catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 11 :: 2003.05.23 — 2003.06.05


At the Lord's table

Yvonne's Perspective


Yvonne Rayburn-Beckley was born and raised in Chicago, IL and got involved in the Christian Reformed Church when she, her niece and son started participating in the programs and activities of what was to become the Pullman church through the evangelistic efforts of Reverend Harold and Noreen Botts. Relations between whites and people of color have always been a concern for Yvonne, who grew up and was educated in an integrated environment.


When you joined Pullman CRC, how familiar were you with the denomination? Did you know much about it?

No, I didn't think about the broader denomination. I liked the family of Pullman church, the Christian school environment, knowing all the people, being a part of a Christian family that had a desire to help other people and be a part of the community, and to help the community. No, I wasn't thinking about the broader denomination, which I learned more about later.

How did you start to learn more about the denomination?

Through church functions, joint church functions, events and information being shared about our boards and those kinds of things. At one point, there was a question—because in the seventies, with South Africa and Shell Oil, we were talking about the Christian Reformed Church's participation. People would say, "You're Christian Reformed? Oh my goodness. They're over there?" and I had to come back and question some things. A couple of people that I know, blacks, left the church because of some of the things they thought the Christian Reformed Church was involved in. I had to seek that out, and I think that when I started to seek that out, I got to know more people, because I didn't want to be a part of an organization that was racist and that was supporting racist activities in other countries. But I knew that the Dutch were instrumental in slavery and had a lot to do with slavery. There were some slave masters and owners and they have a history in the slave trade. So, there were some things that came up later and some that I didn't want to recognize because I was happy with my church family.

Did you become involved in the organizational functions of the CRC then? The board meetings, denominational meetings (Synod), etc.?

The first time I visited Synod was in the early eighties. It was very informative. I think more people should know what goes on and how decisions are made in our larger church and who is at the table, who are the decision-making people. That's one of the things that came out of that—that if you go there, on the floor of the Synod, it's nothing but white, Dutch people and the reason is that most of the churches of color are not organized.

If you're not organized, you can't send a delegate to Synod. If you're a smaller church or unorganized church, you don't have a delegate to Synod. And that's why most of the Native-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic churches did not have any delegates on the floor. And then they didn't want to get organized because, you see, it's a catch 22. If you got organized, you didn't get funds anymore because funds go to the smaller, unorganized churches. A bigger, more organized church is expected to financially support itself and also to give to the denomination. So churches are encouraged to think it's better not to be organized when, really and truthfully, they're losing their rights to be in the denominational decision-making process.

So, this kind of thing promotes a primarily white-led denomination that excludes or leaves out a lot of the people who could be a part of it.

Yes. You leave them out in a kind of an underhanded way. I know that Emmanuel Ortiz, who, in the Christian Reformed Church, started small Hispanic cell churches in Humbolt Park [West Side of Chicago] had gone to Synod a lot of times and he said, "You've got the people of color over here having a multi-ethnic conference. You've got the people over here in the auditorium making the rules on the floor. You've got the delegates. You've got the signs and the tables. And then you have a sub-committee and the sub-committee is supposed to advise the committee but you don't have any people of color making any decisions."

Could you explain a bit about your position in the Christian Reformed Church?

I've been working for the denomination for fifteen years in the ministry of Race Relations for the Christian Reformed Church in America. First it was called SCORR (Synodical Committee on Race Relations) and it was created to meet the challenges of racial struggle in 1971. We had racial problems between whites and blacks in Lawndale, Cicero and Timothy Christian School [all on Chicago's West Side], and out of that SCORR was born. In '95, the SCORR board was dissolved and became an arm of the EDM's (Executive Director of Ministries) office along with about four other agencies, and they were called Pastoral Ministries.

And this was formed to help with racial relations in the denomination or in the community at large?

We have a mandate to eradicate racism throughout the church and throughout the world, and to work on that, using all available resources. When SCORR was created, it was because of racism in the church and in our schools and in our church communities. We developed the ministry of race relations to start trying to bring about racial understanding, to educate our leaders, Christian educators and families on what the Bible says—not what we say—and what God tells us about accepting those who are different from ourselves.

What were some of the strategies used in the Race Relations Ministry?

Leadership development, going to seminaries, talking to leaders of color and telling them about ministry opportunities in the Christian Reformed Church, advocacy: working with and for people of color in the church and in the denomination, consultation: consulting with people and churches. Sometimes we have churches that share facilities and cultural differences have to be discussed and agreed upon. Grants and scholarships: the denomination offers grants and scholarships (a total of $20,000 a year) to minority ethnic students who are going to be attending Christian Reformed learning institutions. Grants also go to churches that want to become more diverse or want to hire another staff member, that want to do some kind of event or project that needs funding.

Do other denominations have comparable programs to that of the CRC?

No. We're a member of the National Evangelical Association, which is ecumenical, and they always look to the Christian Reformed Church as being a leader because we have a ministry of race relations. We are very much known for our intelligence and our theology and for looking good—but a lot of times we don't walk our talk. It looks good on the outside when you have people of color at the table. It seems like they're in the decision-making process, but often they're just there for the color scheme. The majority still makes the decisions.

So you think it comes down to the majority not relating properly to minorities in the denomination?

It's about power. Racism is prejudice + power. And the majority group has the power and the money. When they have the power and the money and are in the decision-making position, then the minority person knows either they do it or that's the end of them. And that's when the misuse of power turns into racism.

This process of decision-making in the CRC raises a question about the denomination's priorities, doesn't it? If good relations between the different ethnicities in the CRC were a priority, then this priority should be evident in the way it operates as a denomination.

If you take the closing of the Chicagoland Regional office as an example, we currently have three directors of Race Relations with Regional offices on the West Coast, in Chicago and in Grand Rapids. The future goals of the Race Relations ministry was to open up two additional offices, one on the East Coast and one in Canada. But apparently these goals have been scrapped. Closing the Chicagoland office indicates that our denomination no longer feels that racial reconciliation in the mid-West is a priority ministry. If it were, then the plans would be to increase, not decrease the ministry. So, the fact remains that racism is alive and well in Chicagoland and beyond, but does the church want to address this or ignore it?

What do you think would offset this problem in the denomination? What would help so that people in leadership would recognize that racial relations are very important, even a priority?

A change in the distribution of power. You say you embrace minorities, you want them, you need them, they're valued because this enriches the ministry, it brings other people in, but the first thing that happens when a budget crisis goes, boom—there it goes.

After this experience, how do you feel about working in the Christian Reformed Church? Do you feel like there's a lot of potential, but that it's going to take some time?

No, no. I've been around since the sixties. The Christian Reformed Church is performing like any worldly organization. I've been around tables discussing racism and intercultural relationships. We had hopes that things would get better. But things are getting increasingly worse—in the church and in the world. It's still a matter of money and power. And being an employee of a Christian denomination does not change that.

What would be an ideal way of dealing with the gap between those in power and those without in the church?

Bring everybody to the table. Bring people to the table as equals. Celebrate their cultural differences and use their gifts to build the church. No matter if you are Dutch and your father or grandfather started the church or whatever, still embrace people as equals and celebrate the diversity. But if you invite them in, let them come in with full privilege.

So, the problem already is the relationship that's established between the two groups.

Right. It's very unequally yoked. The Bible tells you, "Do not become unevenly yoked" and that's right. You're going to have nothing but trouble if you're unequally yoked—in your marriage, in your life, in your church, everything. You-re going to have nothing but trouble.

You're saying, then, that the important thing is not to base any ministry on the idea of helping a "minority."  There shouldn't even be a sense of "minority" if everyone's coming to the table equally.

Right. It's so much a minority-ethnic, minority-ethnic, minority-ethnic, minority, minority. In California, the whites are a minority. The Asians and Hispanics are outnumbering the whites. But they're [the whites] not going to be called minorities. They'll still call other people minorities.

If everyone comes to the table as equals, though, there will still be cultural differences. A person of Dutch ancestry thinks differently in certain ways than an African-American.

There are a lot of likenesses and there are differences, but people don't want to discuss them. It's the hardest thing to get people to come to the table, to sit down and discuss their stereotypical thinking, some old myths, likenesses and differences. There are a lot of likenesses and differences people don't even know about because they aren't sitting down and discussing them. We're so busy talking about the negative things, we hardly ever think about the positive things.

And that's common to all people, the reluctance to confront those issues of similarities and differences.

Right. So, I think we need to get people to sit down at the table, erase the fear factor, to try to get people comfortable enough to just get to know one another. And then we can talk about some experiences that you may have had, negative and positive, that perhaps were impacted by some racial tensions. Sometimes race has nothing to do with it, though. I mean, we've done some things in this church that make people mad and they may call it racial. We were going to have a Classis meeting, and we had a group of women setting the table. One group set it one way, the other wanted it the other way. Then someone comes in and says, "Who changed it?" and another one comes in and says, "Well they changed it because they're white and they think they know what's right." Well, hey, we got about ten ways to set the table. So, that?s not a white and black thing. It's according to what you like, what you prefer, the way you want to do it.

But things can be perceived to be racist. If you have an idea and I have an idea and we?re working together on something and you take charge of it and you start telling me what to do, then I ask, "Hey, what gives you the idea that you can tell me what to do? Who died and put you in charge?" That's not only here or just in the church. I've been other places where people come in and they just assume they know more than you. They don't have the least amount of education that I have, but because my skin is black, they think they automatically know more than I. And they think they're in charge of me. And it takes me about ten minutes to let them know that they're not in charge of me and they never will be, so go somewhere and sit down [laughs]. See, there's something about giving directives that's very undermining, and that may not just be a black and white thing, but when racism peaks its head in there, you know…

A situation that would only be a conflict between two different personalities, if it were all white people, gets an added tension when it's a multi-racial environment.


What have been some positive experiences that you've had working on Race Relations in the Christian Reformed Church?

Working with individuals and churches, mentoring and developing leaders and connecting to where they could serve the church, using their gifts in a responsible manner, helping them to learn about the history of the Christian Reformed Church because I think in order to be a part of something, you have to know its history and you have to know the structure and the constitution of our churches and Christian schools. Getting to know people and finding out that people are people, no matter what their ethnicity. We're all children of God, no matter if you're black or white—it doesn't matter. It has to do with your spirit, your heart condition, not the color of your skin.

Why do you think it's important to have racially integrated churches?

It's important because God wanted us all to live together, get along together, and we have to go out of our way to make these opportunities available to ourselves. It's easy for people to stay in their own neighborhoods and go to their own churches with their own people like themselves. But to reach out and to try to follow God's Word, I think, is an extra effort. And I think it takes extra effort to follow Jesus and to really do what he called us to do. It's important because we're stepping out of our comfort zone. We're making an effort to get to know someone different from ourselves, from a different background, different walk of life. That, in itself, is an extra step. To take an extra step is to go somewhere where not everyone looks alike and are doing everything alike. Where you've got no problems—you worship, then you go home, but you're not learning things new about people. You're doing things the same way. I don't think there's anything bad about that, but I don't think we're following Jesus if we don't help to make positive changes in the world.

                   << interview continued >>

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