Polarization and the Healthier Church
Polarization and the Healthier Church
Chapter 1 - Positive Change in a Racially Polarized Situation
The outer-city Presbyterian church where I served as pastor was in a middle-sized city in the northeastern United States. Although the church was once a vital part of the neighborhood, things had changed significantly by the time I arrived in February of 1970. Its membership was just under 300 people as many former members had moved to the suburbs. The immediate community was changing from a mixed blue- and white-collar, all Caucasian, primarily Roman Catholic population to a much poorer, black population. The church was not attracting new members from this different population, and church leaders knew they had to do a better job of relating to changes in the surrounding neighborhood - the neighborhood they sought to serve.
The church members who remained were mostly older, retired people with good intentions, but they had never related closely to people of a different race. It was clear, at the time, that they were not personally equipped to develop the changed attitudes they needed to welcome the new neighborhood people. For example, early in my first year, as a result of some cold calling I did in the neighborhood, a black man came to our Sunday worship service. One of the first people I introduced him to, a leader in the church, demonstrated the problem. I said, "Harriet, I would like to introduce you to Mr. Joe Johnson." Before I could say anything else, she said, "Oh, is this our new janitor?" He never returned. Harriet had a good heart, but her long-held attitudes had not prepared her for the changes everyone in the church said they wanted.
My call to this church included a ministry within the community. Part of the reason they called me was that I had served for four years as an associate pastor in an integrated, inner-city church in another eastern city. In addition to regular pastoral duties there, I had been the director of a church-sponsored community center that provided a broad range of social, educational, and recreational services to the poor, black community in which it was located.
I accepted the call to the new church because I wanted to minister to the people this church now had the opportunity to serve: a community of blue- and white-collar Caucasians. Rather than focus on the needs of the poor, black community, which by then had many advocates (and the necessary black leadership), I wanted to minister to the white people in this church and to those with unrecognized and unmet needs who still lived in its community. As part of what was then called "the silent majority," they saw themselves as taken for granted and underserved. One Presbytery colleague characterized my efforts as "a ministry to Archie Bunker." I did not quite see it that way but understood his meaning. His was an attitude typical of the more liberal members of my Presbytery.
Early in my second year at the church, my secretary rushed into my office to say, "Ron, there is a race riot going on at the high school. I just got a call that the police are there." Without really thinking about what I was going to do, I put on my clergy shirt and collar (to legitimize my presence) and dashed over to the school. An eight-foot high chain-link fence surrounded the school property. On the city-block-size playground inside the fence, there were many hundreds of angry students. Clearly, from the blood that I saw on peoples' faces and clothing, there had just been some vicious fighting. When I arrived, the police (thirty or forty of them) had separated the students into two groups - one black and one white. Even so, students were still angrily taunting and challenging each other with name-calling and racial epithets.
Looking at the group of black students, I saw about ten white adults whom I took to be teachers