The Joy and the Struggle of Building Multiracial Community

A surprising thing happened in our congregation after we became an officially Open and Affirming congregation in 2009. We expected that we’d have more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, and we do. What we didn’t expect was that we’d also become more racially and culturally diverse. Sure, we’d included that kind of diversity in our ONA statement, but we’d declared our openness to people of all racial or cultural backgrounds for as long as anyone could remember and yet we’d had only a few members of different races, and never more than a few at a time. What changed us was that, here in an inner-ring suburb of a major city, it turned out that some of our LGBT members were African American, Latino or Native American. They, in turn, brought family members and friends to the church that welcomed them. Looking out on our changing congregation on a Sunday morning, more visitors felt included and stayed. Suddenly our diversity increased ten-fold.

It’s been a welcome change. We see our future as one of the growing numbers of multiracial congregations in the U.S. and in the United Church of Christ. Paul wrote of the way that God was breaking down barriers in the early church, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We believe that our still-speaking God is working to break down barriers between people of different races and cultures in our society.

hands 4It’s not always easy or comfortable to be growing in this way. Our leaders know from our work in revitalization that new people inevitably mean change. When you add racial and cultural diversity to that equation, the amount of new ideas and change increases even more. Our leaders want our music to reflect our congregation. One of the adjustments we’ve been working on lately is using a wider range of musical styles and instruments. Admittedly, contemporary gospel has been a hard sell with some of our long-time choir members. The youth choir is a different story. They happily try anything. Yes, we have one older member who threatens to walk out every time we sing something in Spanish, but he’ll get over it.

Certainly one of the pitfalls of developing a multiracial and multicultural community is that those in the minority will simply be asked to act and think like the majority (see this study David Lindsey cited in an earlier Vital Statistics blog). It is not easy to have an honest discussion about highly charged topics, especially race. This fall, our adult class has been discussing Ferguson and Faith by Leah Gunning Francis, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary. We’ve talked about race and the Black Lives Matter movement. Our black members have had to be very patient with those of us who have not lived the same experience and need help to see the world through their eyes. It’s not easy for them, and I’m so thankful for their presence and their willingness to take part.

In her final chapter, Francis talks about the need to raise awareness of white privilege, to build relationships across racial lines, and to connect awareness with action on issues in our own communities. A multiracial congregation is one place we ought to be able to do that. Relationships have the power to transform the way we look at the world. Because so many of our teens are now black or brown, I found that I could not think of the death of Eric Garner, who died unable to breathe in a police officer’s chokehold, without also thinking of one of our teens with asthma. What if he were unjustly arrested? I could not think of the death of Tamir Rice, shot by police while playing with a toy gun, without also thinking about which one of our church’s youth might be in danger from playing with the wrong toy. Relationships are powerful things. If we are going to change the world, relationships are not a bad place to start. What better place to go that than in our congregations?

Beth LyonRev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.