Mr. Romeo was greeting the Hispanics as they entered the Sunday school building for their worship service. When he saw me pull into the parking lot he excused himself and walked toward me. I was reaching for my Bible and closing the door when he said “Arturo, why are you going to church with those people (Anglos), you should come and worship with your own kind.” I was surprised by his question and quickly answered, “Because I enjoy it.
As I walked away a burning anger rose up inside of me. Who was he to tell me where I should go to church? Didn’t I have the right to choose with whom I wanted to worship? I was so flustered over this incident that I spoke to my pastor about it. He too was disturbed and eventually asked the Hispanic church (which was renting our facilities) to leave. The reasons for his decision were many but the primary one was that he wanted to be one church with the Hispanics and Anglos of the community worshiping together. The present structure only served to separate the two groups.
My pastor’s vision spilled over into my own heart. He opened my eyes to the growing ethnic population in our city and surrounding communities. Together we discussed the impact of white flight on the churches of our fellowship. And together we sought God’s wisdom for a solution.
Across the valley a Hispanic friend of mine was invited by an Anglo congregation to start a Spanish Bible study for the growing Salvadoran refugees in their community. In time the Hispanic ministry began to grow. Soon it was as large as the Anglo congregation. Some of the Anglos didn’t want the Hispanic church to stay and were very cold to the Hispanics, others disagreed. A split developed among the Anglos which eventually killed the church. The property was left to the Hispanics.
In the San Fernando Valley, a Hispanic pastor was recruited by a denominational leader to start a Spanish ministry in one of the denominational churches. The denominational leader introduced the two pastors, shared a vision for a multicultural local church ministry but offered no strategy or direction. When issues began to surface between the Hispanic and the Anglo church, the denominational leader offered no other counsel than to say they would have to work out these problems among themselves. They did; the solution was that the Hispanic church was asked to leave. This particular Hispanic church planter experienced the same scenario three times before becoming disillusioned and leaving the ministry.
Another Hispanic church planter left a congregation of 300 in Central America to emigrate to the United States. He affiliated himself with a denomination and began to plant a church. He struggled for years in the ministry. The church moved from one location to another. No one in his denomination offered him any assistance. He finally was able to rent facilities from a church whose doctrine was not compatible but loved him and his people and wanted to see the Hispanics of their community reached with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In one final attempt to work with his denomination, he attended a district meeting. He was asked to give his testimony. He shared the struggles he had encountered, his need for financial support, and facilities in which to meet with brethren of like doctrinal mindedness and the rejection he felt from the Pastors in his fellowship. When he was done, men prayed for him and his ministry and in essence was told, “Be warmed and be filled.” No one offered him any assistance. He left devastated by their response and he aligned himself with the church that loved him and his people and were willing to help.
Attempts by local churches to host an ethnic church have been tragic. In most cases, exit interviews show that these attempts were the hobby horse of one individual and no agreements, other than a rental one, were written. Denominational leaders who initiated these ministries failed to provide the leadership necessary to deal with problems between the host and the ethnic church. This resulted in the ethnic church being asked to leave, rearing hard feelings between the churches at best and between ethnic groups at worst. An attitude developed among church workers that multiracial groups cannot coexist in a local church setting. This is a tragic and untrue conclusion. If they cannot coexist in the church what hope is there for them to coexist in a neighborhood, city, or nation?
Historically multiracial societies have not done well. William P. O’Hare, writes, “To the rest of the world, the U.S. is a grand and daring experiment. No country has ever succeeded in blending so many people of different races and different cultures. In a time when racial and ethnic rivalries are creating misery around the globe, how well Americans handle their transition to a multi-cultural society have implications that extend far beyond our borders.” (O’Hare, William P., “America’s minorities; The Demographics of Diversity,” Population Bulletin, Vol. 47, No 4, p. 4)
There is no amount of federal funding, congressional legislation, or civil and military force that will be able to subdue the prejudices of people and inevitable racial strife. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform the heart of man. And the churches in changing communities are the front line of God’s Army that can begin to make that happen by transitioning from a mono-cultural to a multicultural local church ministry.
Our ministry has seen churches make this transition successfully. Our strategy focuses on two points to create an environment for a healthy coexistence.
1. Unity, from the pastor of the local church to his leadership body and the members of the congregation. We do not proceed with our ministry until there is a spirit of unity by the constituency of the local church. This unity provides the commitment to overcome any issues that may later surface.
2. A Covenant, or written agreement that deals with the primary issues that must be agreed to before a local church can host an ethnic church.
Membership: will the ethnics be members of the host church or not? The ramification is, will the church be one organization, or separate organizations meeting in one facility.
Facility Use: a complete inventory of the physical assets of the church is made and each asset is evaluated for use by the ethnic church, where necessary, the days of the week and hours of the day in which the asset may be used is listed.
Finances: the host church will decide if they will make a financial commitment to the church (e.g. paying the ethnic pastor a stipend, subsidizing the expenses of the ethnic church, underwriting additional utility expenses, etc…). And the host church will decide the financial commitment of the ethnic church to the host church (e.g. rent, utilities, repairs, etc…).
Time: the host church will decide how long the ethnic church will be allowed to meet in the facilities. Because it takes approximately five years to plant a church, we recommend a five-year commitment.
Church Extension: should the host church decide to receive the ethnics as members, then a decision is made regarding the distribution of church members when the church outgrows her facilities (e.g. host members stay, ethnics relocate; ethnics stay, host members relocate; or a portion of both groups is relocated to another part of the city to reproduce the same kind of multicultural local church ministry).
Coexistence between cultural groups in a local church is not only possible; it is necessary if the local church is to survive and thrive in the Urban centers of America and beyond. The key is preparing our people for the transition and developing a covenant by which we can all live.
by Pastor Arturo Lucero
Used with permission. This article appeared in May/June 1997 issue of VOICE Magazine
Copyright 2007 IFCA International. All Rights Reserved