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Overcoming Racism in the Church


Overcoming Racism in the Church

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Pawnee, Illinois, with a population of 2,651, is a quiet, affluent community a few miles down Interstate 55 southbound from Springfield, the state capital. Surrounded by farmland, Pawnee has a reputation for being a peaceful town.

But at Pawnee Assembly of God, pastor A.B. Bennett kept sensing a persistent nudge to help his congregation do something about the bad state of race relations. Pawnee is 99 percent white, and less than 0.2 percent African-American.

He’s not alone in thinking that discussion of race in the U.S. has become too divisive. According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, nearly six in 10 Americans say race relations are bad, with most believing they aren’t improving.

Bennett says in his 15 years as lead pastor he has dutifully observed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday every January and Black History Month in February. Yet, repeatedly during personal prayer times in the past couple of years, Bennett has sensed a strong desire to “move beyond the obligation” of recognizing African American life and achievement.

Not knowing quite what to do, Bennett began holding a series of breakfast and lunch conversations with African American pillars of Pawnee AG, which has 370 attendees.

“I asked, What do I call you? Black? African American?” Bennett recalls. “That question broke the ice.”

It also triggered a deep desire to understand why so much racial hatred exists in America. Bennett didn’t want the kind of understanding that comes from the internet. Rather, he yearned for honest conversation and friendship. Over a period of months, Bennett and African American leaders discussed racism, white privilege, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“They gave me a perspective I had never heard before,” he says. Bennett realized if he could benefit from such dialogue, so could the congregation as a whole. This gave birth to what Bennett calls a “public conversation” about race.

In February, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down church-based worship, Bennett debuted a first-ever sermon series, “Love is Understanding.” It featured guided conversations between Bennett and African Americans members of Pawnee AG. Spencer Jones, a Chicago-based evangelist and U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries, preached on the final Sunday of the series.

The dialogue began with Bill McGee, a local State Farm insurance agent. In 1960, four years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, as an eighth-grader he rode on a bus with his class. They traveled from Chester, Illinois, to the Forest Park Highlands Amusement Park, with its famous Comet roller coaster in St. Louis, for an end-of-school-year celebration. Students had been looking forward to this trip for months

When McGee, the only African American in his class, arrived at the admission gate, the staff abruptly — and legally at the time — denied him entry because of his skin color. Stunned, one of his teachers escorted McGee back to the school bus, where they spent four hours waiting for classmates to return. For half a century, the experience had been seared in McGee’s memory. Until he told this story in church, McGee had never spoken of it before, not even to his own family.

“I just didn’t feel like bringing it up,” McGee says. “I deserved to enjoy that day as much as any of them. The pain and humiliation — I didn’t talk about it.”

After his revelation, others in the congregation came up to him, some in tears of gratitude, to thank him. Later in the sermon series, McGee’s wife, Connie, as well as retired judge Theodis Lewis and his wife, Judy, spoke of their own personal struggles with racism and discrimination.

Now in his 70s, Spencer Jones — the first black student admitted to Central Bible College — is a legendary urban pioneer in the Fellowship. He’s been a pastor, evangelist, and church planter of 40 congregations. He’s also outspoken about institutional racism. Although he admits he has faced a great deal of prejudice decades ago in the Assemblies of God, Jones believes he wouldn’t have had such ministry opportunities in any other denomination. Only in the late 20th century did some of the racial rifts begin to heal between black and white Pentecostals.

In his talk at Pawnee, Jones touched on how a pervasive spirit of fear in society is a major factor contributing to racism.

“Fear keeps us from helping people, fear keeps us from reaching beyond our comfort zone,” Jones said. “What made Jesus so great? His compassion. Jesus emphasized showing the love of God for your neighbor.” After his sermon, many in the congregation came forward for prayer.

Jones commends McGee for tackling an issue many still would rather not discuss.

“The most racist institution in America is the Church,” Jones says. “If racism occurs in a church, nobody is going to deal with it. We believe if we ignore it, it will go away.”

Jones thinks if churches are going to change, more discussions need to be held, as has been the case in Pawnee.

“I tell whites we don’t know one another, we don’t understand one another, we don’t talk to one another, and we make no progress,” Jones says. In his Chicago neighborhood, Jones experienced breakthroughs with white neighbors when he shoveled snowy sidewalks and home-grilled T-bone steaks for them.

McGee says sharing his own story has been transforming. He never returned to the Highlands Amusement Park to ride the Comet. The park burned down in 1963. The roller coaster survived the blaze, but was torn down to make way for a new community college.

IMAGE: Pastor A.B. Bennett (center) leads a discussion with members of his church (from left) Bill McGee, Connie McGee, Judy Lewis, and Theodis Lewis.

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