This past Thursday CTS welcomed Jonathan Bradford, Reggie Smith, and three community reading groups to a town hall lunch and discussion about “Some of My Best Friends are Black,” our book of the semester.
Jonathan Bradford is the head of the Inner City Christian Federation. His organization works to transform neighborhoods particularly through work in housing justice. He started off by describing the semester book as “captivating.” Growing up, his first experiences with race included grandparents who talked of African Americans as “darkies” and who had a black “house boy” who cooked and cleaned for them. Through studying housing and community development and working in the field he has come to believe that our society has economically enforced racial practices in housing by creating an artificial divide between rentals for the poor in the city and ownership for the rich in the suburbs. This is further divided because we have segregated these two kinds of housing and created a situation where the rich and poor live far apart from one another and are unlikely to build relationships. ICCF was created to try to help change this model of housing and class/race segregation. He noted at the end of his talk that 15-20 reformed congregations have left the city over the years and that this does not help with ICCF’s mission.
Reggie Smith, the pastor of Roosevelt Park Community Church for the last twenty years, said that as he read the book he was “nodding [his] head” and that the book made him angry. Growing up in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., he saw and felt the divide between black and white as represented by a street named Cicero. He recounted this memory of how a ministry of the CRC that had once focused on Jews in the area made a critical decision to re-envision their mission and begin to bridge the gap between white and black. He told the story of when the white pastor came into the black neighborhood looking for boys to play on the church basketball team. Reggie and his friends asked the man if he was lost several times. The man insisted he was not. He said he lived there. This struck Reggie and his friends to their core. They decided to go with him and play. All this has helped lead him to pastor a church in a neighborhood that is 76% hispanic yet was only white and Dutch when he first arrived. They have been struggling and thriving in the transition to try to minister to their neighborhood through changes in worship style and having a Spanish language service.
During the question time that followed Reggie and Jonathan talked about areas where they had seen progress in racial reconciliation and connection. While both had seen areas of hope, they agreed that there was much more work to do. How the church adapts to a new multi racial world will “make all the difference in the world as to what kind of church we are going to be,” Reggie said. Jonathan, using the example of Timothy Christian School in Chicago, said that we can’t be limited in our efforts to bring about positive Christian change just “because of what the neighbors would say.” He also said that the progress the church is making in bringing together races has “only been progress on the parameters set by the larger society.” He noted that racism has often been transformed into classism.
Their suggestions for continuing change include building honest and real multi racial friendships, working toward housing equity and not relegating the poor to homes they can’t be proud of, and fighting against fear. They hope and pray that the church will be able to lead in terms of racial equality and togetherness rather than follow. As CTS students we should remember these suggestions as we move into our own ministries.
Written by Robert Van Zanen