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Precious in God’s Sight, But What Do God’s People See? Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions, edited by Anthony B. Bradley. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2103. 256 pages, $15.99.

Imagine two African-American young men who around the age of twenty consider a vocation as a Reformed pastor. One of these young men, let’s call him James, grew up in a major metropolitan area and attended with his parents a congregation that belongs to one of the NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches) denominations. The church was mainly white but possessed about a half-dozen African-American families as well as members from other ethnic groups, as you would expect in a large American city. This young man received his high school education at an inner-city Christian school that was a mix of white and black students before going to an evangelical college familiar to many in his denomination. From there he enrolled at one of the larger Reformed seminaries, did an internship at a generally white suburban congregation, and then sought a call in the denomination to which his family belongs.

The other young man in this thought experiment, let’s call him Omar, was reared in a predominantly black congregation that belonged to one of the largest African-American holiness denominations. He attended public schools before enrolling at an Assemblies of God university and then decided to attend a seminary with deep ties to the black church in the United States. There he became exposed to popular writings on Calvinism in a theology and culture class while writing a paper and became convinced of the truth of Reformed Protestantism. Instead of transferring to another seminary, he started to attend a nearby Presbyterian church that catered to university students and finished his seminary degree. Session members at the Presbyterian congregation put him in touch with the home missions coordinator of their denomination who placed Omar on a list of potential church planters.

When James and Omar receive a call to minister in a largely white Presbyterian communion, how similar will their experience be? Will James, who spent his whole life as a minority member of a Presbyterian church, feel like his life as a pastor is all that different from what he knew while growing up and going to school? Probably not. But Omar will likely begin to feel like an outsider since he has had little experience in all-white churches and knows little of the networks of ethos that set the tone for his new church home. But to what degree is Omar’s sense of being an outsider a function of race? If he were white, would the adjustment to a new denomination and its set of practices and expectations be easier? If, for instance, Omar were not black but a white young man who grew up in holiness and Pentecostal circles, came to the Reformed faith in young adulthood, and then sought ordination in a white ethnic church such as the United Reformed Churches, would a white Omar have an easier time than his African-American version? In other words, do white conservative Presbyterian and Reformed denominations lack black pastors because church members prefer white ministers? Is race the explanation for the awkwardness that persons like Omar feel? Or is it a function of the different institutional networks that African- and white Americans inhabit?  If the answer to the latter question is yes, then the hope for integrated Reformed communions may involve a project much bigger than any NAPARC denomination can muster. It may depend on an overhaul of American society, and if the United States government has not succeeded at eliminating the residue of racism and segregation, how could a denomination that comprises .001 percent of the U.S. population possibly do it?

The place of ethnic and racial minority pastors in predominantly white denominations is the topic of the collection of essays edited by Anthony B. Bradley in Aliens in the Promised Land. Although the contributors come from a spectrum of backgrounds (Asian-, Latino-, and African-American) and labor in a variety of Protestant traditions, Reformed Protestants will be particularly interested in chapters by Bradley, Lance Lewis, Vincent Bacote, and Carl F. Ellis Jr., who write from experiences in Presbyterian and evangelical settings.

The perspectives of each author are by no means the same, even if frustrations with white majorities inform each account. For instance, Bradley has been a member of the Presbyterian Church in America for almost two decades and has been surprised by reactions to some of his writing on race. He admits that he was aware of historic patterns of racism among Southern Presbyterians. But ongoing signs of it within the PCA prompt him to conclude that conservative Presbyterian churches are culturally captive to white and Western norms even as the center of gravity in the Christian world is moving to the southern hemisphere among Africans, Asians, and South Americans. Lance Lewis, a church planter in the PCA, praises Reformed Protestantism for teaching and defending biblical truth but, like Anthony, has also suffered from careless if not hostile remarks about his racial identity. He cautions against white denominations attempting to plant mixed-race congregations for a variety of reasons—presumption of white superiority, ignorance of black Americans, and black distrust of whites in the United States. For this reason, Lewis calls for a moratorium on planting churches among black people even when the church planter is of African descent. The reason is that as African-Americans migrate from historically black communions into white denominations, they “lose touch” with the minority community. “The fact that a man has a black face and comes from a black church doesn’t mean that he’ll be able to connect with black people” (36).

Ellis, who teaches practical theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, explains, though perhaps unintentionally, why an African-American pastor might lose touch with the urban sector of his racial group. The “meltdown” of neighborhoods and the growing animosity between “achievers” and “non-achievers” (i.e., those who did or did not take advantage of Civil Rights legislation) saw the flight of the black middle-class (138). The result has been the triumph of “ghetto nihilism” among the African-American urban population (139). Meanwhile, Vincent Bacote, who teaches theology at Wheaton College, wonders if white Protestants will be able to include minority perspectives in theological conversations if they do not “take seriously the theological questions that are central to minorities.” If the problem of evil, for instance, is merely an abstraction that avoids discussion of the history of lynching, the theology of white and black Christians will remain separate from a common enterprise (84).

These points illustrate the difficulties that minorities confront in trying to minister or do theology in predominantly white settings. The challenges are personal, historical, and theological—in other words, not easily overcome. Nor is it clear that these contributors are all on the same page. Lewis, for instance, reckons the differences between blacks and whites to be so great that the idea of preserving blackness in predominantly white churches (or vice versa) seems well nigh impossible.

Part of the book that sheds helpful light on the possibility of cultivating mixed-race churches is the study produced by the 1994 Lutheran Church Missouri Synod study, “Racism and the Church,” and reprinted as an appendix. The historical section of the report is especially instructive because it demonstrates that ethnic Lutherans did not adopt explicitly racist or segregationist policies. In fact, the Missouri Synod’s experience was like that of many mainline Protestant churches in attempting to integrate churches and train black clergy. What such policies could not overcome, however, was the formation of independent black denominations in the late nineteenth century that became in many cases the most important institutions within the African-American community. In addition, the voluntary migration of whites and blacks throughout the twentieth century into distinct neighborhoods, the demise of inner-city Lutheran congregations and concomitant rise of suburban churches, were social dynamics that no American Christians, not even those with an infallible pontiff, could fight. For that reason, as much as the LCMS did and continues to provide biblical teaching in support of integration and mixed-race communions, it has not been able to control social and economic forces that inform how ordinary Christians make a living, support families, and join congregations.

As insurmountable as the barriers posed by the tragedy of race relations in the United States may be, this book is valuable if only to make readers aware of those minority pastors, church elders, and families that are part of the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed world. These brothers and sisters in Christ need encouragement and support. For the sake of overcoming the barriers of race, conservative Protestant churches need the presence of minority families and church officers who will put down ecclesiastical roots. Perhaps after several generations of African-, Asian-, or Latino-American presence within Reformed Protestant circles, minority families and pastors will feel at home.

Darryl G. Hart is visiting associate professor of history at Hillsdale College, and an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, December 2014.