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One faith, one Bible -- but two races February 14, 2005 BY CATHLEEN FALSANI

Sacrificer           CATHLEEN FALSANI
Sacrifice code       wfor0381
Sacrifice date       February 14, 2005

  • http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-evang14.html
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  • One faith, one Bible -- but two races

    February 14, 2005

    BY CATHLEEN FALSANI Religion Reporter Advertisement

    For evangelical Christians in Chicago, the most daunting task ahead of them might well be bridging the racial divide in their midst.

    Despite sharing the same theological beliefs about the Bible, Jesus Christ and evangelism, "Blacks avoid the 'evangelical' term," said Michael Emerson, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of the book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.

    "Historically, white evangelicals have been on the side of opposing racial change, supporting the status quo," Emerson said. "So, sociologically and socially, there are huge chasms between the two groups. For Christian blacks, the term 'evangelical' itself implies 'white.' "

    Evangelicals: Beyond the Label

    Cathleen Falsani examines who evangelicals are, where they came from, and how widespread their clout in society is today.

    . Part 1: The Image Problem
    . Part 2: Jesus Clout
    . Part 3: Divided by Faith

    The Rev. James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church on the South Side, is among a minority of African-American Protestants who call themselves "evangelicals." Meeks didn't always use the term evangelical to describe himself. And though he believes it accurately describes him theologically, he said he understands why other black Christians find it ill-fitting.

    "Evangelical seems to mean Republican, it seems to mean white, it seems to mean anti-social programs," Meeks said. "If 'evangelical' means that the Scriptures are supreme, that Jesus is Lord and savior and that the world is supposed to somehow be converted to the Christian world and way of life, then that's what I believe. But when you start looking at where we are socially, then you've got a whole other bag of tricks.

    "Our church's social agenda and the social agenda of the white evangelical church is totally different," he said. "It seems as if the flaw in the white evangelical church is that it will fight tooth and nail to protect an unborn child in the womb, but won't lift a finger to assist a child once it's been born.

    "Where is the [white] evangelical church on issues outside of abortion and outside of homosexuality?"

    Meeks and seven other pastors of some of the largest evangelical Christian churches in the Chicago area -- a group known informally as "the Gatekeepers" -- met in December to get to know one another. The pastors -- four white, three black and one Hispanic -- also wanted to strategize about doing something together to make a positive impact on Chicago and put a more compassionate public face on evangelicalism.

    While Meeks said he has high hopes for what the Gatekeepers group might accomplish, the results of their first meeting illustrate the obstacles white and black evangelicals face.

    "There's a fundamental difference between blacks and whites," Meeks said. "We would leave a meeting like that . . . and a black person would say, 'Let's do something.' White people leave a meeting saying, 'Let's plan something.' That's what they want to do. White people want to plan something."

    That difference goes beyond style, Emerson said.

    "I saw this perfectly illustrated at . . . a big planning meeting in Dallas," Emerson said. "You had all kinds of well-known black and white pastors . . . And what happened was it just divided right down the middle -- black and white -- with white guys saying, 'We need more time, we need to plan, we can't do this right away,' and the blacks saying, 'When are we going to stop talking about stuff and do it?'

    "This is the continual frustration. Whites, even when they're well-meaning, still seem to have control. So it breaks down because it's not done the way they want."

    Meeks said he worries that the Gatekeepers group will get stuck in the planning stage because its members won't be able to decide which social ill they should try to address.

    "Most [white] evangelicals think the reason the African-American people are in the condition they're in is because it's their own fault, that somehow they've not applied themselves, that they're lethargic about life, they want a handout, they don't want to work as hard as white people do," Meeks said. "And so for us to throw money at kid care and free lunch or social programs is really an enabling crutch. Blacks look at it as if ... everything has its roots in slavery."

    The differences between black and white evangelicals in the way they view themselves and each other amounts to a "huge chasm," Emerson said.

    "When I say 'whites opposing racial justice and whites opposing overcoming poverty,' they don't see it that way, of course," Emerson said. "The religious tools that [white] evangelicals use are completely individualistic. There are no social problems, there are only problems with individuals. There are no social problems, so you don't address those things.

    "But, for black evangelicals, there are, and that's the fundamental difference. It can be seen as a theological difference as well."

    Black evangelicals are sometimes more apt to take action than their white counterparts because of spiritual reasons, said the Rev. John Eckhardt, who is one of the Gatekeepers and pastor of Crusader Ministries in Chicago.

    "In our ministry, we generally believe in inspiration. We act quickly on things we feel God is doing," said Eckhardt, whose church draws about 5,000 worshippers, most of them African-American, each weekend. "We trust the Holy Spirit to give us things divinely and supernaturally. . . .. [White evangelicals] may be more rational and discuss it more. That's the frustration I have."

    For years, Meeks and the Rev. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, have been getting to know one another as colleagues and friends. They also have been trying to plan an exchange between their two enormous congregations. They have talked about having a portion of their congregants swap church services, have dinner or hold another social activity where they can experience one another's worlds.

    "The fact that it hasn't occurred yet is more a matter of scheduling than it is a matter of heart," Hybels said. "We have a wonderful rapport and a genuine desire to see our churches do something in community.

    "A lot of what causes evangelicals to pull together, when it's all said and done, is the actual relating patterns of the leaders involved. When there is a genuine friendship and likability and kinship or kindred spirits, per se, it makes all of that happen with higher levels of joy, or enthusiasm, or something. And Reverend Meeks and I feel that very powerfully with each other.

    "When we're together, we feel like we're kind of cut out of the same cloth," he said. "We're interested in the same issues, and we both look at the local church and how they need to be led."

    A couple of months ago, when the two had a meeting at Salem Baptist, Hybels said he actually flew to an airport nearby instead of spending two-plus hours in traffic between South Barrington and the Far South Side.

    "Have you done that drive?" Hybels said with chuckle. "I could fly to Denver and have a meeting as easily as I could drive in traffic and have a meeting with Meeks."

    Still, Hybels, Meeks and their congregations have managed to schedule a few events together. And, in June, for the second year, a group composed of people half from Willow Creek and half from Salem will spend a week together on a "Justice Journey" visiting historical civil rights-era sites in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

    Meeks and Hybels believe it's just the beginning of a long relationship between their churches, which they hope will become an example for the rest of the evangelical community -- here and beyond.

    But unless black and white evangelicals deal with the painful issues of race that divide them, the spiritual unity they desire might be impossible to attain, Emerson said.

    "What it's going to hinge on is what white evangelical leaders and the white evangelical church are willing to do," he said. "If they continue to oppose racial justice and trying to overcome poverty and things, they're not going to make much progress."

    Beyond black and white: the new face of evangelicalism

    BY CATHLEEN FALSANI Religion Reporter

    In 2000, when the Rev. Wilfredo De'Jesus became pastor of the Chicago congregation his father-in-law had led for 35 years, Palestine Christian Temple Assemblies of God had about 125 active members and held its services in Spanish.

    Five years later, New Life Covenant Assemblies of God -- as De'Jesus' Humboldt Park congregation is now known -- draws 1,700 people to three weekend services, two of them in English, one in Spanish.

    "I made a promise to God that I would do everything possible, that was my promise, to reach anybody, wherever they're at, for the cause of Jesus," De'Jesus said.

    New Life is flourishing and growing quickly, much like the rest of the Chicago area's Hispanic evangelical community. There are no definitive numbers to reflect the size of the Hispanic evangelical community here or nationally -- pollsters say the community is still too small to count accurately in the broader surveys of American religious practices. Still, scholars say Hispanics might be the fastest-growing group of evangelicals in the country.

    In the next decade or two, many more Hispanic and Asian faces will appear in the increasingly diverse family portrait of Chicago area evangelicals, said Mark Noll, co-founder of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, who is widely regarded as the leading scholar of American evangelicals. "As Hispanic incomes rise, there is going to be more integration, and Asian integration already takes place."

    The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals is in the midst of examining this phenomenon through a project called "The Changing Face of American Evangelicalism," said Noll's colleague, Edith Blumhofer, director of the institute.

    "The interest was basically in what might an evangelical conversation be like if the people around the table actually reflected the faces, the ethnicities and the traditions that are out there rather than have the conversation controlled by, well, older white males," Blumhofer said.

    Throughout Chicago and the suburbs, many Hispanic and Asian evangelical congregations -- Korean, Chinese and pan-Asian, in particular -- are expanding from largely first- and second-generation immigrant congregations to multigenerational churches that reflect a variety of religious traditions from mainline Protestant to nondenominational charismatic.

    Evangelical congregations such as the Chinese Christian Union Church in Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood and Canaan Presbyterian Church in Glenview draw hundreds of worshippers each weekend and run social service ministries as well.

    "The Asian-American community right now is in transition," said the Rev. Peter Cha, a professor of practical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield who has written extensively about Asian-American evangelicals. "Up until very recently, when you talked about Asian-American experiences or representations, it would be predominantly ethnic-language speaking, first-generation immigrants.

    "We kind of have to wait for our turn, so to speak, in order to be more visible leaders. I would say 10, 20 years from now, the picture will change. Those who have been born and raised and trained in the United States who are evangelical Christians will be both respected leaders within their own community, and using their communal bases to speak to the larger audiences."


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