Building a Multiethnic Congregation
CBFNC Annual Gathering – First Baptist Church, Hickory, NC
March 31, 2017
Part 2 – My own Story
A. Race Autobiography
I grew up in white suburbia, first a small town outside of Detroit, MI and then in Roanoke, VA. I met very few non-white people, and I fell for all the stereotypes white people perpetuate.
My lack of time with people different than me meant that I had a woefully limited worldview, and my ignorance often almost got me trouble. Here’s an example.
I was in army basic training. One day, I was kind of dogging it, going very slowly. If I wasted too much time, it would bring discipline on my squad(extra push-ups). My squad leader (an African American and another trainee) was frustrated with my snail’s pace, and he hollered at me "Come on, Boy!" In my frustration, I yelled, "I'm coming, boy!" I did not know that you're not supposed to call adult African Americans males "boy." I have not done it since. With the hot tempers that foment in infantry basic where 19-year-old men chant mantras like "Kill! Kill! Kill! with the Cold Blue steel", it is a miracle a fight did not break out.
I did not know that "boy" had been a term used by white men to strip black men of their dignity and to withhold the respect they are due.
I have had many lessons in experiences like that, situations where I blunder but then receive grace from a person of color and, humbled, learn in the process.
I never in my life used the N-word or any other epithet (besides "boy"). I never thought of myself as an overt racist. But I am a product of white American suburban culture, a world in which whites have advantages they are unaware of and blacks, especially young black men, are accosted in middle class neighborhoods by the police. It has taken me years of experience, conversations, and study to become aware of systemic racism. I still have much to learn.
I started being intentional about learning my final year of seminary. I was waiting for class to start and I opened my Bible and the passage we read a moment ago Revelation 7:9-10. In that moment, I realized, nearly all my friends were from just one tribe, language, and nation. I didn’t know people from other tribes, languages, and nations. I’d be spending eternity with them! But I didn’t know them – my brothers and sisters in Christ.
So, when it was time to circulate my resume and hope some church would call me as a pastor, I searched for a church that would be in a place where I would develop friendships with people from backgrounds different than my own. I found it in that small church outside of DC. I have said some critical things about that church, but that comes from a place of deep, deep love. Over 9 years there, I made life-long friendships with people whose background are similar to mine, and with other people who are very different from me.
The church did not change while I were, but now it has. I pleased to share that God has moved in that congregation. They now have a wonderful pastor, a woman from Jamaica. And their associate pastor in the English congregation is a Hispanic woman. The pastoral leadership now resembles the surrounding neighborhood.
The next step in the transformation of my own understanding of race and ethnicity in America and in the church came when I became a parent. I was married in 2003. My wife is white. In 2005, we adopted a child from Russia. Our oldest son is also white.
Then in 2006 we moved to North Carolina and I began as a pastor in Chapel Hill. We adopted a son from Ethiopia in 2009 and a daughter from Ethiopia in 2011. Boom! We were a multiracial family.
With that reality, one of the more dramatic moments of my learning in terms of race came when Travon Martin was killed. I suddenly realized something I had always known but never admitted. White America is scared to death of strong black men, like the one my son will be in a few years. Trayvon Martin died because he was a young black man in a hoody. And someone got scared. George Zimmerman got scared because so many of us are afraid of young black men.
Case in point: in my neighborhood in Chapel Hill, a supposedly enlightened town, someone emailed the neighborhood list serve and said, “I saw two black guys going door-to-door. Should I call the police?” Who were these invaders imposing themselves on our white suburban serenity? They were members of a high school football team in town. Their coach had sent them out to sell calendars to raise money for the team. A week earlier, two other boys (white boys) from a rival high school were in our neighborhood doing the exact same thing – selling calendars to raise money for football equipment. When white boys walk through the neighborhood going door-to-door, no one wonders if they should call the police.
To my wife’s everlasting credit, she confronted the woman who sent the email and requested she not call the police if she sees our son out playing. To the woman’s credit, she was horrified at her own racism. She did not recognize her own racial bias until an adoption mom confronted her. She apologized, and I hope her embarrassment has been a teacher for her. I hope she doesn’t still see black and assume the worst.
My journey has gone from awareness to serious, immediate concern. My experiences with my kids has prompted more frank conversations with some of my good Asian and Hispanic friends. I hope I can be the dad my son needs me to be. I thank God for my black friends who have patiently listened to my questions and fears.
But, I am not just a dad and a friend and a Christian with his own personal worries. I am also a pastor of a church and the church has a responsibility; a calling. Millions of people in our country have some of the same fears that I harbor.
· If I am a racial minority, is America a safe place for me?
· If I am white, now that I am awakened to my own prejudice and latent racism, what do I do?
· In the current climate of racial tension, the church of Jesus Christ is called to be a witness.
o How do we do that?
o What is our testimony and how do we share it so it will be heard?
Part 3 – What do we do?
I think it begins with a true sense of God’s call. Who is God calling the church to be? By this I mean the church universal – Christians everywhere around the world. I think the answer is quite clear. We read this earlier. It is Jesus’ commission to the first disciples. It passed from them to the early church, to the succeeding generations of churches, down through the ages to us. Acts 1:8, Jesus says to us, “When the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” As witnesses, our testimony is that in Jesus the Kingdom of God has come. All people can be freed of sin and have life in Jesus’ name. He died on the cross for all, rose from the grave, and is the Savior of the world. That is the testimony of every Christ follower everywhere. We are witnesses called to testify.
Once we accept that and commit ourselves to answering Jesus’ call, then what is the specific calling on any given local church? What’s your context? We’ve talked about racial tension in America today. That’s one factor everyone has to face. Within that and within the overall cultural climate of the United States, in your town, in your church, what are some context particularities that contribute to your church answering God’s call?
I am in Chapel Hill. We have the University of North Carolina there and the UNC hospital. People from all over the state, all over the country, and all over the world make their way to Chapel Hill either to attend UNC, work at UNC, work at the hospital, or come as patients at the hospital. Also, Duke Medical center and Duke University are 9 miles away. Additionally, Research Triangle Park is not that far from us. Student, doctors, and researchers come.
Also in Chapel Hill, we have a large refugee population. The Karen people, refugees from Burma, number in the 1000’s just in Chapel Hill. The Karen Baptist Church that rents space in our building on Sunday afternoons has as many in worship as our church does on Sunday mornings.
Furthermore, there is the historic African-American neighborhood called Northside in Chapel Hill. That community is full of stories and a cultural heritage that is threatened to be lost to gentrification.
Our specific context is teeming with human diversity. Your town is probably very different. However, there’s nowhere in North Carolina in the year 2017 that is culturally homogenous. It might be worth taking a second look around your own community. Make note of people you meet around town who are different than the ones you see in church on Sunday morning. Ask the question I asked at my son’s choir concert. Would these folks, people different than me, be welcomed in my church? Would my church be willing to make changes to help these folks feel welcomed? Would they find a home in my church?
The reason I think this is so important particularly for America, particularly right now, is the mandate Jesus gives us to be witnesses. Revelation 7 says there will be every tribe and nation gathered together to worship the Lord. Does the world look at our churches and see living witnesses to this promise from scripture? With the way we do church, the way we gather as a church family, do we communicate to the world around us a vision of the Kingdom of God? Can they look at us and see it.
Answer the call to be witnesses.
Know your context.
The third important point in what we do is stretch beyond your comfort level. In 2016, our church decided that we would, in 2017, go through at church renewal. One of the things we decided we would do is examine whether or not God was calling us to be a multiethnic congregation. We’ll spend the remainder of this year examining this. Currently we are multiethnic, kind of. We have about 140 involved in ministry at some level. About 12-17% of that group are people of color – African Americans, Burmese-Karen, Mexican, Chinese-American, Koreans. Our leadership is dominated by Caucasians and by our traditions which are Eurocentric. My dream is that we would become so welcoming to people of different backgrounds that in 2 years you come on a Sunday morning and clearly see that no group is a majority and that the worship is intentional about welcoming and appealing to all.
To this point all we’ve really done is declare our intention to prayerfully explore the possibility of becoming truly multiethnic. We said, “God, we think we’re going to try this, or at least talk about trying it.” Since then, spring of 2016, 4 African Americans have joined the church as members, including one on the pastoral staff. None came knowing what we were seeking. They just came looking for church and stayed. Additionally, opportunities for partnership have dropped into our lap: one is a fledgling Hispanic church plant; another is a potential Chinese-American church plant.
It’s like we told God, “This is what we want to do,” and God said, “OK,” amd and new people started coming. For us, the answer to “what do we do” has been to explore a new call from God.
Part 4 – How do we do it?
The “how” is seen in our attitude. It first has to be relational. Do we have the capacity and the desire to be close and intimate in friendship and brotherhood with Christians whose cultural experience is different than our own? The answer to that has to be “yes.” Relationship comes before program because no program will satisfy everyone. I get complaints in one ear that we do too many hymns and additional complaints that we don’t enough hymns in the other. Some people clamor for communion to be served every week. Others say, “Pastor, we’re doing communion too often. What are we, Episcopalian?” The program, whether it is worship, church organization, or something else, will never satisfy everyone. But if the programmatic challenges are worked within the boundaries of loving relationships, people will stay and stay invested even if the program is not completely to their liking.
The second word is humble. We go into this humbly, always willing to learn. This is especially true for white people because Eurocentric culture has dominated the United States since our nation’s inception. A generic American is pictured as a white person. Any other history demands a modifier: Asian American, Hispanic, African American. The norm to which everyone has to adapt is the white cultural norm. It cannot be like this in the multiethnic church. The multiethnic church is part of God’s new creation. We are curious about one another and eager to share God’s love with each other. It imperative that those of us from what has been the dominant culture – Eurocentric culture – take the lead in humble learning. We express curiosity about other cultures and we enthusiastically celebrate the unique characteristics of other cultures.
The third word is sensitive. In the multiethnic church, we are sensitive about not insulting others. This is straight out of Romans 14:21, “It is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.” If an African American or Hispanic is insulted by something a white person says or does, that white person must repent and be willing to learn why this was an offense. Similarly the person of color should show loving sensitivity. But it is especially important that the person of privilege not say, “O I didn’t mean it that way. Don’t overreact.” The person of privilege must say, “I’m really sorry. I didn’t know that was offensive. I won’t say that again. Please help me understand a better way for us to be friends.”
The fourth and final key word is persistence. Our secretary at our church is one my confidants. I share just about everything with her because she’s got a brilliant perspective. She has a master of divinity degree from Golden Gate seminary, she is a competent musician, she leads Bible studies, and she has a great feel for the pulse of our church. She is a Chinese American. She’s not from China any more than I am from London. She’s from San Francisco. She and I were talking about multiethnic congregations and all that is involved when different people groups come together. Based on her experience, she looked me and offered a warning. She said, “You better be careful. It gets messy.”
She’s right. Based on my experience in Arlington, I know exactly how right she is. Someone will say something offensive and refuse to apologize. We have to stick with it because building the multiethnic church is a call from God. Someone will misunderstand something and there will be great confusion. We have to stick with it because building the multiethnic church will say to the surrounding community, “this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.” Through the misunderstandings, the unintended hurt feelings, the lamp that gets broken during VBS by a child from a refugee family, the frustrated old deacon who feels like I’m losing my church – through all the pain and mess, we stick to it. We work without ceasing trudging through the mess because it is worth. Building the Peaceable Kingdom is worth it.
What we do is step beyond our comfort zone to answer God’s call.
How we do it is relationally, humbly, sensitively, and persistently.
We know our only success will come as God blesses our efforts and transforms our hearts. God can be counted on. God will work in us and speak through us. That’s why for me, and I am praying for my church, building the multiethnic church is a call that must be answered.
I’ll take any questions, and then I’ll go over resources to finish up.
A. Relationships – these are acquired throughout the process
B. Experiences – these are acquired throughout the process
2. Internet research
3. Popular Christian Magazines
4. TV & Movies