has thrived in the midst of huge social and historical transformations. I think right now they might see the project as primarily an academic exercise, but when they see the website I think they’ll be more excited. The Rev. Traci Blackmon has been very supportive and encouraging. I also think it might also be of value to members of the United Church of Christ, at the national level, where membership on the whole is declining; here we have an example of vital religious and social work transforming local communities.