Changes in Church

The Church That Takes on Trouble51AEw9gzHPL._SX246_BO1,204,203,200_

That’s the title of a 1976 book describing the ministry of LaSalle Street Church. I arrived there in 1979, and felt proud to be a member of a church that, like Jesus, was so engaged with the poor. Situated between Chicago’s Gold Coast and the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing projects, the Holy Spirit called us to organize particular ministries:

  • a legal aid clinic
  • counseling center with a sliding-fee scale
  • after-school tutoring
  • support for low-income seniors
  • a Young Life program
  • mixed-income housing development
  • and other ways of meeting the needs of city people in the name of Christ.

I was reminded of this book by my pastor, Randall Blakey, this past Sunday. He mentioned the title in his sermon as a way of encouraging the congregation to move into another troublesome arena: hard conversations about race and equity in America.

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Yes, LaSalle Street Church is probably taking on more trouble by devoting eight Sundays this fall to talk about race.

In sermons, prayers, and community discussions, we’re considering the long-term consequences of the continuing segregation of the city of Chicago (see the report “A Tale of Three Cities” from the University of Illinois at Chicago).

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Rev. Dominique Gilliard

We learned more about racial biases in the criminal justice system from the Rev. Dominique Dubois Gilliard, author of the book Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores.

We (speaking as a white person here) have been urged by Pastor Laura Truax to look at our own blindness about racial injustice by pondering Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). What happens when we ask God to give us the vision to see both the realities of other people’s life experiences and the good and perfect divine will for human community?

On Sunday, Pastor Randall opened up the story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4, where the conversation begins with a statement of division due to longstanding racial prejudice, and ends with the goal of all participating in true worship in spirit and truth.  After worship, we met in small groups to talk about our own stories: when did we first become aware of racial differences, and how did we feel about that experience?

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Everyone knows this: personal, individual change is difficult, whether it’s a change in knowledge, attitude, habit, or behavior. I think this is also true: change in a whole church community is even more difficult, painful, and complicated.

While teaching a seminary class in August, I told a group of students that for the first time in over thirty years my church decided to change the times for Sunday worship and education. Everyone groaned loudly, and then laughed.  We church leaders all knew the kind of fallout from such a decision, from hurt feelings to lost members to unintended consequences for parking, worship planning, and coffee hour.

So imagine, in addition, the positive attitude, relational skills, and persistent faith one needs to participate in a two-month group conversation about race in America. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually want my experiences at church to be very challenging, to make me feel uncomfortable, or to call me to deep repentance.

I usually would rather give thanks for God’s compassion, pray for sick relatives, and generally center my heart through the music and silence. Nowadays, I miss meeting with my adult ed group, our fellowship time has been cut in half, and I’m hurriedly steering my grandkids to Sunday School, while trying to be welcoming to strangers.

But after all that, I arrive at the church’s “Community Hour” discussion on race and equity. I learn so much from the sermons and presentations, share parts of my own story, and listen respectfully to my friends in Christ. Through these conversations God blesses and teaches me, and weaves my life together with the lives of others.

And the God of grace meets us there, and calls forth change . . . in my self, in my relationships, and, yes, even in the church.