“God Likes Diversity” - A Primer on Multicultural Ministry from a Metro Atlanta Church

I’m no expert on multicultural ministry. As a white male who migrated from the deep South through the Midwest to New England, I still struggle to come to terms with the racism encrypted in my own spiritual DNA and in the broader U.S. history and culture. Nor am I an ordained minister, but as one who has held lay leadership roles in congregations over the years, I’ve witnessed both the opportunities and the challenges of trying to live a life of faith within multiethnic and multicultural contexts.
Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt (1898)
Photo By Jreferee at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia)
[Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

All that said, I’ve been reading with keen interest a profile of Oakhurst Presbyterian church (USA) that Nibs Stroupe and his wife Caroline Leach pastored for nearly 35 years in Decatur, Georgia, a teeming and ever-gentrifying first-ring suburb of Atlanta. This historic parish was all-white through the Jim Crow area and struggled to come, first, to an acceptance of nonwhite members and eventually came to embrace a multiracial identity reflective of the changing general population. In more recent years the congregation has sought to come to grips with the inflow of young white professionals into the neighborhood, many interested in a progressive church to join, who raise the concern that their presence might shift the delicate multiracial balance of the culture and its community.

I commend this book highly. The primer on race (chapter 3) is worth the price of the book and by itself would make a fine booklet for use in a parish adult education series. (Actually, I don’t know the cost of the book: Stroupe sent me a copy gratis, with no expectation of a positive review.) This text also would be useful in a seminary course in the congregational studies or applied ministry areas.

Oh Lord, Hold Our Hands: How a Church Thrives in a Multicultural World, By Nibs Stroupe and Caroline Leach (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox , 2002).

Two claims, according to the authors, frame the pastoral theology and approach to ministry at Oakhurst. First, God is the center of the life of believers and of the world as a whole; this theocentric identity transcends all particularist cultural markers -- race, ethnicity, national heritage, socio-economic status, gender, and sexual orientation -- without erasing them. Second, diversity is the gracious gift from this loving God to all God's creatures. Thus, a spiritual unity transcends difference while affirming and upholding it. Stated abstractly, these principles seem fairly straight-forward; the real rub is in trying to put them into practice. Snappy mission statements aren't enough; conversion of hearts and minds is required, and it involves a process of reeducation that undoes the effects of entrenched socio-cultural ideologies. The authors explain:

The acceptance of the first two guiding principles is not just a matter of our conscious will. Though it is an important agency in this process, the human will is bound by the imagination (p. 28).

They continue, delving more deeply into topic I explored in my earlier posts on a more recent book of Stroupe's sermons -- the principalities and powers whose cryptic reality permeates the pages of the New Testament as well as our world today:

The truth is that the principalities and powers have captured our hearts and our imaginations, and until our imaginations are stimulated and expanded, the will is of limited use. When Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus proclaims that the reign of God is at hand, it is a call to expand our imaginations, to allow ourselves to consider a whole new world, a whole new view of reality that the powers have previously convinced us is unrealistic and naive (ibid.)

The way that the Oakhurst community has attempted to live out these principles is to forge a novel, multicultural identity that embraces the various traditions and experiences of the racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds of the faithful in the pews. Their first-hand accounts, I think, show this can work, if there is an openness to learn, to experiment, and change. This paradigm might be challenging to congregations who come more from the standpoint of trying to maintain the cultural trajectory of a particular heritage. The worry for some might be that minority cultures are being colonized and raided for their resources. So if, for example, your community seeks to honor an Asian tradition by incorporating kites-flying into Easter observance, does this constitute an illegitimate cultural appropriation? I don't know the answer to that; it seems to me, though, that we have to have a variety of approaches to multicultural ministry that reflect the character of our demographically shifting communities and -- somehow -- we have to find ways of living and working together in our communities of faith.

It’s not reasonable to expect “objectivity” from a book like this, whose tone is largely celebratory and edifying: We read how the Holy Spirit can bless a congregation of broken people seeking to faithfully negotiate often painful transitions in a old-line Protestant church in a diverse community in the deep South. When your congregation garners positive coverage by Time Magazine and NPR, you can be forgiven for bragging a bit. This positive tone, though, doesn’t mean the authors hold back from looking critically at the hard challenges and mistakes that necessarily attend such an audacious project -- including their own missteps as pastoral leaders along the way. Serving as white leaders of a congregation with a significant number of non-white members entails, the authors show us, openness to be confronted to their own prejudices and race blindness. The pastors recount numerous times they were called out for their own racial blindness -- for example, the time they falsely scapegoated an African American male as instigation his wife's struggle with drug addiction.

I was touched by the discussion of the parish’s controversial decision to darken the white Jesus in one of its prized stained-glass windows; and how their almost comical attempt to make the change discreetly was foiled by a featured soloist who stood right in front of the window. The move offended some parishioners, clearly: Does this violate the integrity of the artwork? Others, conversely, wondered if blacking a Savior who otherwise retained white features went far enough. But they also share how such a simple move helped some new members feel welcome.

The book is replete with intriguing practical suggestions, including a chapter about observances and traditions based on the liturgical year. The pastors with dialogical and dramatic homilies, offered an annual series highlighting Christian and non-Christian African American heroes during black history month, and celebrated Kwanzaa alongside Advent. The gospel and sanctuary mass choirs, with overlapping membership, lead worship on alternating Sundays, exploring the gamut of traditional white and African American sacred music. Worship also began to incorporate Spanish music while education opportunities highlighted the holiday observances of non-Christian faith traditions. Children of the church help write and perform alternate scripts for the Christmas pageant, while their artwork adorns the worship space. As a native of Alabama, I chuckled at the notion of making Advent wreaths out of kudzu -- a blessing from a curse if ever there were one! -- and I imagined a sanctuary covered wall to wall in vines by Ash Wednesday.

The gospel centers upon a God who weaves together things that sin has separated. Stroupe and Leach pointedly remind us of the tragic results of the separation of spirituality and social justice that afflicts religious culture in the United States. This cleavage has darker ramifications too, as it feeds the individualistic piety of American Spirituality that mutes the prophetic voice of scripture and Christian tradition. "American exceptionalism" has gotten pious nods from pulpits while slavery, the genocide of Native peoples, the subjugation of women and the callous exploitation of our natural resources are tolerated, even legitimated.

In Jesus Christ God joins together what human beings in their alienation have sundered. As the authors see it, the path to healing this breach lies in building communities where those who are different break bread together, where the fears that bind us can be openly named and thus confronted, and where gratitude for God's love is joyfully shared. Only by following the prophetic vision of the Hebrew prophet Amos can we discover the lasting peace confessed by (perhaps) the greatest of black theologians, Augustine of Hippo: "Almighty God, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You" (p. 139).

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