An excerpt from, an essay I wrote in 2009 for the John Fuder and Noel Castellanos book, A HEART FOR THE COMMUNITY: NEW MODELS FOR URBAN AND SUBURBAN MINISTRY. Discussion and critique invited. See yesterday’s post for part 1.
I grew up as a teenager in the idealistic and embryonic dawning of public discourse on racial issues that was the 1960’s. I also grew up in an all-white and mostly Catholic suburb of Philadelphia. Nuns and priests and good Catholic layman crossed my vision at school but there were no black, or Asian, or Hispanic faces in the weekly activity of my life. “We” were German and Italian, and Irish, and Polish, with a smattering of Jewish ethnicity in the area, but we were all “white.” [Not really, “consciously white”, but white cultures had shaped us more than we knew.] The only contact I had with black people was through the television unless you count the minstrel show that the local Catholic Church put on with a bunch of white people painted up in black-face. [Note: To their credit, those shows ended in my early elementary-school years.]
When I moved on to Archbishop Wood High School in 1969, my own awareness of color had begun to awaken. The nuns and other teachers of my grammar school exposed us to some of the civil rights literature of the period. One nun helped us to see the positive side of President Johnson’s “war on poverty” and the struggle for justice in the civil rights movement. During those years, and later in college, books like Talley’s Corner[i] began to alert me to the privilege that was accorded me simply because my skin was white. They also began to make me more aware of the kinds of institutional racism that lay below the surface of everyday life.
Still, I suppose the first place I interacted with non-white students was on the athletic fields. Playing football and running track brought me in contact with others my age from schools that had a more diverse student body. The reality was that this contact was superficial and distant. However, all of these things plus Dr. Martin Luther King’s rhetoric, the music of the band Chicago and a religion teacher’s influence at Archbishop Wood High School, helped to fan into a flame the desire to live in a world where people “would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”[ii]
College was a new experience. At college, I ran on a track team with teammates from all types of backgrounds. My classrooms were filled with other ethnicities, accents and even the opposite sex (except for two classes, Archbishop Wood was not coed). For the first time, my teachers had different hues. Through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, I came to know the Lord personally and also developed my first real friendship with someone who was non-white.
Stan was the best friend I had in college and also one of the smartest. He had a twin brother at Howard, another brother at Tuskegee and a fourth at still another mostly black college. I remember his disappointment when he learned that the one girl in our mostly white fellowship whose skin was dark, a beauty whose parents were from India, listed herself as Caucasian on the United States census. When Stan learned what to me was an insignificant piece of information, his sense of aloneness was almost palpable. There truly was no one “like him” in our entire movement. The experience served to heighten my awareness of “difference.”
All of this history probably sounds trite and inconsequential to a person of color, but it was significant in forming the multi-ethnic and multicultural vision that has been played out at New Song Church. Eventually, I went on staff with the ministry of Campus Crusade and was assigned to the International School of Theology. It was a chance to work at an academic institution and to continue the kind of modest ministry to faculty that I had begun at the University of Maryland. I was not a peer academically, but I was able to relate with faculty and administration on a professional level.
During my time at the Seminary, I was exposed to the provocative and expanding literature of the Church Growth movement. One new idea was the so-called Homogeneous Unit Principle or HUP. The principle was first formulated by Donald McGavran, the founding dean of the Fuller Theological Seminary missions department. Simply stated, HUP, according to McGavran, is that “people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.”[iii] Acting on this idea, church growth advocates encouraged the development of strategies that would evangelize groups without requiring those evangelized to leave the comfort of their traditional associations of race, language, and class. The net result of these new strategies, in case after case, seemed to be the growth of churches—larger churches, more conversions, bigger buildings, more programs, bigger budgets, and a larger profile in the community.
What made me suspicious, was that the Homogeneous Unit Principle did not seem to fit with what I read in the book of Acts. Furthermore, it did not look like the scenes describing the saints before the throne of God in Revelation, and it seemed to throw away a powerful picture of the gospel in action—namely, its ability to speak to the human heart across barriers of race, language, and caste. It failed to capitalize on the opportunity for the church to say that something supernatural was possible because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the bringing together of people from radically different backgrounds under the Lordship of a sovereign, sacrificing and risen Savior.
Is not a church that demonstrates to the world a picture of diversity and unity, love and community with one another across these types of barriers a powerful testimony to the supremacy of Christ? Someday, God’s people will all be together for eternity, and there is no indication in Scripture of ethnic enclaves in heaven. Did not God create the ethnic and cultural diversity that we have? I know that in every culture there are things that are simply evil, but many things in different cultures are just different. Not wrong, different.
On the one-tenth of a mile trip to the end of my street, I will pass a Muslim neighbor from Pakistan, a Korean neighbor, a first generation Polish neighbor, four African American neighbors, two mixed-race couples, one Hispanic family, and five white families. When the kids show up at the end of our little cul-de-sac to play kickball it looks like a United Nations grammar school playground. The reality today is that the twenty-first-century suburb in many metropolitan areas is more diverse than some of the communities within our major cities. With these thoughts and realities in mind, I began to ask other questions concerning how to “do church” in the contemporary suburban landscape.
[i] Other books included The Suburban Captivity of the Churches: an Analysis of Protestant Responsibility in the Expanding Metropolis by Gibson Winter; Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin.
[iii] A. Scott Moreau, editor, Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, in the Baker Reference Library. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Books, 2000), 455.
(Tomorrow: “Rethinking the Suburban Church”)
Exposure to different cultures/ethnicities is limited in some geographic and ethnic enclaves in such a way as to increase fear and xenophobia.
The strategy of HUP created barriers to developing diversity in congregations.