“Red and Yellow, Black and White”
Randy, you pastor an unusual congregation. It is genuinely multi-cultural and is a vibrant, growing church in a diverse community. Would you describe your church and community for us?
It is a church you cannot easily label or easily compare to another. This church is celebrating its 97th birthday and God has essentially recreated it before our very eyes.
The church had typically humble beginnings. Chicago Heights was a progressive middle-class Italian community, perhaps best known for being the weekend "getaway" home of the infamous Al Capone. During the 70's and 80's, Chicago Heights began to decline economically. Businesses began to close down. What growth there was in Chicago's southern suburbs was moving east and west of Chicago Heights. There was obviously a temptation for the church to do what most traditional churches have historically done under similar circumstances. Abandon, sell and relocate.
The Chicago Heights church, with a deep conviction of its Pastor and lay leaders, felt called to stay and continue a message of holiness in their changing community.
Today, the church has a thriving multi-cultural ministry to African Americans, Filipinos, Hispanics, Africans, etc. And without a doubt, much of that would have been forfeited had the church abandoned and relocate.
Tell us a little background about your ministry experience at Chicago Heights? How long have you been there? What have been the most important developments - in you or the church - since you arrived?
I moved to Chicago Heights four years ago (March 2006) from Sarasota, Florida and to say that it was a culture shock is an understatement. Sarasota is a beautiful Florida coastal city for the upper middle-class.
I came up to interview with the church board and was impressed with two things... their hunger to reach their community and their clear potential to do so. The church had a Nursery School that had been serving the community for about 40 years. Even though it had an enrollment of about 100 children, the church had been frustrated for years by its limited ability to incorporate the children and their families into the church life.
I remember a member of the Board saying to me in the interview meeting; "We want to reach our community, but nobody knows we are here."
I could see when I came that if we did not seek to be a diverse, inclusive congregation, this church would go the way of most in the same circumstances... a slow painful death. The church was 90% white in a community where less than 45% are white. There were a few African-American families, but there was limited diversity.
But here is where I have to brag on my people. They embraced racial and ethnic diversity and recognized it as God's plan for the future of the church. Now keep in mind, I have several people in my church that have been members for more than 50-60 years. I have the 5th and 6th generation of members of Chicago Heights Church of the Nazarene. Yet, through it all, they are the people who celebrate diversity the most. That is a testament of their character and Godly vision for the ministry of the church.
I need to say right here that the "DNA" of the church is in no small measure shaped by its deep commitment to World Evangelism. Work and Witness trips are very much a part of our passion as a local church. A significant portion of the church has been on at least one mission trip and affected in a life-changing way. They have incorporated that same culture-crossing mentality to their local church.
I wish I could say that I moved here with a magic formula that was the answer to everything. No, not at all. I came with a simply philosophy that is basic Ministry 101. Use the gifts God has given you to reach the people God sends you.
So I started looking around and defining what lay gifts and passions we had to work with. There were many, but let me tell you about a "game-changer".
My very first meal in Chicago Heights, literally having just driven into town, was over a Wendy's hamburger with a layman named Jeff Hale. Jeff began to tell me about a little Athletic ministry he had begun a few years earlier with sports camps. These camps were an hour a day, for five days, once a year. They included baseball, basketball, gymnastics and soccer. As he was telling me about these rather humble events, I could sense the God-given passion in his voice and I could not help but notice the tears in his eyes. This guy had a call, and it took me about 30 seconds to recognize it.
A couple of years prior to my coming to town, the church had purchased five very sizable lots across the street from our campus. There was not yet a clear purpose for the use of the lots. There had been some discussion about paving and parking on them. As a testament to the leadership of the church, they bought the lots without a clear plan, but they knew without a doubt that God wanted them. So they bought them.
Jeff and I began to dream and envision baseball and soccer fields on those lots. We could literally see children playing on them. We could see parents cheering their children from the stands. We could envision a ministry that would change our community.
Let me fast forward to what is happening now and how it has changed our church and impacted our neighbors.
This spring we are expecting as many as 400 players in our t-ball and baseball leagues, ages 3-12. We will be utilizing four baseball fields all day, every Saturday, May through July. We expect to have 2,000 players and fans on our campus each Saturday.
After every game, the two teams and their families will gather at one of two designated locations for awards, a Bible lesson and scripture memorization. All 400 of those children will be memorizing Ephesians 6:13-18. (Put on the whole armor of God). Bible lessons and scripture memorization has been part of our program from day 1.
Area community and city baseball recreation programs are closing down because people want their children to be at the Nazarene Church, where more than ‘how to throw a baseball' is taught. They want their children to learn scriptural principles and Christian character. And in the fall, we will do it all over again with soccer and flag football, and basketball after that. And the participants are as beautifully diverse as our community.
This has been going on for three years. As we enter our fourth athletic season, the church has come out of the shadows of the community and into the forefront.
Share a story or two with us that would let us catch a glimpse of how persons of different races and cultures make their way into the fellowship of Chicago Heights and are assimilated into the community? How does that happen?
There are many examples, but let me share with you how I personally have experienced it, first hand. The very first baseball season we had (2007), I coached the Cardinals. I had a dozen boys and girls ages 7-10 on my team. I had coached my sons as they were growing up, so it was easy to just slide into that role. There was a shy Africa-American boy on my team named Mason who lived just a few blocks from the church. His father, Don asked me if I needed some help managing the team (I am sure it was obvious that I needed all the help I could get!). I welcomed his help and over the course of the season, we developed a friendship. I invite his family to church and he expressed that they were looking for a one.
In less than a year, Don and his wife Yvonne were members and today he is employed as the Church Administrator. He senses a call to preach and has been given a local "Preacher's License" and has begun preparing for the ministry.
Then there is Kotosha Payne. She signed her son, Cameron up for basketball our second season (2008). He was assigned to my team and he and I hit it off right from the start. His shy, friendly personality captured my heart right from the start. Kotosha brought him to all of the games and practices, but I do not remember her saying more than two words to me the whole season.
Palm Sunday rolled around and I looked on the back row, and there was Kotosha and Cameron taking in the service. I was delighted. After a few weeks of attending, we had an opportunity to sit down and one of the first things out of her mouth was, "I don't trust white people". She even described herself as a "militant". But I knew God had brought her here for a reason and she kept coming for some reason.
I said to Kotosha, "I hope someday I will have earned your trust". She looked at me skeptically.
Kotosha and Cameron continued to come faithfully and now Kotosha's husband Eric was joining them.
After about six months, Kotosha asked to have an appointment with me. As we met in my office, she said, "I think you should know that I trust you". A higher compliment has never been given to me.
Today, the Payne's are active members of the church. And by the way, she now coaches basketball in our league. Incidentally, her team this year went undefeated.
One more story. Within six months of my coming here, a new African-American family came at the invitation of one of our white members, Fred Hardy. Fred and Larry Whitehead had been friends for years since Fred was his insurance agent.
Larry had been a Deacon at the independent Baptist church his family had been attending for years. Because of trouble and division in that church, they were looking for a safe place to worship as a family. It would be hard to find a more enthusiastic follower of Jesus Christ than Deacon Whitehead. They were part of the family the moment they walked in the door of the church. He is our Deacon now and a Pastor could not ask for a better help and supporting friend than "the Deacon".
How can that so easily happen? I believe it is undoubtedly the unifying power of the Holy Spirit to people who are hungry for racial reconciliation and integration of a spiritual family. It is not normal. It is not humanly concocted. It is the divine unifying work of the Holy Spirit.
How does such a diverse group (with diverse cultural expectations) shape your preparation for worship and preaching? How does it change the worship experience itself?
I am not so sure there are "diverse cultural expectations", and if there are, they seem to be way down the priority list. At the end of the day, we are all very much alike. We all want to get to Heaven. We all love our family. We all hurt when a son or daughter goes astray. We all feel the pressure of paying the bills and a fragile job situation. We all dread to hear the Doctor say, "I have bad news for you". We all have a sin problem. We all need to kneel at the same cross. We have so many things in common, we really don't notice or care about a different skin color or dialect.
Now what I have just said is true for the people of my church, but that is not true for many people of any skin color. They want their church music to be a certain way. They want the choir to have a certain sound or swing. Clearly, each ethnicity brings its own historic culture into the church. And that does shape many people's expectations.
Does having an intentional focus on multi-cultural ministry and community make it harder to grow the church? The "homogeneous unit principle" would say that churches grow most effectively when the congregation is primarily homogeneous. Have you found that building a diverse congregation requires a trade-off of principle for growth?
There is no question that when it comes to "church growth", this is the road less traveled. It is not an easy way, that is for certain.
I have run into people of all races that have dismissed us because they have a strong preference for worship in the context of their own culture. I cannot stand in judgment of that. But we seem to draw an interesting and unique group of people. There is a whole people group out there, of all races, who do not want to be racially exclusive. They want to raise their children in a world where "red and yellow black and white" is more than a kid's song. They see the big picture. They understand the value and Christ-likeness of having a spiritual family that does not draw a line just before the color of a person's skin.
As people become part of this spiritual family, they begin to catch the vision of what it means to be part of a church that testifies to the world that multiple races can love, work and worship together. That is a powerful statement to a racially divided world. It is a refreshing message that excites people and supersedes any preconceived desires to worship in the context of their unique racial culture.
As Pastor, I know that I set the example. I must model love and an unbiased attitude toward everyone in the congregation. I am not "color-blind", but I celebrate the diversity of my congregation. I try to be sensitive to all. I try to be inclusive. I do not play favorites.
I recently had a conversation with a 75 year old African-American man who just started to attend the church. Trying to be clever he said to me with a smile, "Pastor, didn't you notice that I am black?" He knew and I knew that it did not matter. I cannot speak for anywhere else in the world, but in the Chicago Heights Church of the Nazarene, color simply doesn't matter.
On the recent Palm Sunday, as a church we celebrated the Lord's Supper. I had seven ministers in the church serve the congregation... three Caucasian, two Africa-American, one Hispanic and one Filipino. Does it get any better than that?
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 3:26-28