If the Christian Reformed Church wants to know what its annual synod should look like, it should have a look at the playground of Timothy Christian School in Elmhurst, Ill.
That is the advice of Dan Van Prooyen, long-time teacher and then superintendent of Timothy until he retired in 2010.
As I walked around the school, peeking into classrooms from preschool to grade 12, it is obvious that in this student body of more than 1,100 students, racial diversity is a given. Nearly 25 percent of the students are from ethnic minorities.
It is a far cry from the school that has been held up by the CRC as the antithesis of racial reconciliation for 45 years. In the 1960s, under bomb threats from the local community in Cicero, the school board refused to admit African-American students from nearby Lawndale CRC, a primarily African-American congregation. Those students were bused out to attend a Christian school in another community.
The school, meanwhile, relocated out of Cicero to Elmhurst, Ill., a move old-timers said allowed them to escape the racist restraints of Cicero and welcome students from all ethnic backgrounds.
Regardless of anyone’s interpretation about what happened back then, perhaps it is time for the church to stop citing that sad time in the school’s history and instead see what can be learned from where Timothy is today.
Where the school is today is awesome, according to Tina Jenkins Crawley, an African-American gospel singer whose son Andrew is in grade 10 at Timothy. Her husband, Mark, a secondary school educator in nearby Chicago, is on the school board.
“We were looking for a school with a godly atmosphere,” she said. “The diversity was secondary.” That said, her son has felt very comfortable in the school. She added, “The community has gone out of its way to warmly welcome us right from day one. Our son is flourishing in an environment where he is happy, safe, and lifted up.”
Standing on the school parking lot on a muggy late-September day, I marveled at the precision with which 17 buses rolled out of the school parking lot carrying 78 percent of the student body. Forty-five years ago, ethnic minority students were bused out of the community. Today, students from 58 different communities, some from as far away as downtown Chicago, are bused in.
Many cite those buses as the reason the school is so diverse. The city of Elmhurst, where the school is located, is only 1 percent African American.
All that busing, $600,000 worth, is included in the school’s budget. No parent pays extra, regardless of the distance their child travels to the school.
“The school’s buses go past all the white suburbs to make the extra effort, to go beyond the comfort zone,” said Crawley.
Everyone I talked to admits there is still work to do. Administrators and board members acknowledge that they have not yet achieved the level of diversity in the faculty and on the board that reflects the student body.
For instance, the teachers’ names posted above each classroom door are overwhelmingly Dutch. And board composition is set by the constitution of the school, which states that a certain number of the 20 board seats are to be filled by supporting churches, many of which are predominantly white CRCs. Board president Ken Vos, himself a Timothy alum, said the board continues to address this.
And there can be other bumps in the road. Clyde Rinsema, a former Timothy principal, said there are always kids who feel hard done by—perhaps they didn’t get enough playing time in a sport. “That happens with white kids too, but when there is diversity, it can complicate things.”
Fran David concurs. She has been at the school for 35 years as a teacher and now as a high school guidance counselor. She was one of those Trinity Christian College students who marched against the school in the 1960s. “There are always kids who are instigators and those who have a chip on their shoulder,” she said, “but those can be black kids or white kids.”
What can the Christian Reformed Church learn from what is happening today at Timothy?
“We certainly don’t have a formula or mechanism that makes for a healthy diverse school community,” Van Prooyen said. “I believe it is harder for the denomination to become diverse.”
One solution for churches might be to stay put. The irony of that is not lost on Rinsema, considering that Timothy moved. But churches that move out of communities that are becoming increasingly diverse are unlikely to become more diverse themselves.
Matt Davidson, current superintendent of the school, suggested that churches take their cue from young people. “Get their input. Learn from them. Social movements often start with young adults.”
I sat down with eight students from the school, ranging from grades 9 to 12. The group included African-American, Caucasian, and Asian students representing a variety of denominations.
Their best advice? Don’t get caught up on the small things. Worry less about details and be open to different people and different ideas.
“When we’re in class, that’s a working environment,” said Adrienne C., a twelfth-grader who has been at Timothy since grade 6. At lunch, she said, if kids group with others who look like them, they are reaching for the comfortable rather than reaching out to others.
Vince W., now in grade 12, arrived at Timothy in grade 9. He agreed with Adrienne that it is business in the classroom and everyone works side by side. “When the bell rings, we gravitate toward those of shared interests and race, and sometimes the two things merge.”
Jay L. is an international student in grade 12. “Most of us hang out with friends with the same interests.”
It is that getting to know each other that breaks down the barriers of old assumptions, according to Brad Mitchell, principal of the high school and Timothy alum, who also happens to be biracial.
“Combat racism by getting to know people. We’re too internally focused,” he said. “[You should] go out of your space and meet people where they are. Simply opening your doors doesn’t work. It’s okay to worship separately, but partner with another church, start learning about them, praying with them. That will change assumptions.”
And what about Lawndale CRC, the church at the epicenter of the story 45 years ago? Today it has its own school, West Side Christian, which shares a building with the church. They work in partnership with Timothy. “It was the silver lining to the Timothy-Lawndale story,” said principal Mary Post. “Today 177 students from Chicago’s West Side have quality Christian education right in their neighborhood.” West Side has also become a model for diversity, moving from an almost exclusively African-American student body to one that now includes 13 percent Caucasian students in addition to Korean-American and Latino children.
Most of all, said Rinsema, remember that diversity comes slowly. “It takes a lot of grace.”