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Slave descendants, descendants of slave masters meet in Clover

Summer is reunion time - but today at Bethel Presbyterian Church, a gathering of hundreds in the Armstrong and Currence families means far more than peach cobbler and red velvet cake.

These people, black, are reuniting on the grounds of the white church where their ancestors, slaves before the Civil War, once were members.

Segregated members, in the balcony members, belonging to white men members - but members all the same.

"We are hoping for a day of reconnecting with family and finding out even more about who we are and where we came from," said Marjorie Currence-Smith, president of the family association. "It is looking at our past - all of our pasts, black and white - and our futures.

"It is a great day for togetherness."

And this great church that is one of the oldest in York County - organized in 1764 - has welcomed them all with open arms.

"This gathering is spectacular, historic and important and exciting," said John Gess, Bethel's senior pastor. "It is shared history. It is who these people are. It is where they come from.

"It is family."

Records at the church found in the past few years show that in the decades before the Civil War, many slaves were members of the church.

After emancipation, many blacks spun off to Green Pond United Methodist Church, which opened in 1870, while others moved off to free lives.

The history of those days at Bethel was lost inside old, hand-written records.

Until now.

"This is a family reunion, but an emotional reunion, too," said Dee Walker, another of the family who spent more than a year planning today's event. "This is a special day for the people of the families, and for the people of Bethel. They have been nothing short of wonderful."

Bethel's embrace of its black and white history is a way to show the common bonds between people who come from the same area and whose ancestors shared a common experience - even if it was from different angles, said Cary Grant, the church historian.

The church's encouragement of black descendants comes on the heels of two other area groups that in recent years have worked together on church and family connections.

Last year, members of Mount Zion Baptist in McConnells worshiped with members of Bethesda Presbyterian - the church where the slave masters had been members and slaves sat in the balcony.

Members of the Bratton family have gathered in past years. Black and white, descendants of Bratton slaves and Bratton slave owners from that historic family that owned the huge plantation where Historic Brattonsville now rests in western York County.

Bethel has even asked that the families unveil a plaque at the entrance to the property, marking the lineage of blacks at the church. The plaque will be unveiled today.

Arvil Price, whose grandmother was a white Currence and whose family has been buried at the church going back two centuries, described the history as "shared - and important to all of us."

Genetic testing under consideration might show that some people who have been separated for generations and by race might be related, Price said.

Gess, the Bethel pastor, understands there is no denying the horror of slavery, even if some slaves were granted membership at Bethel.

But the reunion is a way to help reconcile the past with a present and future at the church - and among these families that moves beyond race.

The Rev. Carl Ellis, a famous black Presbyterian pastor from Tennessee, has been invited to give the Sunday sermon at Bethel, where the congregation will be black and white like it was in the 1800s before the Civil War.

"His message will be that reconciliation is in the hearts of all of us," said Gess. "We are honored to have these families here."

Nobody is more honored than Grace Grant, the historian's wife.

Her family - she comes from the white Harpers - dates back at Bethel as long as the church, almost 240 years.

Grace Grant talked with black Armstrongs and Currences on Friday as all prepared for such a historic day. All laughed and chatted. She said the words that rang through the historic cemetery next to the church.

"We are all kin here."