Rev. James Boer kept praying and hoping that one day he would find another minister to help him model racial diversity in his congregation. Earlier this year the pastor of Faith Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Mich., finally found the person he was looking for.
Boer was helping to facilitate the Dance of Racial Reconciliation (DORR)—a new curriculum designed by Christian Reformed pastors and leaders—at the CRC denominational offices in Grand Rapids, Mich., when he met Rev. Angela Taylor Perry.
Taylor Perry, who was serving as a resident pastor for Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids at the time, also helped put on the DORR program. During a break she and Boer sat down and talked. Both felt an immediate connection. Boer is white and Taylor Perry is African American.
“I trusted him. It was a God thing. I knew he was someone who was bringing the resurrected love of Christ to people,” says Taylor Perry, a 2005 graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary who has a passion for building bridges between races.
Boer says he felt the same way. Not long after that conversation he offered her a position as pastor of reconciliation at his predominantly white church. “I believe the Holy Spirit calls us to be a diverse spiritual body. Angela is helping us to do that,” says Boer. “Meeting Angela and being able to bring her on staff was an unintended but very exciting fruit of DORR.”
Together Boer and Taylor Perry are trying to show the congregation what living out God’s command for unity can entail. But it’s not always easy. “We don’t have a roadmap,” Boer says. “This is like a laboratory. We’re learning to do cross-cultural ministry.”
Understanding and Undoing
DORR was developed under the auspices of the CRC’s Office of Race Relations. Based on biblical teaching that racism is sin, it brings together people from all parts of the church to participate in exercises and discussions designed to help them understand and undo the effects of racial prejudice.
People in leadership roles in the church are especially encouraged to participate in the DORR training, which can run for a few hours or two days, depending on the needs of individual groups.
“DORR is a tool that can help people begin to really grapple with the issue of racism. It helps people to understand racism and to realize that the kingdom of God calls us to be a church of diversity,” says Rev. Esteban Lugo, director of Race Relations.
A similar program, called “Widening the Circle,” has been made available to churches and CRC agencies and offices in Canada. “We try to engage both the mind and the heart,” says Steve Kabetu, Race Relations coordinator in Canada.
Both programs address topics such as identifying and dealing with white privilege; exploring various elements of racism and how they continue to play out in society today; examining church creeds and teachings on the issue; and creating a personal action plan to seek connection with people of different races.
While gaining information is important, more crucial are the personal responses and periods of introspection and one-on-one conversations on touchy topics that DORR calls participants to go through, say participants.
Fronse Pellebon–Smith says he appreciated being part of the DORR process last year at Faith CRC in Holland. But he says it wasn’t easy for him to keep his emotions in check. As an African American man from the South Side of Chicago, he found past hurts and challenges, memories of “caustic contacts in my soul and heart,” coming back.
Even so, he says, “DORR was worth the effort because on this journey there will be dusty feet, sweating hands, and sensitive hearts. . . .Yet when we are all together, we are a healthier body of Christ.”
Rev. Denise Posie, pastor of Immanuel CRC in Kalamazoo, Mich., agrees. “It really brought home the biblical perspective on racism and how it plays out in our society.”
She says the dance image is very appropriate. “This is a process. You can dance slow or move fast. It can be pliable, and it can be static. You can dance with yourself or with one or two others or with a whole group.”
Several members of her church work for the public schools in Kalamazoo, and the training helped to encourage them to address issues of racial inequality and call for changes in policies and procedures in the schools.
Rev. Laudir Lugo, pastor of Revival Temple in the Chicago area, says DORR training meant a great deal to him and others who went through it.
“DORR created a deeper awareness that racism is sin and deeply grieves the Holy Spirit,” says Lugo, son of Esteban Lugo, the CRC’s Race Relations director. “DORR has caused us to pray, work, and depend on the Spirit for a deeper love for all people.”
Facing Up to Race
During an interview in April, Rev. Esteban Lugo struggled to express his feelings about the controversy that erupted during this year’s U.S. presidential race over fiery remarks by Chicago minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The former senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, which counts Barack Obama as a member, condemned America for its historical mistreatment of minorities.
Lugo, director of the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Race Relations, said Wright’s remarks led him to reflect on the state of race relations in CRC congregations.
At the same time, he said, they reminded him that the denomination has created tools to help address the racial divide—and he hopes the controversy sparks a broad discussion of the topic in the CRC.
“We have to be honest,” Lugo commented.” “[Wright]spoke to issues that are relevant to our world today. Race and racial reconciliation are still issues that our countries and our churches ignore.”
Lugo noted that Wright’s words were replayed and reprinted in video clips and news stories around the world. But instead of putting them into the broader context of confronting racism, news outlets and websites focused mainly on the fiery language and how it reflected on Obama.
“We can ask ourselves if we are in a new day, but the truth is that white privilege still exists,” Lugo said. “What race you are matters.
“The truth is that people of color still experience feelings of resentment and antagonism toward the dominant culture, which society and the church, for whatever reason, don’t really want to hear about or touch.”
Opening the Door to Dialogue
Wright was for many years a mentor and minister to Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Obama said that Wright’s comments and the reaction to them “reflect complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through—a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.”
Lugo said he is hopeful that the controversy has opened the door for a full and frank discussion about racism, particularly by people of faith.
“This allows us to once again address the sin of racism and why racial reconciliation matters,” he said. “We can ask ourselves how do churches . . . embrace the kingdom value of diversity?”
Doing this is not easy, he noted. People may say they support equality, but the truth is that prejudice and racism exist in the workplace, in schools, and in churches. To peel back layers of denial and social upbringing requires commitment on the part of people of all races.
Learning to Transcend Barriers
With this in mind, the CRC’s Office of Race Relations, established by synod in 1995, has created programs to help people recognize and then start to learn how to transcend racial barriers.
The program in the U.S. is called the “Dance of Racial Reconciliation,” or DORR. In Canada, it is known as “Widening the Circle.”
“These programs help us to engage in the discussion,” Lugo said. “They include activities and dialogue that will promote racial reconciliation. They help us to identify what God has called us to: the unity of all of his people.”
Steve Kabetu, coordinator of Race Relations for the CRC in Canada, said the focus of the programs is different because the U.S. and Canada have different histories when it comes to racism.
Kabetu said he hopes the controversy sparked by Wright’s remarks encourages people to reflect seriously and honestly about their beliefs and approaches to racial harmony in their homes, their jobs, and their churches.
In a speech, Obama asserted his firm conviction, rooted in faith, that if people are willing to work together they can move beyond old racial wounds and continue on the path of a more perfect union.
“He has created with that speech a huge platform from which we can create the wider dialogue and discuss how this issue relates to our church,” Kabetu said.
He said he hopes the contoversy inspires congregations to face the fact that racism clearly exists.
“Many of us think it is good to see enthusiasm for diversity, but how do we really walk with one another as we try to break the patterns of our history?” he asked. He said programs such as DORR and Widening the Circle can help to raise awareness of and start to demolish historical patterns.
Although neither program provides all the answers to racial harmony and diversity, they are pieces of the puzzle, Kabetu said. “They are resources that can help us get there.”
Pastor-Church Relations: Healing Troubles in Ministry
The CRC’s Office of Pastor-Church Relations has never had a high public profile. But given the sensitive nature of its work, that’s appropriate.Pastor-Church Relations provides programs of healing and prevention to ministers, staff, church councils, and congregations facing complex, often highly personal, challenges. A pastor may be abusing drugs or alcohol or succumbing to Internet pornography. Perhaps church funds have been mismanaged. Sometimes there are allegations of adultery or sexual abuse or plagiarizing sermons. Sometimes a congregation feels their pastor is ignoring their needs. In other instances the problem is simply that the “fit” between the pastor and congregation is poor.
Intervention vs. Prevention
“Intervention has tended to be our focus,” says Rev. Duane Visser, who has directed Pastor-Church Relations for the past 12 years. “We’re consultants who are called in to solve a problem.” “What I have found is that, unfortunately, we often get called too late. [Then] there isn’t a lot of hope for a happy solution.” “Congregational life has gotten harder and more complicated,” notes Visser, who plans to retire later this year. “Generational differences are more pronounced. The expectations of pastors and staff are higher.”Statistics indicate that as many as one in eight churches face problems that require outside assistance. That is why, several years ago, the CRC added Rev. Norm Thomasma to the Pastor-Church Relations staff as an educational specialist to work with congregations before they get into trouble.“We help them learn how to have intergenerational conversations,” Thomasma says. “We help them as churches to go through various transitions. We also continue to ask how to best support pastors, their spouses, and the staff of churches.”
Helping Pastors and Congregations
Support for pastors is what Pastor-Church Relations has always been about.When the office was founded by Synod 1982, the idea was to create a way for the denomination to offer friendship, support, and guidance to pastors experiencing difficulty with members of their staff or church, says Rev. Louis Tamminga, the ministry’s first director.
“Pastors didn’t really have much protection or anyone to speak for them before we started,” Tamminga says. “But that wasn’t how it always worked out.”The office did help pastors, but it also was asked to deal with allegations of abuse, concerns about a pastor’s teaching, or relationships between pastors and their spouses.
The focus on pastoral support remains strong. The office promotes continuing education through grants to help pastors, staff, and spouses attend classes, retreats, and seminars. It has a mentoring program for newly ordained pastors, ministers entering the CRC from other denominations, and those who face stress and other problems.
It also provides the Ministerial Information Service, which offers resources and assistance to congregations that are losing or have lost their pastor, as well as a list of pastor profiles to help congregations match their needs with pastors looking for a new position.
Though participation in Pastor-Church Relations services is voluntary, increasing numbers of churches are looking for help before problems grow too serious. As Thomasma says, “The idea is to prevent problems before they occur.”