catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 11 :: 2003.05.23 — 2003.06.05


At the Lord's table

Reverend Rick's Perspective


Reverend Rick Williams was born in the Panama Canal Zone and lived in that area until he left as a high school exchange student. His church background was as a Roman Catholic, but after high school he attended a Presbyterian-related college and seminary, which led him eventually to Pullman CRC.


What brought you into contact with the Christian Reformed Church?

When I was a student in the late seventies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, I worked at a Christian Reformed Church in Los Angeles (Los Angeles Christian Reformed Church) as part of my field education requirement. I was there for a couple of years. It used to be that the community was white and a number of Christian Reformed whites lived in that area. But then whites started moving out and blacks started moving in and even Hispanics by the time I left there in '79. So, the church had tried for many years to reach out to that community with varying degrees of success. When I was brought on in 1977, it was to try to see if having a second staff person on board would help in reaching out to that community. I stayed there for about two years and came to the realization that if anything new was going to start in that community, then the old had to die for the new to come.

I decided I wanted to be ordained in the Christian Reformed Church so (because I was a graduate of another seminary) I had to go to Calvin Seminary in what they call a Special Program for Ministerial Candidacy. I went to Grand Rapids in 1979, attended Calvin Seminary for two years. And then, after I completed my term, I had two calls, one to First CRC in Grand Rapids and here at Pullman CRC. I accepted this one and I've been here ever since.

I was talking to a guy from Liberty University a few months ago and asked him what he knew of the Christian Reformed Church. He said he was familiar with the denomination but didn't come from that tradition, from the Dutch community. So I asked him what he thought or what he had heard about the CRC and he said his mom had always told him not to try to date girls from the CRC because they keep to their own kind. [laughs] What were your first impressions of the denomination? Did you have any initial experiences of this kind or were you already acquainted with the CRC?

Back in 1977, when they were asking for a second staff person at First Christian Reformed in Los Angeles, it was a requirement for the position that I become Christian Reformed. I wasn't unfamiliar with the denomination, but my wife and I said, "Boy, this is a big step. We'd better study what the Christian Reformed Church believes." I didn't know much about the ethnic make-up of the church. I hadn't paid much attention to that. But in studying the three forms of unity, the Belgic confession, the Heidelberg catechism and the Canons of Dort, I said, "Wow, yeah, this is pretty much what I believe. Seems like I've been reformed all my life and didn't know it." And, growing up as a Roman Catholic, it wasn't like I was going from some alien religion like Buddhism to Christianity. It wasn't that kind of a dramatic religious shift.

So we became Christian Reformed. I met a lot of the Christian Reformed, Dutch CRC people at that church in Los Angeles, but these people that I met wanted to see what they could do in the community; they weren't the first wave that moved away. They were the ones that said, "Let's hang around and see what we can do." But it is a tight group. When I started learning about the Christian Reformed Dutch ancestry people, I was really amazed and even impressed. I said, "These people don't seem like they need anybody. From the womb to the tomb, they seem to take care of one another", you know? I was impressed by that because I didn't come from a tight ethnic group myself, and so I've seen the weaknesses of not being part of a tightly knit group.

I was really impressed by all the positive things that I saw. And, personally, I had no desire to infiltrate it or to challenge it. I said, "Hey, that's fine. That's cool. Praise God." I didn't feel a need to break into that and say, "Let me in." I figured I could find my way; and the people I met were pretty accepting. And I already had a wife, so…[laughs]

Unlike other ethnic groups that sort of sense this "us against them", it's never been an issue for me—not to say that it isn't. It's just that, I haven't felt the need to challenge that ethnicity at any significant point. Although, I serve on a number of boards and I'm always aware that "Boy, everybody around here knows everybody. And they know things that aren't on the paper." And, of course, being here at Pullman church, I'm on the periphery of the heart of the Dutch ancestry community, even though it's not too far from here. And the whites who come to this church come because they want to get away from that. But you might talk to other African-Americans, Hispanics or people of color and I'm sure they'll give you a different spin on that.

Do issues of "us and them" sometimes come up in your dealings with members in the church?

Certainly. In an ethnically mixed or charged context, every difference or misreading can be taken as some kind of a slight, racial slight. And you're not always sure. Someone might walk away from a conversation without saying goodbye and it could be taken as a racial thing.

You said that your intent is not to challenge the ethnic community of the CRC, but have there been moments where you've realized how different your voice is or have you had an opportunity to bring something different to a meeting that's made up mostly of Dutch people? Have you felt there have been opportunities to bring something different to the table?

Yeah. I think the Christian Reformed Church, at least on some level, the denomination certainly tries to include people of color and their voices. It sends women and minority advisors to Synod every year. But I have had to say this on a number of occasions, and recently said it: I don't want to be around the table just because of the color of my skin. I want to be able to make a contribution here, to sense that I have a contribution to make other than the color of my skin. I don't want to be in a situation where people who know how to run the meeting, who know all the issues, who are making decisions, need me there as some kind of a spectator to make it feel ethnically or religiously legitimate. Every once in a while I have raised that concern.

But I am aware that people of Dutch ancestry in the Christian Reformed Church are very strong in terms of cultivating institutions of the church, the school. They know how to run these things. They really don't need anybody to tell them how to do it. And for people like me, this is sort of new for us. I've learned to run meetings in the Christian Reformed Church by watching how people do it and then doing it myself. I've appreciated the structure and order and how to run things, so a lot of times I get in these meetings and think, "These people really know how to run this thing. I mean, why am I here?"

But one thing: I don't know if this is so much "Dutch CRC" as it is "in general"—but with images in the church, in church media productions, Jesus is pictured as a white man. Now, I happen to know that the people from the Middle East, even at that time, were a mix. There's some question as to whether Jesus was a blue-eyed blonde, you know. But it's not just with Jesus. You see it all the time in movies and on television. Certain types of characters, the good guys, will be white, and the darker-skinned ones are either villains or buffoons. See, from a white person's perspective, that might not be such a big deal. But from a person of color looking at that, I mean that's de ja vu. And that's the institutional stuff that often people in power don't see. And when you point it out to them, they tend to minimize it. I've had this said to me many times over the years by different ethnic groups, they say "Oh, you're so sensitive." In order to get beyond that, you almost have to put people in a similar kind of situation where they're—where who they are—is threatened for them to understand what you mean. You can't rationally explain that to people.

What do you bring to Pullman CRC that has helped to balance the multi-racial differences?

I learned over the years that I brought some gifts to this church that has sort of kept it together, that any pastor coming into this church would have to have, a sort of mix of gifts, whether it's white or black, male or female. I do a lot of peace-making and you have to be trusted. We have two major groups. Both of those groups have to feel like you are trusted—that you are not on one side or the other. Sometimes people want you to take sides, but you have to be very careful. There's also a certain style of preaching that I think holds this together. I'm not African-American in background, but I have some of that kind of cultural passion. And the CRC people, they look for certain kinds of content in sermons, and I've been trained that way. So if you can bring those two things together, you can hold this together. And I run things according to the Christian Reformed way of doing things—open, consensus building—and this goes well in that church [laughs]. Sense of humor. Very important! A lot of things, you just have to shake your head and laugh about.

What have been some of the blessings and challenges of working in a multi-racial church like Pullman CRC?

I grew up in a segregated community in Panama and we never went into white people's homes. I mean, they were not so far away, but they were very far away. Near and yet so far. Of course, when I came to the States, I started visiting and being visited by white people, but this is the first place where I really settled down to establish relationships with whites, and blacks (African-Americans). If it were not for Pullman, I wouldn't have those relationships—maybe working somewhere—but the church has provided that kind of a context. And that's been good for us, good for our children, and I hope good for all of us.

And learning from one another. The Dutch CRC people bring certain kinds of strengths to this situation, certainly the organizational kinds of strengths. African-Americans are learning to work with the institutional stuff that Dutch CRC people would take for granted. So, it's always a balancing act, trying to keep the racial thing with the functional stuff going, because you don't want the white people to be doing all the stuff because they know how to do certain things. But people have been learning.

Seeing other people developing relationships. Race is something that very few of us can talk openly about. Blacks tend to avoid it. Whites tend to avoid it because it can get very tense. People don't always know how to work through that and that's still a challenge for us. Because you know, confrontation is no guarantee that it's going to be better [laughs]. It might be worse. That's why some people say, "Let sleeping dogs lie," you know? But then it will pop up when people are doing things together, and have disagreements, if it's black and white. And the whites tend to back off because they don't want to be called racist. So we have some work to do there.

Being here 21 years, I've gone through just about every major life experience with white and black people in this church. And that, for the most part, has been a positive experience. I wish I could raise the dead. Then it would be even more positive, but I've gone through all those experiences of birth, baptisms, graduations, weddings, funerals. And so you grow with people. So, there's a sense that it's always fresh for me.

Being part of a church that was formed out of the movement of whites from the neighborhood as blacks moved in, do you have some thoughts on what led to the situation on the South Side, and also on the West Side, of Chicago?

Seeing the larger context of ethnicity, it is true that birds of a kind flock together. Even when people of different backgrounds live in the same community, even if they live next door, they tend to have their own friends, or they do certain things with certain people. But if we take the Dutch community as an example, they have a certain way of living, of keeping their community. Now here are these people who are coming in and they have different styles of living, different music, etc. And every ethnic group is concerned about keeping its stuff in place. In a sense, that's how we become human. We don't become human "in general." We're from homes and from communities, from ethnic groups, and hopefully that helps us to look outward.

So, when I said I always respect people's ethnic thing—I always allowed them to invite me in. I never stormed in and said, "Here I am. Invite me in!" I always respected the boundaries because I want people to respect my boundaries. I don't like white people who just kind of walk in on any old group and they want to talk in the slang—they just assume that they're in. People have to give you permission. And sometimes you learn that they won't give you permission to be part of certain things, and you have to be respectful of that, even though you might feel a little hurt. It takes time.
And that happens with all kinds of ethnic groups. Now blacks, African-Americans, for the most part have not always been too concerned about who's living next door because they kind of know how it feels to move away and so on. You'll find, for example, a lot of Hispanic people where I was in Los Angeles, that community was predominantly black with Hispanics moving in. I was back there about four or five years ago. It's predominantly Hispanic now, but there isn't as much with African-Americans "We've got to get out of here because those Hispanics are coming." Though I must say that middle class and upper class African-Americans tend to want to move away from poorer blacks or poorer anybody. So, you have the class thing and the racial thing.

People move for all kinds of reasons. They fear, "Oh, boy. Now our kids are going to be dating and marrying" or "What's going to happen to the neighborhood?" And, in a sense, they fulfill their own prophecies. Because once you start moving away, the businesses start to go. Some of the people coming in may be middle class, but a lot of them aren't. So, there goes your tax base. It's been shown over and over again that the people who move away are usually the people who destroy the community and then they look back and they say, "See what I told you—that they would do it."

Well, it's complex. But, certainly they have a part in it. I guess, the worst I can say about it—it-s a form of idolatry. I don't think people stop long enough to think theologically. They're just driven by their fears of what's going to come of our way of life. But maybe with the Dutch CRC, they would move no matter who moves in because there's a strong "this is who we are, this is how we worship, this is how we keep our community, this is how we live." Although, in many of those communities where they have moved in, they've moved in with other whites, but that's a less threatening community than people of color.

Having experienced this situation here at Pullman CRC, why do you think it's important to have racially integrated churches?

I'm not one to argue that every church should be like Pullman. This church, even though it has both black and white people—it attracts certain blacks and certain whites. You could even argue that it has a class flavor to it, and a cultural one too. Not every black who comes to this church wants to join it. Not every white who comes here wants to join it. Whether we have a church like this or not, we have to reach out to other people. Sometimes people think the best way is to get us all together, interacting as brothers and sisters to come and worship. Usually, that creates more problems as a starting point because people have different ways of worshiping, of singing. We need to find something more common, like having breakfast to talk about our children or what we think about our name, and start building with the willing.

I'm for all kinds of churches. I'm for ethnically oriented churches. I'm for multi-cultural churches. I'm for growing churches. You know, I have a relationship with a black Baptist church here—some of the men come to my prayer breakfast. These men have grown up in black churches, and they're some of the most loving people of other people that I have ever known. They don't see whites on a regular basis in their church and yet they have caught that part of the Gospel. But they like worshiping how they worship. And they would not be comfortable worshiping here the way we worship. So, this church has its weaknesses and its strengths.

The Christian Reformed Church ought to be about, and is, planting all kinds of churches. But always try to help people see beyond their own narrow cultural framework. We all need a place we call home. But we also need to venture out of home.

Discussion topic: A divided church?

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul points to the shortcomings of the Corinthian church by calling attention to the disorderly and inequitable nature of their get-togethers. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-21, Paul reprimands them—even mocks their self-righteous attitudes—when he says

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.

These two interviews on race relations in the church are a reminder that the day-to-day operations of being a church do not always reflect the unity we profess in our theological talk. In a denomination with an ethnic majority, some fellow brothers and sisters are welcomed to the table as "minorities" in, or late-comers to, the denomination. Does this send the message of a divided church to the rest of the world?


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