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Seeing Beyond Black and White

Ministry leaders report evidence of tangible racial reconciliation at the biennial National Black Fellowship conference.

CINCINNATI — Black and white speakers recounted how they have learned to trust Christians outside their own race at the kickoff of the biennial National Black Fellowship meeting July 17 in Cincinnati. Still, the Reach Conference: A Moment of Hope, shows there is a long way to go.

“The issue of racism is certainly more alive than it has ever been before,” said James E. Collins, senior pastor of Eagle Heights Cathedral in Revere, Massachusetts. “It’s not the Church’s fault, but it’s our responsibility.”

Collins, author of Racism and the Church, said attitudes change only when a person allows God to change his or her heart. He urged pastors to preach what congregants need to hear, not what they want to hear. Eagles Heights has attendees from more than 50 nations.

“The Word has the power to break every yoke of bondage,” Collins said. “What you tolerate, you perpetuate.”

Shannon Polk, ministry assistant at Riverside Tabernacle in Flint, Michigan, urged ministry leaders to see the invisible in their communities: the homeless, the unemployed, the illiterate.

“When you don’t acknowledge, they become invisible,” said Polk, who noted that Flint, a city with a majority black population, has spent four years dealing with a drinking water crisis. “Visibility confers dignity, and dignity confers value. God sees you, and you matter.”

Dan Miller, superintendent of the International Ministry Network, recounted how he never saw any nonwhite people growing up in northern Wisconsin. He pastored an all-white church in North Dakota before accepting the pastorate of Blue Roof Church an all-white congregation in St. Joseph, Michigan. He said he knew God called him to the racially divided city when he saw all the boarded up and burned down houses on the wrong side of the river. The growing church didn’t decide to construct a new building on the safe side of the city. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, but Blue Roof Church is now 30 percent African-American.

“It takes the Holy Ghost and it takes guts to diversify,” Miller said.

Peoples Church is hosting this year’s event. Sessions in the sanctuary are punctuated by exuberant worship, demonstrative prayer, and rousing reactions to teachings.

When Chris Beard became senior pastor in 2001, the inner-city church had a virtually all-Caucasian makeup. Now Peoples Church is 25 percent African-American and 25 percent from 30-plus foreign countries.

Beard joined the NBF in 2006 and was one of just two white attendees at the 2006 conference. Nearly 30 percent of the more than 300 attending this year’s conference are Caucasians, several of whom have black spouses.

“The kaleidoscopic wisdom of God is revealed through the diversely united church,” said Beard, citing Ephesians 3:6 as the basis for all nations and ethnicities worshipping Jesus together. “The missing part of the strategy of God is a diversely united body.”

Many white pastors remain disinterested in racial reconciliation, Beard said.

“Satan fights this hard,” Beard said. “His number one strategy is to divide. We can’t keep doing church as normal.”

NBF leaders are nevertheless encouraged.

“My heart is overwhelmed to see diversity in this room,” said NBF President Michael Nelson. “When we come together as God’s people and start speaking the same language, there won’t be anything impossible for God’s Church to do. We want to look like heaven.”

Nelson conceded he often feels like a fish out of water at many AG ministerial gatherings because of the lack of ethnic diversity. Yet overall, the Fellowship is one of the most diverse religious groups in the U.S., with 43 percent of constituents representing ethnic minorities.

The number of African-Americans in the U.S. Assemblies of God has more than doubled this century, from 164,071 in 2001 to a record 330,780 in 2017. In the same span, the percentage of black adherents has risen from 6.2 percent to an all-time high of 10.3 percent. Likewise, there now are a record 913 African-American ministers in the denomination, up from just 294 in 2001.

“We have been called to be hope dealers,” said NBF Vice President Walter Harvey, pastor of Parklawn Assembly of God in Milwaukee. “God wants us to see color.”

“You can sense in this room God has birthed a new vision,” said NBF Executive Treasurer Darnell Keith Williams Sr., lead pastor of New Life Church International in Lima, Ohio.

IMAGE: James E. Collins, senior pastor of  Eagle Heights Cathedral in Revere, Massachusetts, shares at the Reach Conference July 17 in Cincinnati.

Photo Credit: Amie Eckhart

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.