Being an ethnic minority leader in the Christian Reformed Church—a denomination that is still predominantly white and connected to its Dutch heritage—is no easy role. Although African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, and Hispanics all represent growing ethnic groups within the CRC, leaders of those groups walk a fine line. They serve congregations of people from one or more ethnic minorities while at the same navigating the customs and assumptions of the dominant culture.
The Banner recently spoke with several of those leaders and discovered that for most of them, their position, poised between two cultures, is part of their calling from God. It’s a call they take seriously, even when it feels like a burden, but one that also brings joy.
A Dual Role
Victor Ko is a church planter in Edmonton, Alberta. Prior to that he served a predominantly Anglo church, Third CRC in Kalamazoo, Mich. “For me, it starts with the calling. God has called me to serve him [as a pastor] but also as a change agent,” he said. “Calling is a heavy thing for me. Look at the Old Testament prophets. They stood their post. They were obedient.”
Jerome Burton also feels called to a dual role of leading his church and helping bring change to the dominant culture. He has been leading the same small church in Grand Rapids, Mich., for 20 years. “I came to realize early in my ministry that God has called me not only to pastor at Coit Community but also to come alongside my white brothers and sisters to help them understand that people of color have something God has given them to bring to the table,” he said.
Not all feel that pull to be agents of change—but they willingly serve in that role if that’s where God calls them. Denise Posie is a consultant for the denomination’s Pastor-Church Relations Committee. Before that she spent 13 years as pastor of Immanuel CRC in Kalamazoo, Mich., a predominantly Caucasian congregation. “The fact that I am not a member of the dominant culture is not important to my calling. My vision is to serve all people, wherever God opens a door,” she said. When Immanuel was intentional about finding an African-American minister to serve in its predominantly African-American neighborhood, she walked through that door, even though she had no prior connection with the CRC.
Challenges and Joys
Walking the line between two cultures is not easy for some. Angela Taylor-Perry has served in churches in Grand Rapids and in Holland (Mich). She lives in Kalamazoo, where she is a commissioned pastor in a Reformed Church in America congregation. One of her challenges, she said, is “understanding cultural and traditional ways of doing things so that I don’t offend my CRC constituents.” She said she is intentional about not falling into people’s preconceived stereotypes about [African Americans,] but at the same time remains conscious of not alienating herself from her own culture.
For Jose Rayas, cultural challenges include the religious background of the Hispanic people he serves. A minister and church planter in Socorro, Texas, he has pastored Valley Ridge Community Church since 2002. He also teaches at All Nations Seminary. “One of the biggest challenges comes right along with being a part of the Reformed church,” he said. “Among Hispanics you have heavy Catholic and Pentecostal influences that see the Reformed church as an opposite.” Another challenge, he said, is convincing members of ethnic churches to become more involved with the affairs of the CRC despite language barriers.
Some point to challenges within the denomination itself. Stanley Jim was pastor of First Navajo CRC in Tohatchi, N.M. Since 2001, he has served as an Ethnic Ministry Leader with Christian Reformed Home Missions. “Adapting to the rules of the denomination that have been set by a [dominant] culture can at times hinder the ministries of minority churches,” he said. A lack of leaders from minority groups makes it difficult to get participation on denominational committees and boards, he said.
Despite these challenges, many of these leaders continue to be drawn to the theology and worldview of the CRC. “The theological stability in the CRC is rich and deep,” said Jim. “Having theological conversations with Native American brothers and sisters about our identity in Christ is what keeps me going.” Ko agreed. Even though some say the history and traditions of the CRC are a hindrance, Ko said, he believes the opposite is true. “The Reformed worldview has so much to offer to other expressions of the body of Christ.”
The real joy comes from the people.
Burton said he enjoys the welcome his church receives in Classis Grand Rapids North. But what moves him to tears is his own congregation. “Being an inner city church in which the majority of the congregation has educational and economic issues has not hindered [members] from reaching out to our neighborhood for Christ,” he said. “As hard as it is to do ministry [here], my core group of about 35 people are willing to hang in there believing and obeying God. This motivates me.” He counts it a privilege to be a pastor in a neighborhood where, he said, most older white Christian Reformed people will not go.
Most of these leaders find the rewards outweigh the costs, especially as they see other ethnic leaders step up, despite imperfect English or lack of education, and when mentoring young people to become leaders in their communities and churches.
“The greatest joy is to see someone you have mentored take the next step in preparing for ministry within the CRC,” said Rayas. “The manner in which they approach ministry is awesome and uplifting. . . . The fruit of our labors is seen in their love for Christ.”
Hope and Dreams
All of these leaders have hopes and dreams for the CRC. Posie dreams of the CRC leading the world in becoming a diverse denomination in which every person experiences respect, honor, and a sense of belonging. Burton dreams of a church where people of color have the same opportunity as their white peers to pastor in any church in the denomination. Rayas dreams of ethnic churches taking up responsibilities and leadership in the denomination. Jim dreams of a time when every classis has a First Nations congregation and the Navajo nation’s flag flies alongside the U.S. and Canadian flags at denominational buildings. All of them dream of a time when diversity will be a part of the denominational landscape.
Planting more churches is one way Ko sees as a way to bring more diversity to the CRC. He compared trying to change existing churches to trying to turn the Titanic. “Plant churches that have diversity built into their DNA right from the start,” he said. And look for people who are flourishing in their local context. “If you want healthy diversity at synod and classis, then those people must be doing well in the local context,” he said.
Jim said the key to diversity is in relationships. “Don’t send mission groups to our communities just to fix things or run our vacation Bible school,” he said. “Come with open hearts to learn. Meet with individuals, families, congregations, and leaders for face to face talks about how we deal with things. Stories go a long way.”
Rayas agreed it’s about relationships. “Get to know the community in the vicinity of the church,” he said. “Often the church is a commuter church with no contact with the neighbors. The church can start the conversation with the neighbors and give them the opportunity to dream about their preferred future and how to put to the use of the community their God-given gifts.”
These leaders see change coming, even if it is slow. Ron Chu came to the CRC from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1994. He has served in several Korean-American congregations and in multicultural settings. “The CRC is rather young and naive when it comes to diversity and ethnic issues. She has not opened her doors to other ethnic groups until recently,” he said. People in the dominant culture have to be able to let go, he said, but there is no need to be afraid.
“Diversity will not ruin all that they have built but will enhance what already is precious,” he said. “Dutch heritage is a very important part of this church. Soon other ethnic heritages will become just as important.”
In the meantime, these leaders will continue to stand their posts, faithful to God’s call. “I believe, like Esther, that I am here ‘for such a time as this,’” said Taylor-Perry. “I will not leave until God releases me from the call. Until then I must serve with even greater gusto.”