On April 29, 1992, four White police officers in Los Angeles, California—caught on tape brutally beating Rodney King, a Black man—were acquitted. African Americans took to the streets in outrage over the injustice. My anguish was personal, having been assumed a criminal by police because of the color of my skin on more than one occasion.
Leaders of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), a Swedish immigrant denomination established in 1884, were both shocked by the verdict and distressed by the reaction. They wrestled with the greater church’s responsibility in the face of such tensions. Further, they asked, what was the responsibility of the ECC specifically?
Later that year, urban pastors and leaders in the ECC convened to develop a denominational response and strategy to intentionally engage with issues of race and class. Two key decisions emerged from that gathering. One was for every denominational board to include at least two people of color. The other was to form a department named Compassion, Mercy and Justice (CMJ), which would help the denomination and local churches develop programs addressing issues of race and class.
In 1997, I joined the denomination as co-director of CMJ, later becoming director of the department.
Our challenge soon became clear. In 2000, Dr. Christian Smith and Dr. Michael Emerson, Christian sociologists, published Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Compiling numerous surveys and interviews, they trace the divide between the African-American Christian experience of systemic racism and the White Christian view of racism as an individualistic problem African-Americans must simply get over.
In the face of this stark contrast in world views, the CMJ team developed a series of programs to encourage and assist individuals and congregations navigating very difficult issues surrounding race.
We organized Sankofa Journeys (a West African term that means looking back to move forward) in which cross-racial partners boarded a bus in Chicago traveling to historic civil rights sites, along the way using films, speakers and other tools to process the realities of race and racism past and present.
From Sankofa Journeys came Journeys to Mosaic, in which cross-racial partners boarded a bus from Los Angeles or Seattle, traveling to explore how issues of race and racism, past and present, impact Native Americans, Latino/Latina Americans, Asian Americans and African-Americans on the West Coast.
Working with departments across the denomination, the CMJ team developed curricula for local churches to facilitate difficult discussions on race. We created benchmarks for multi-ethnic church growth, participatory involvement by people of color in denominational events and multicultural ministry opportunities. Finally, we continue to work on incorporating denominational history that reflects diverse stories, creating our own story within the denomination.
it appears from recent national events and discourse that we have moved further apart. These events, while a source of discouragement, are also a call to continue our work and become more diligent in prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
The ECC denomination has grown over the years to now include approximately 23% ethnic or multi-ethnic churches. Denominational leadership reflects the diverse community we have become.
Work is being done. We see progress within the ECC and the Christian world at large.
I wish I could say people of color and White evangelicals have moved closer in their understanding of systemic racism since the report in Divided by Faith in 2000. However, it appears from recent national events and discourse that we have moved further apart. These events, while a source of discouragement, are also a call to continue our work and become more diligent in prayer:“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Rev. Harold Spooner ’75 is Executive Vice President of Community Outreach for Covenant Retirement Communities. A native New Yorker, Spooner is a graduate of The Stony Brook School and has a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Houghton College and a Master of Theology degree from Fuller Seminary. He lives in Chicago with his wife Cheryl and has three adult children.