Not So Black and White

A multiracial church works to overcome biases and find unity 

Date Posted: 
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Taking two groups and making them one is usually a challenge. Layer in cultural differences on top of existing preferences and traditions, and it becomes difficult indeed.

If anybody’s going to give an “amen” to that, it’s Brenda Noel. Her congregation has been working toward unity—and in particular, racial reconciliation—since a 2005 merger brought together a multiracial congregation and a Caucasian congregation. The hope for reconciliation is what led Calvary Community Church (RCA) to join a learning community three years ago. There had been breakdowns along racial lines in the congregation, and church leaders wanted support as they worked toward unity.

After digging deeper, they realized the differences weren’t quite so black and white.

“Everybody was always very friendly, as far as that goes, but people would congregate according to ethnicity,” says Noel, who is African American. “The biggest example is the women’s morning Bible class. It was primarily attended by the white older women of the church. When some of the black members started attending, the white women stopped attending.”

That was thought to be racially motivated, Noel says. But in the Missional Mosaic learning community, which focused on cultural agility, Noel and others were asked to consider the real motives behind people’s actions. And so the team of six from Calvary took a second look at the Bible class.

Now Noel says she thinks it’s less about race than it seems. She believes the Caucasian women stopped coming because it was getting harder to get out of the house as they got older, and their eyes didn’t focus as well on the small type in their Bibles. As the younger (and African American) members began coming, the older ones were staying home. So although the division wasn’t rooted in race, there was another divide at play in the congregation: age.

Those divides date back to the merger, which brought together Bethel Reformed in Harvey, Illinois, with Calvary Reformed Church in South Holland. Together, they became Calvary Community Church in South Holland. Noel became a member a few years later.

The congregation and its leadership have worked toward unity since the merger, with some steps forward and some steps back. Pastor Alfonzo Surrett sees tensions growing not just around racial/ethnic identity, worship styles, and generation gaps, but also around change. As the congregation becomes more focused on reaching its community, and as more people from the community join the church, change is a constant.

“Change is just difficult sometimes,” says Debbi Smits, a lifelong member of Calvary Reformed, now Calvary Community. She is Caucasian and one of the participants in the learning community.

“When the merger happened, I think people really wanted to make it work. [But] they noticed differences, and instead of being able to come around differences, it was easier to stay planted and keep their own opinions about things.”

Through the 15-month learning community with other RCA churches, the participants from Calvary explored their own biases and learned how to manage those biases.

“I learned … to look at myself,” Noel says. “Was I helping or hindering the work that we want to do? I must say, I could have been part of hindering things. … I’ve asked God’s forgiveness.”

In addition to self-examination, participants looked at their churches. For Calvary, addressing the breakdowns between racial/ethnic groups and working toward unity was a priority.

One way they did this was by refreshing their ministry teams, many of which were already led by the learning community participants. At a fellowship lunch in September 2016, “ministry team leaders came up and shared what we wanted to have happen, and to invite participation. People were given an opportunity to have a voice,” Noel says. “It has worked!”

Now each team has volunteers from different ethnicities. Team leaders have passed on their ideas and excitement to their volunteers and Surrett says new ministry has blossomed. A new congregational care ministry is building connections, and every fifth Sunday the congregation has brunch together rather than breaking up into Sunday school classes. A new prayer ministry takes place on Wednesday nights, and because so many senior members find it hard to get out of the house, it happens by phone. Participants pray together while they’re on the line.

“God has really blessed the results of that,” Surrett says of the prayer ministry. “Now these people are not just coming to church together, now the relationship has grown because they’ve heard that person (maybe that person they don’t really like) praying for them. Sometimes it’s good to see how people will talk to God about your situation.”

“Through our prayer meeting, we were hearing the names of a lot of young people, a lot of cancer going on,” Noel says. “We developed a grief and loss support group. Oh my goodness, it has been a blessing.” This group, too, opens people up to deep sharing, which forges stronger relationships.

Stronger relationships are key to unity, and they haven’t always been present at Calvary. Surrett shares about a time an older church member complained that the youth didn’t know their Bible. She was Caucasian; the students were African American. But when pressed, she couldn’t name anyone in particular. It turned out, the woman knew the students didn’t have the same catechism experience she had when she was a student, and therefore she assumed they were not familiar with the Bible. Surrett was able to show her the Sunday school curriculum and point to the Reformed theology throughout the book. He also challenged her about criticizing people without knowing them. “We have to appreciate and get to know each other. You will see that these kids know the Scripture. They’re being trained properly. It may not be the way you did it, but it’s the way God has called us to do it.”

Occasionally, Smits runs into people who used to attend Calvary. When they inevitably ask if she’s still at the church, this is her response: “You bet I am, and it’s never been better.

“This isn’t my church. This is my family. To see the depth of love that we have for each other has been so awesome.”

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