Denominations Pursuing Diversity

Denominations Pursuing Diversity

The Southern Baptist Convention is the latest majority-white denomination to publicly reaffirm its efforts to pursue racial and ethnic diversity in its leadership ranks. Earlier this month, the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) announced that Ken Weathersby, an African American, would fill the newly created role of Presidential Ambassador for Ethnic Church Relations. Weathersby will work to facilitate diversity in the SBC’s executive leadership circles, as well as in the convention’s local churches.

Ken Weathersby

The SBC’s efforts are bold, especially in light of its complicated history with race relations. But it’s far from the first predominantly white evangelical denomination to get serious about racial and ethnic diversity. The Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) have been at it for a long time, too. And, despite inevitable challenges, both are making headway.

A Long Road Ahead

“I definitely celebrate the progress that is being made in terms of Christ centered multi-ethnic development within evangelicalism, but I also would say we have a long way to go,” said Rev. Efrem Smith, Superintendent of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Pacific Southwest Conference.

Smith’s sentiments were echoed by three other African American leaders that we  talked to in the weeks since the Southern Baptists’ NAMB announced its appointment of Weathersby to his new executive role.

Southern Baptists Working, Not Talking

NAMB’s move follows closely behind the SBC’s election of Rev. Fred Luter as its first African American first vice president. UrbanFaith emailed Weathersby as soon as the news broke to request an interview as we had done after Luter’s election. This time, however, NAMB’s vice president for Communications Mike Ebert replied saying Weathersby needs time to settle into the job before granting interviews. Several other SBC pastors, including Luter, either didn’t return calls requesting an interview or declined to talk about the SBC’s diversity push.

Smith and other leaders in the ECC and the EFCA did agree to talk to us about the trend and wished the SBC well in their pursuit of change.

“The real progress in the Southern Baptist or any evangelical denomination will be when the president of Southern Seminary is a person of color, when the district superintendent in the Southern Baptist Church, when the president of the Southern Baptist Church is a person of color,” said Smith.

Evangelical Covenant Church Takes Holistic Approach

“Instead of one reconciling ethnic staff person who focuses on diversity, our president [Gary Walter] has said, ‘We need at all levels of leadership in this denomination to have a commitment to diversity,” said Smith.

Efrem Smith

“I’m a 41-year-old African American who is leading the largest conference in our denomination. A few years ago, I would have never dreamed that would have been a possibility for me, not because I’m saying the denomination is racist, but it’s not every day that an evangelical denomination elects an African American superintendent. … Out of 11 superintendents, we have three that are African American and one who’s a native Alaskan,” he said.

Executive Vice President at Covenant Ministries of Benevolence Harold Spooner worked with Walter and others to create a Five-fold Test for multi-ethnic ministry instead of hiring a point person.

“One of the things that we discovered in the process is churches and organizations will hire a person and give that person that title, then what tends to happen is that everything ethnic goes to that person and so the buy-in wasn’t necessarily whole and complete,” said Spooner.

With a little over 800 churches and 200,000 or less members nationally, the vitality of the denomination has depended upon ethnic growth, Spooner said. Twenty-four to 25 percent of ECC churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic, he said.

“One of the things that we strongly believe is that God is a God of cultures. Yes, we’re created equal. Yes, we’re all human beings. But we also have various ethnic backgrounds that when you don’t deny the ethnic realities and embrace those, you become more whole as people,” said Spooner.

Reformed Church in America Follows ECC Lead

Spooner grew up in a predominantly black Harlem church in the majority white Reformed Church in America (RCA) denomination and worked for the RCA in the late 1970s. He recalls, at the time, his Reformed brethren would joke that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

Harold Spooner

“The Reformed Church had a long way to go at the time. The interesting thing in the Reformed Church is that they are now looking at some of the things that we have done,” he said.

In a 2010 report, RCA general secretary Wesley Granberg-Michaelson said he is encouraged that more than one-third of its 249 new congregations are “racially or ethnically different than the RCA Anglo majority.” He warned, however, that a “relationship gap” between traditional and new congregations poses “the greatest threat to the RCA’s life together as a whole.” RCA created a Multi-Racial Strategy Coalition to guide its efforts toward diversity and has adopted its own Five-fold Test that mirrors the ECC’s.

Evangelical Free’s ‘Big Passion’ for Diversity

Dr. Alvin Sanders is Executive Director of Reconciliation for the EFCA. In collaboration with EFCA’s President, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Development Officer, and Vice Presidents of National and International Ministry, Sanders helps determine the direction of his denomination, he said.

Alvin Sanders

“Our mission statement is to glorify God by multiplying healthy churches among all people. I’m the chief architect of the ‘all people,’” said Sanders. He was hired four years ago in response to an EFCA reorganization and said diversity has been “a big passion” for EFCA’s president Dr. William J. Hamel, who created a task force on the issue in the 1990s.

“I believe this is an emerging paradigm. I see within some Christian colleges and universities my type of position, but other denominations or para-church organizations are going at this at a different rate. To be quite honest, I don’t know anybody else who has my exact same position. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I definitely know within denominational circles, they’re not plentiful,” said Sanders.

“Christian organizations need to wake up. If we’re going to really reach the mission field of the United States, and fulfill the mandate of the Scriptures, we need to be more diverse. … It’s simply a matter of practicing transformative leadership and changing policies, practices and procedures so that the organizational culture becomes one where ethnics will self-select to be a part of what you’re doing,” he said.

Sanders advocates a “two-pronged” approach of helping white churches to realize that pursuing diversity should be a priority and working with ethnic churches and leaders to address historical distrust between the races. “Their major question is: why should we be joined with you all? It’s a different paradigm depending on which group you’re dealing with,” said Sanders.

About 15 percent of EFCA’s 1500 churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic and 35 percent of new church plants are, he said. But EFCA wants 20 percent of its churches to be ethnic or multi-ethnic by the year 2020. When 20 percent of “the other” is incorporated, the fabric of an organization changes, he said.

Building Bridges of Loyalty and Trust

Dante Upshaw

In 2004, the EFCA hired Rev. Dante Upshaw to serve as its first Director of African American Ministries. He had been a youth pastor and elder in a Chicago EFCA church, but said that like many members of urban and ethnic churches, he was only “marginally connected” to the denomination and felt no sense of loyalty to it.

“For ethnic and urban leaders, it really takes effort to have someone to be a bridge between the denomination and local leaders. That’s primarily my role, to be a bridge builder,” said Upshaw. With 15-to-20 African American pastors identified in 2004, EFCA’s prayer was to grow to 100 active and involved leaders by 2010, he said. “We reached that in 2009.”

African Americans are also serving on national and district boards, so they’re not just increasing in numbers, but having an impact, Upshaw added.

SBC Reports Its Progress

Although SBC pastors declined to talk to UrbanFaith for this article, last week the denomination’s own Baptist Press published an article about the change.

“African Americans comprise 6.5 percent of the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to 2009 figures. Whites comprise 81 percent; other ethnicities 12.5 percent,” Baptist Press reported.

“Luter’s election comes as the convention is focused heavily on multiethnic inclusion. At this year’s annual meeting in Phoenix, the Executive Committee and other convention leaders signed an Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation, pledging ‘to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race and language as equal partners in our collecttive ministries to engage all people groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” the article stated. Luter recently said he’s 80 percent sure he will run for the SBC presidency next year.

A Vocal Critic in the SBC

Dwight McKissic

Among the SBC pastors who were unavailable for comment was Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic has been perhaps the most vocal internal critic of his denomination’s record on race.

In two blog posts last spring, McKissic outlined accusations of egregious racism within SBC’s churches. The Associated Baptist Press took note.

“The SBC must repent of systemic, institutionalized and historic negative attitudes toward women, race and dissenters. … When we repent of our sins and turn from our wicked ways, then God will forgive our sins and heal our convention and anoint us to go forth with power in carrying out the Great Commission,” McKissic is quoted as saying.

McKissic also started floating the name of Fred Luter as a candidate for SBC president back in 2010, more than a year before Luter’s rise to the position of SBC first vice president.

A Painful, Rewarding Process

As the SBC and other denominations attempt to more fully reflect and embrace the beauty and diversity God intended for his church, the process is sure to be painful.

“I’ve got to really understand God’s love for me,” said Upshaw. “That’s a challenge. When I’m struggling with that, it makes it really hard to love other folks, [especially] someone who is very different from me, be it culturally or whatever.”

He added, “What has to keep me getting up each morning and pressing through the disappointment is that this is a step of obedience in reflecting the kingdom. The family of God is a beautiful tapestry of all kinds of people: men and women, poor, wealthy, Hispanic, African American. When our local church or denomination doesn’t reflect that, we’re missing something.”

King Memorial Controversy Continues

King Memorial Controversy Continues

Does the King Memorial Make Him Sound Arrogant?

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that was unveiled last week came under fire first for appearing too Asian. Now poet and author Maya Angelou says a quote inscribed on the statue makes the humble pastor sound too arrogant.

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told Ebeneezer Baptist Church two months before he died in 1968. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

“The sermon was so powerful that the designers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington selected those lines to be inscribed on the memorial’s towering statue of the civil rights leader,” The Washington Post reported today, but a design change led to a paraphrase instead. The inscription on the side of the statue reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” said Angelou, who consulted on the project. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.” Ever the wordsmith, Angelou added, ” The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

Angelou isn’t the first writer to make this observation. Last week, Washington Post editor Rachel Manteuffel voiced a similar complaint. “An ‘if’ clause is an extraordinarily bad thing to leave out of a quote. If  I had to be a type of cheese, being Swiss is best,” she wrote. “I say, let’s undo the mistake. Let’s get the chisels back out. Let’s remember the words he chose and not let this be one more way we’ve failed King.”

Should Rev. Billy Graham Get a Statue Too?

“Not now,” wrote Charlotte Observer journalist Tim Funk at his Funk on Faith blog, but after Graham goes to his heavenly reward “a statue of this Charlotte-born evangelist — pastor to presidents — would be a popular addition to Our Nation’s Capital,” Funk said. But the U.S. Capital would be a more appropriate location than the National Mall, which he said should be “reserved for titans who profoundly changed America: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and MLK.”

Funk chose the capital building because each state is allowed to donate likenesses of two of its native children and he thinks two former North Carolina governors have had their day under the dome. There’s precedent too. Hawaii, California, Utah, and Illinois have all donated statuary of religious figures, said Funk.

What do you think? Does the King paraphrase make a humble preacher sound arrogant? Should Rev. Graham be similarly honored?

A Post-Hurricane Prayer

A Post-Hurricane Prayer

WIND AND WAVE: A view from the Jersey Shore in the midst of Irene. Photo by Christine A. Scheller.

What does one pray after a hurricane? After calamity, perhaps especially after calamity, we can pray as Jesus taught us. The Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus handed down to the disciples, is traditionally divided into seven petitions. We’ll take our cue from the church mothers and fathers, musing upon each petition in relation to Hurricane Irene.

 Hallowed be thy name

One wonders, agonizingly, where was God when Irene struck? Was God sleeping like a tired air traffic controller? Who, precisely, do we take God to be in such pervasive tragedy? As the questions fester, let us recall Psalm 88 — that roughhewn intonation of faith — begins by invoking God’s name, but concludes where many are now: “Trouble surrounds me and darkness is my only companion.”

Thy kingdom come

Irene strikes. Anxiety ensues. We await the arrival of the Red Cross. City agencies and civil sector groups provide support services with incomparable scale. We rightly await their coming. In another sense, however, we long for more. The brute fact of natural disasters compels us to moan — to groan with all of creation — sorrowfully anticipating God’s return, the parousia of Jesus our Christ.

Thy will be done

Most theologians draw some sort of distinction between God’s inviolable will and a more contingent plan. We ask — we plead even — that God’s perfect will be done. With the indignant spirit of Abraham we ask: will not the Judge of All Heaven and Earth do what is right? And with the simple profundity of a country Baptist preacher, we pray the Master’s “Peace be still” in the midst of the storm.

Give us this day our daily bread

We beseech God for daily bread, understanding that God beseeches us — summons us –to provide daily bread for our neighbors in need. Whether the medium is individual charity, congregational and institutional giving, or the public disbursement of disaster assistance, our prayer is same: may the post-Irene provision of bread be proportionate to the need.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive

One temptation in every storm is to condemn those who stay behind. In our rush to impose conceptual order, we often obscure social disparities—forgetting that some citizens depend on public transportation, that the elderly need assistance, and that inmates, too, need an evacuation plan. Far be it from us to shrug our moral shoulders at those who either cannot or will not adhere to what they hear. If the moral life partly concerns the formation of good habits, and if we, in moments of lesser consequence, have failed to heed a clear summons or two, then we do well to extend the same grace to others. But for the grace of God, there go I.

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Temptation, in part, is the struggle to remember. In lack, to recall God’s provision. In Canaan, to remember Egypt. As the waters of Irene slowly recede, the cares of life set in, and, gradually, what was urgent becomes less important. May we remember the togetherness of strangers serving one another, and hold fast to images of first responders’ sacrificial service. May our memories, upon fingering the jagged edge of Irene, lead us to serve in times of natural disaster.

Deliver Us from Evil

Rev. William Sloane Coffin once remarked, “It is common to say that religion is a crutch. I always respond, ‘What makes you think you don’t have a limp?’ ” With his characteristic wit, Coffin suggests that our human condition is characterized by fragility. When we seek divine deliverance, we shatter the illusion that we are deliverers, that we can extricate ourselves from suffering altogether. Only the man of sorrows, who was tested at every point as we are, yet without sin, can do that. Once the mist of arrogance is removed from our eyes, a newfound freedom emerges to redeem the pain of misfortune and disaster.