Already But Not Yet: Embracing the Challenges of Diversity

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The 2011 Multiethnic Conference was a joyful celebration of diversity and a fervent call to further racial reconciliation in the Christian Reformed Church.

As always, the biennial conference was held in conjunction with the opening days of synod.

The conference theme was “Already But Not Yet: Embracing the Emerging Challenges of Diversity.”

Rev. Emmett Harrison brings greetings to Synod 2011 from the Multiethnic Conference.

Karen Huttenga

Eighty-six participants came from across the United States and Canada, representing many different ethnicities, including Africans, African Americans, Anglos, Chinese, Koreans, Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

Ministry Associate Shiao Chong, a member of the planning committee, said, “We have made a lot of progress in the denomination, but we recognize that it’s not the 1990s anymore—we’re in a new reality and there are new challenges.”

Conference workshops addressed some of those emerging challenges:

  • bridging gaps between new immigrants and established people of color;
  • bringing out the voice of young people of color;
  • the themes of the Belhar Confession: unity, justice, and reconciliation;
  • diversity in leadership.

The keynote speaker for the event was George Yancey, author of several books, including One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches and Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility.

Yancey said the solution to racism and disunity has to come from the Christian church.

“Racism is first and foremost a spiritual problem, and not a social problem,” he said. “We talk so often about how we are different, but let’s talk about what ties us together. We have more in common than differences.”

Just because there are multiracial churches does not mean that the problem of racism is solved, he said. “We really have not seriously dealt with it in the church. . . . The part of loving one another is to truly understand one another.”

At a workshop on Saturday, a panel of young people shared their thoughts on racial reconciliation within the CRC.

“Too often people have to hide their differences to feel accepted within the church,” said panel member Lauren Harrison, from Warrensville Heights, Ohio. She shared that she often feels uncomfortable being the only person of color among church and school peers. “Trying to find your place within the church is very hard, but those hard, uncomfortable moments need to happen,” she said.

Steve Kabetu, denominational coordinator of Race Relations for the CRC in Canada and panel moderator, encouraged the young people to make their voices heard: “We need your voices to speak a little louder [in the CRC]. . . . Are you waiting to be invited, or are you going to participate? This is not an old men’s white church anymore.”

Rev. Daniel Mendez, from Long Beach, Calif., spoke on leadership and race. Current thinking about leadership too often contributes to racialized dynamics, he said, but real leadership is about being our brother’s keeper. “We should be thoughtful of all others and include them in our leadership development activities,” he said.

Conference participants were enthusiastic about the experience.

“This conference opened my mind on the many things I can do in my church and the many things I can share with my neighbors,” said Jonas Cruz of San Marcos, Calif., a new Christian who attended with five others from Iglesia Camino al Cielo CRC.

“This conference is a great asset to the denomination,” said Joshua Amazechi, a recent graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary. “It provides opportunity for the denomination to reflect on what it means to be a Christian community, to move into the future, and to assess where we are as a covenant community.”

Graduate student Rachel Watson, from Chicago, said the conference came at a pivotal moment for her, a time when she was ready to leave a denomination in which she felt she wasn’t needed.

She feels that God may be calling her back to the CRC: “Events like this are tremendously powerful. You really never know who you’re going to have things in common with. This is a pivotal moment for me.”

This year’s synod will decide whether to endorse a report of great interest to the Multiethnic Conference participants, the Diversity in Leadership Report.

The report, written at the request of Synod 2009, recommends specific steps to increasing diversity in the top paid leadership positions of the CRC.

“This conference has been relevant to the times that we’re experiencing in the life of our denomination,” Rev. Esteban Lugo, director of Race Relations for the CRC, told gathered conferees. “The present state of racial reconciliation in the CRCNA is at a crossroads. In this instance, either we will move forward in becoming God’s diverse and unified community . . . or we will remain stagnant.”

Rev. Peter Borgdorff, CRCNA executive director emeritus, explained the process that the report will go through as it comes before synod. He cautioned the group not to think of the report’s review by synod as a win-lose, all-or-nothing situation.

“This report is a step in the history of our development. I don’t know how big a step it will be . . . but I still have a deep, abiding trust that through synod’s deliberations we’ll be challenging one another to think more deeply and act more justly,” he said. “Through the Spirit we will not abandon one another, but instead learn from each other.”

Lugo said, “Ultimately, is it a question of maintaining power and privilege within the dominant culture? It’s not so much that you don’t look like me; it’s more of an issue of ‘You know what? This is mine, I have power, I have control of this, and I don’t want that to be diminished.’”

After Lugo’s talk, conferees sang “We Shall Overcome,” then trekked across campus to meet synod delegates face to face.

“We’re delighted to have been invited here,” Rev. Emmett Harrison, chair of the Multiethnic Conference committee, told synod delegates. “In the spirit of Pentecost, it is God who intervenes and ultimately directs us.”

Synod 2011 is scheduled to take up the Diversity in Leadership Report Tuesday evening at 7 p.m.

For more coverage while synod is in session, including webcast, photos, discussion forum, reports, and more, visit the Synod 2011 website.

About the Author

Roxanne VanFarowe is a freelance writer who lives in the woods with her artist husband James and their five children in Hillsborough, North Carolina. They are members of Blacknall Presbyterian Church in Durham.

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