I stand in awe of how God led me to become pastor of Fox Valley Christian Reformed Church. Retelling the circumstances clearly demonstrates God’s guidance.
In March 1999 I received a telephone call from Rev. John Wiegers, pastor of Fox Valley Church in Crystal Lake, Ill. We’d met at the semiannual classis meeting, and he’d asked if I would be interested in filling in for him some Sunday.
Later that same month he telephoned me with a date to preach and directions to the church, which was an hour and a half from my house—quite a commute even without rush-hour traffic.
Once my wife, Mae, and I arrived at the church we were greeted warmly, and after the service the fellowship was gracious. But on the way home I told Mae that while the people were great, the driving distance was a concern. So I determined that I would not make the drive to Crystal Lake again.
Well, the pastor called once more and asked if I was available to preach during his vacation. Without any hesitation I answered yes. Then I remembered the distance to Crystal Lake. Once again I resolved that this would certainly be the last time I filled in.
Sunday came, I preached, and once again we enjoyed the warm fellowship. Again we drove home from what we thought was our final visit.
Surprised by yet another phone call from the pastor, who’d accepted a call in Michigan and needed to find preachers for at least four weeks, I agreed to preach a couple of Sundays. I knew this would definitely be the last time!
In early May I received a telephone call from—you guessed it!—Fox Valley’s search committee. They asked if I would be interested in interviewing for the position of pastor.
I wondered, of course, about the ulterior motive for asking a black pastor to serve an all-white church. I admit that I could not understand why they wanted to consider me. Certainly, we were theologically in agreement, but that alone did not dispel the race issue.
What I pondered for days after that telephone call was the temerity of the people of Fox Valley. The more I thought of the opportunity to pastor an all-white church, the more I thought of the racial implications.
On the one hand, I had no problem preaching there once I was back home and the long drive to Crystal Lake was in the rearview mirror.
On the other hand, I found it difficult to consider leaving family, friends, and community to relocate to a predominately white suburb to pastor an all-white congregation.
My wife and I prayed, and all the while I prayed I thought the easier way out of this situation was for Fox Valley to call another candidate and spare me the effort of declining the call.
But God’s providence and sovereignty were at work all the time.
When I received the call that Fox Valley had selected me as pastor, I knew that God had brought us together. Despite knowing that God had worked according to his will, however, I knew I needed God’s Spirit and his grace to meet the challenge.
A New Relationship
In the beginning I was neither naïve nor aggressive; rather, I was reserved. Heretofore my relationship with the congregation had been only that of a guest preacher. Now I was not only the preacher, but also the pastor.
The first months of my pastorate included uncomfortable situations similar to those experienced by any new pastor. Admittedly, I resisted every effort to attribute any of those occurrences of the first months and year to racism. Instead, I kept in mind the call to “shepherd the flock” because I suspected the culture had no mean impact on influencing the congregation’s thinking.
More important, our hearts were encouraged by the fact that the congregation had called a black pastor. That will now and forever be dear to me. I kept in mind that we were all God’s servants, and God proved himself faithful.
“I Don’t See Color”
It is an arduous task to describe what it means to be a black pastor in a white congregation without first briefly discussing the cultural implications.
The culture is unrelenting in reminding us of the racial inequality that exists in our society, and the church is no less guilty. But here at Fox Valley there is another reminder: this is the kingdom of God. Whatever our ethnic background may be, we are a community of believers.
Moreover, being a black pastor in a white congregation has forced me to change my disposition.
I have had my doubts whenever a person says to me, “I don’t see color.” That statement has always seemed disingenuous to me. Even when I heard those words from Christians, I thought they were nothing more than a pious platitude.
Obviously, the first thing you see is color. But now I’m persuaded that when people say “I don’t see color,” it’s designed to communicate that they are not prejudiced and to ease tensions in the relationship.
Accordingly, the past nine years have been for me a time of reevaluating my attitude about the words “I do not see color” because of the love I have experienced at Fox Valley. We see relationship, we see Christ, and we love each other for who we are—God’s creation and God’s community.
Yes, there have been difficult times when I’ve been tempted to quit, but some person in the congregation has always been there to give me a cold cup of water and tell me that I am loved.
Yes, we’ve had our share people who’ve left the church neither quietly nor graciously, but overall the congregation has remained steadfast in love.
Despite demographic changes in membership, we remain theologically conservative, which gives me great joy. I have had my sorrows, but my cup has also run over with blessings. God has been faithful to Fox Valley and to me, and I have no regrets.
- Imagine that you are called to a leadership position in an organization in which you will be the only person of your ethnicity. What concerns would you have?
- What would convince you to accept the position?
- Do you believe that “culture is unrelenting in reminding us of the racial inequality that exists in our society, and the church is no less guilty”?
- Give personal examples of situations in your church or work where you have witnessed or experienced racism.
- How can Christians work together to break down barriers and foster relationship in the name of Christ?
- What does the CRC’s Office of Race Relations offer to churches who want to learn more (see www.crcna.org)?