The songs were familiar, but the singing was different—slower, with more of a jazz feel. The sermon was Reformed, but the periodic vocal affirmations from the congregants weren’t typical of most Christian Reformed audiences.
That’s because this was the annual Black and Reformed Conference, an event during which black members of the Christian Reformed Church gather to worship in styles that reflect their own cultures.
About 100 people from Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Jersey, and Michigan attended this year’s conference, held in Kalamazoo, Mich., in April. It was the 11th conference of its kind.
Rev. Bob Price is Christian Reformed Home Missions regional leader for Black and Urban Ministry. He said this national conference started as a way to connect around black culture. “Black people from all over worship in predominantly Anglo settings,” he said. “They want a cultural experience that reminds them of their roots. It’s Reformed but reflects a different style.”
Discussing the Belhar Confession
The main theme of this year’s conference was the Belhar Confession, a statement of faith written by South Africans in the 1980s apartheid era.
The Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa has asked the CRC to consider adopting the Belhar as one of its primary confessions, alongside the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism.
The CRC’s Interchurch Relations Committee has been hosting discussions of the Belhar across the denomination.
Rev. Denise Posie, pastor of Immanuel CRC in Kalamazoo, spoke on the first night of the conference. “When I saw the Belhar Confession I got excited,” she said. “Something is being birthed, but God is needing some midwives to push. We need to push. We’re too comfortable and passive. Sometimes being African American in a primarily white denomination, I want to give up. But it’s not about me; it’s about what God wants to do in the CRC.”
Dolphus Weary was the headline speaker for the conference. A veteran among African American pro-family leaders, he is executive director of Mission Mississippi, a statewide initiative to reconcile people from all races and denominational backgrounds.
“I’m excited about what you are doing,” he said. “This is a journey of justice. You’re here to grow forward. After the shouting is done, what are you going to do? Racism is not a white problem, it is not about blame—it’s about all of us facing up to being broken creatures.”
“The Belhar is a wonderful document,” he said. “Keep the conversation going.”
Victoria Procter Gibbs, a member of Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., noted that the early confessions, written hundreds of years ago, did not look at people who are “other.” “How do we look at the ‘other’?” she asked. “This has been on the table for years and has not moved.”
It’s About Fellowship
Despite the serious discussion about the Belhar Confession, fellowship remains one of the primary reasons people come to the Black and Reformed Conference.
Rev. Richard Williams, pastor of Pullman CRC in Chicago, said, “I’ve been stimulated by the discussion,” but he always enjoys the fellowship and likes meeting new people at the conference.
Rev. Jerome Burton, pastor of Coit Community CRC in Grand Rapids, said, “If we just stayed in Grand Rapids, we wouldn’t know about people like Sheila [Holmes], about people from Chicago. This allows us to get together and fellowship.”
Burton said it isn’t about segregation. “Everyone is welcome to our table—we want to be a blessing to the CRC.”
Reflecting What the CRC Could Look Like
Rev. Jerome Burton and Kristin Burton of Coit Community CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., feel that their interracial marriage is a picture of what the CRC could be.
“It is not an accident that we married,” Jerome said. “God orchestrated this to send the message that ‘this is the face of the CRC; we can live in unity.’”
Jerome has been in the CRC for 17 years and was ordained in 1996. Kristin joined his church three years ago when she got a job down the street and was looking for a church home. She found a church and a husband.
“The message for the larger church is that it’s about identity and unity in Christ,” Kristin said.
Jerome added, “God is doing awesome things in the CRC—breaking walls and barriers. I’m excited that the CRC is trying desperately to embrace us, and we want to celebrate that. We want to have a table run by people of color and invite people to that table.”
—Gayla R. Postma