Reggie Smith on Churches Called to Become Multicultural
Considering the “Joseph question” and the “Jonah question” can help congregations overcome fear of talking about race, culture, and how God might be calling them to change
Reginald "Reggie" Smith is the director of race relations and social justice for the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA). He advises churches and organizations on cross-cultural and urban ministry. In this edited conversation, Smith honestly addresses fears about crossing cultures.
What makes talking about race so scary for congregations?
It’s scary for white people to think about how their (or their ancestors’) decisions contributed to problems. In the 1960s, many white people moved from inner cities to other areas. They moved their churches, schools, homes, resources, and businesses too. No one called them out on that. No one asked why they didn’t stay to be salt and light.
People who come back “to visit the old neighborhood” don’t have much interaction with current residents. They describe moving as “a personal choice” that had nothing to do with race—when in fact it’s all about race. When you move en masse and leave behind abandoned institutions, it contributes to violence and poverty among people who come after you.
Have you had personal experience with rapid neighborhood change?
I grew up in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, which used to be the heart of the city’s Jewish community. In 1950, it was 90 percent Eastern European and Jewish. In 1960, it was 90 percent African American. After World War II, African Americans who were part of the Great Migration, like my grandparents from Mississippi, began moving into Chicago. As they spilled into Lawndale, the Jewish community moved north to Skokie, Illinois.
As a boy, I’d see the Star of David on synagogues that had become black churches. Many places, like Jewish schools, community centers, newspaper offices, and nursing homes, were torn down and became empty lots. Lawndale lost half its housing between 1960 and 1990. Meanwhile, black Christians in Lawndale were prevented by white members of the same denomination from sending their children to a nearby Christian school. That conflict led to establishing a race relations committee in 1968, which became the CRCNA Office of Race Relations, which I now direct.
Is talking about race scary for Christians of color?
It is when you’re outnumbered. When you’re the only person of color on a church board or council, it becomes starkly clear that you have no power to change anything. People of color often pay a high price to get into a position of leadership. There’s always the question: Do I say what I honestly want to say or keep my mouth shut? Am I willing to risk investing in a relationship or conversation only to get hurt again? It’s usually not until a congregation is 20 to 25 percent multicultural that people of color feel free to talk about more balance in leadership.
It sounds more comfortable for people to stick with those most like them…
There’s a difference in proximity. White people can live their entire lives in white communities and never really connect with or be challenged by racial relationships. People of color can stick with their own only until they need to find work and earn money. Then they have to cross cultures and generations.
How important is it for churches to become multicultural?
When you look at how multicultural our society is becoming, especially among younger generations, then churches should reflect their communities. From a biblical and theological perspective, it’s clear that God’s ideal is for the church to be diverse. As individuals and churches, we should all look for ways to increase our proximity to and build relationships across cultures and generations. Yet, it’s extremely hard to become a multicultural church.
So what’s the solution?
It starts with what I call the “Joseph question.” This kind of work is a miracle, just as Jesus’ conception was. You have to reexamine why your church exists and what your future will be. It requires lamenting about who you once were. Most churches refuse to do that. It’s hard to attend what feels like your own funeral and, at the same time, rejoice in the birth of something that looks nothing like you.
It’s like when Joseph realized Mary was pregnant. He knew it wasn’t his baby. He wasn’t sure whether to divorce her quietly or take her to the priests and Pharisees and let them deal with it. It took an angel coming in a dream to convince Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy was a God thing, that he should take Mary home as his wife, and that Jesus would save his people from their sins.
How can congregations know whether they’re called to be multicultural?
Recognize who God keeps bringing your way and be alert to what I call the “Jonah question.” Jonah was like churches who pray, “God, bring us the kind of people we want.” He wanted to preach fire and brimstone but was angry to see the Ninevites repent and receive forgiveness.
The text ends with God’s question: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh…?” We don’t know Jonah’s response. As congregations, we’re left with a decision to appreciate the people God sends to us and accept the calling to cross cultures. We’re always trying to analyze costs and benefits rather than discerning what Jesus asks us and how our response bears witness to what culture says we can’t do.
Are only white congregations called to be multicultural?
No. It’s true of all Christians that none of us get a pass to never have to change our church environment. The question is how we adapt. I know of a black church where nearly all the members used to walk to church. Now less than 20 percent live in the neighborhood. Their church neighborhood has become 40 to 45 percent Latino. They’re having to ask what it means to meet people where they’re at, regardless of language or income.
There’s no formula or technique to avoid messy relationships. You have to talk honestly and in Christian love about differences in power, leadership, youth ministry, prayer, music, and worship. But know that, like an alcoholic, you always have the potential to relapse into anger like Jonah did.
To increase your cross-cultural relationships, read advice by David M. Bailey and Reggie Smith. Reading Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality and David Leong’s Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation will give you tools for hard conversations.