Dallas Diversity Discussion
RED OAK, Texas — Ostensibly, the leadership roundtable forum at the July 21 Assemblies of God National Black Fellowship Reach Conference was to discuss implementation of a resolution approved by the General Council last year to add a designated African-American representative to the Executive Presbytery.
But the free-ranging conversations by a dozen panelists and various audience members at The Oaks Fellowship in Red Oak, Texas, morphed into an often profound and poignant examination of the historical lack of diversity in the nation’s largest predominantly white Pentecostal denomination.
AG General Secretary James T. Bradford moderated the 90-minute session that featured black and white Assemblies of God ministry leaders.
Several participants expressed frustration that while 43 percent of the U.S. Assemblies of God constituency is ethnic minority, there are relatively few African-American ministry leaders at the national, district, or local levels.
The white proportion of AG adherents has decreased every year this century. While Anglos comprised two-thirds of AG churchgoers a decade ago, whites are expected to become a minority in the Fellowship by 2022, according to research by Shannon Polk, a doctoral student at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri.
In a spellbinding session earlier July 20, Executive Presbyter J. Don George, drew repeated applause as he recalled how Calvary Church where he pastors in Irving, Texas, plateaued with a 98 percent white attendance starting in the 1980s. But since being intentional about ethnic diversity, Calvary Church has become a megachurch, with roughly 30 percent of attendees white, 30 percent black, and 30 percent Hispanic.
The racial divide won’t be eradicated by white people “tolerating” nonwhites, cautioned George, who is white. Racism and bigotry must be confronted, with whites enthusiastically working alongside people of color as genuine trustworthy companions, said George, who recounted Calvary’s transformation in his book, Against the Wind: Creating a Church of Diversity Through Authentic Love.
“We will miss God’s plan for the Assemblies of God if we are willing to passively settle for racial tolerance,” the 79-year-old said. “We must have a celebration of diversity.”
At the forum, Sam Huddleston, 62-year-old assistant superintendent of the AG Northern California and Nevada District, lauded passage of the resolution last year. He urged white pastors to emulate George and take risks in hiring people of color to serve as staff members.
“We cannot in the Assemblies of God rise to positions of leadership without standing on the shoulders of white people,” Huddleston said.
AG U.S. Missions Executive Director Zollie L. Smith Jr., tried to tamper the enthusiasm about racial progress voiced by some of the younger participants at the forum. He noted that similar aspirations have been expressed at AG conferences dating to the 1980s. Smith, the first minority elected to a General Council executive position, said he remains puzzled why diversity in the body of Christ — let alone racism — remains an issue in the 21st century.
“If there is any place that should be a representation of oneness it should be the Church,” said Smith, 67. “I feel a heaviness. When are we going to grow up and be the Church and stand arm in arm? We have to put action to these meetings.”
Still, there has been visible progress in recent years. A distributed report authored by Office of Ethnic Relations Director Scott Temple shows that six of the 21 executive presbyters will be ethnic minorities when an African-American representative is elected next year. That compares to none in 1994.
Rick DuBose, the white district superintendent of the AG North Texas District, said the passage of the resolution by unanimous voice vote last year sent a message to local churches to rethink their hiring practices so that the AG doesn’t appear to be an “all white people’s movement.” DuBose suggested that white ministry leaders shouldn’t merely open the door to allow minorities to enter, but rather entrust them with the key to the door.
George Westlake III, the white pastor of the primarily African-American Sheffield Family Life Center in Kansas City, Missouri, agreed.
“We have to get to a place as a denomination where we actually tackle this thing and stop playing touch,” Westlake said. He said the AG must go beyond just allowing nonwhites in the door to the point of seeing no difference when races walk in together.
“I thank my congregation for allowing me to be a part of their world,” said a visibly emotional Westlake. “It’s a privilege for me. I’m the minority.”
Carol A. Taylor, president of Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, lamented the low minority student enrollment rate at AG schools. Higher education needs to reflect the composition of the kingdom of God, she said.
“We must shift from having courageous conversations to having courageous action,” Taylor said. “We can’t miss this window of opportunity. We’ve got to get it right this time.”
The new African-American executive presbyter will be elected at the General Council’s biennial convention next August in Anaheim, California. Bradford expressed enthusiasm Wednesday about the new seat.
“This is going to enrich our Fellowship,” Bradford said. “What an in-season decision this was!”
Pictured: Panelists included (from left) U.S. Missions Executive Director Zollie Smith, Cincinnati Peoples Church Pastor Chris Beard, AGTS student Shannon Polk, and U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries National Director Malcolm Burleigh