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A Church Built on Multiracial Pillars

It's a chilly Sunday morning in Austin, one of a string of scarred, tumbledown neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side.

Worshippers in overcoats crowd into an old school gym, the sanctuary of Rock of Our Salvation Church. Banners promising salvation hang next to basketball hoops. The pews are metal folding chairs. Gospel music rises from a makeshift stage.

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The Rock Church is no ordinary inner-city place of worship. In a community that turned from white to black almost overnight after race riots in the late 1960s, today fully a third of the 500-member congregation is white. And this morning's sermon on brotherly love is no hush-toned, Bible talk.

"Brotherly kindness means lovin' my red-necked, racist neighbor as myself!" booms Pastor Raleigh Washington. He pauses and then wags a finger at the crowd. "I didn't hear an 'amen!' "

"It means," he says, "lovin' my purse-snatchin', militant, drug-sellin', low pants-wearin' brother, as myself!" The congregation breaks out in applause and laughter at the provocation.

Race may be America's most divisive issue, and Chicago one of its most segregated cities. But that doesn't scare the folks at Rock Church. For them, healing racial wounds is not a lofty pulpit mandate, but a hands-on, street-corner mission. Black or white, they come together with a rare sense of purpose to pray, work, and struggle to overcome prejudices.

Rock Church and its partner community outreach group, Circle Urban Ministries, stand at the forefront of what some describe as a growing movement toward racial reconciliation in American churches. Advocates say the movement is vital to narrowing the racial divide in America, where the Sunday worship hour is traditionally the most segregated time of week.

"They are pioneers in the sense that they want to intentionally build a ministry around reconciliation," says Dwight Perry, National Director of Urban Ministries for the Baptist General Conference.

The Chicago ministry is serving as a model for hundreds of other churches seeking to integrate. Among evangelists, especially, it is "on the cutting edge" of promoting racial awareness, Mr. Perry says. Rock Church is one of a handful of mainly black congregations affiliated with the conservative Evangelical Free Church of America.

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Significantly, the ministry is behind a push for greater diversity within Promise Keepers, the predominantly white Denver-based Christian men's group that drew some 1.2 million followers to stadium gatherings last year. Pastor Washington was invited to join the group's board in 1994. Today, he is responsible for recruiting 350,000 "men of color" to attend a massive Promise Keepers rally in the United States capital in October.

Propelling the movement is concern among some clergy that racial tensions are worsening. "Racism is so deep in this country," says Tom Fortson, chief operating officer of Promise Keepers. "You have a generation now that is farther apart than we were in the 1960s."

Churches can play a powerful role in fostering cross-racial ties in congregations already united by faith, advocates say, but only if religious leaders dare to take the initiative.

"Here, we have the audacity to talk about issues of race," Washington tells visitors. "The need for this will never go away."

The story of Rock Church and its partner ministry begins with the friendship of two very different men: Washington, a black retired US Army colonel from an urban ghetto in Florida, and Glen Kehrein, a white social worker from rural Wisconsin.

Early sting of segregation

When he was about five years old, Washington sometimes earned a few pennies stacking bottles for a white man who ran a candy store next door. It was 1943, and he lived with his mother and brother in a low-income neighborhood of Jacksonville, Fla.

One day he was playing house with the shopkeeper's granddaughter when his mother spotted them and panicked. She dashed outside, snatched up both children, and told the shopkeeper to keep the girl indoors. Then she dragged Washington home. "This boy is about to get us all lynched!" she told her mother as she walked in the door.

It was Washington's first lesson in racial segregation. As he grew up, Washington became more bitter about the divide. "I couldn't drink from the water fountain that said 'white,' I couldn't sit at the lunch counters or in the front of the bus," he recalls. "Jim-Crow laws were the rule of the day, and they said the white man was better than me."

That feeling piqued Washington's competitive spirit. In almost every domain - school, sports, career - he set out to prove he was "as good if not better than the white man." And he excelled. He graduated from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in 1960 with a commission of second lieutenant in the US Army.

Still, racism remained rife within the military. To compensate, Washington worked doubly hard to please his white superiors, impressing them with his meticulous grasp of regulations. In 1977, the effort paid off. Washington became the first black officer to assume a district recruiting command. He was on track for a general's star.

But three years later, he says, allegations of misconduct brought by white officers led to his "other-than-honorable" discharge from the military. It was July 30, 1980, exactly a day before he could have retired with full benefits. Washington, his pregnant wife Paulette, and their four children were left without a job or housing. (Nine years later, the Army reversed its decision and allowed him to retire with full benefits.)

Washington was deeply wounded. But his Christian faith sustained him, he says. Aided by friends and an education grant from the Veterans Administration, he enrolled in an Illinois divinity school.

A country boy in black America

Growing up in Ripon, a conservative town of 6,000 in rural Wisconsin, Mr. Kehrein never once spoke to a black person. A fundamentalist Christian of sturdy, German stock, Kehrein believed anyone could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. To him, blacks held themselves back; racism simply didn't exist.

"I was raised in a blue-collar, Norman Rockwell kind of setting," recalls Kehrein. "All the public images of blacks [in the 1950s and '60s] were negative, and there was a tacit acceptance of the idea that blacks were inferior. I was indoctrinated."

But that began to change when Kehrein arrived in Chicago to study at the Moody Bible Institute in the summer of 1966.

Fresh from the fields of Wisconsin, he found himself driving an old bus through Cabrini-Green, a poor and crime-ridden Chicago housing project, to pick up black youths for Christian club meetings. One day, a girl who regularly attended failed to show up. A brick thrown from a high-rise building had struck and killed her as she walked home from school.

The incident shocked Kehrein, but also increased his sympathy for the plight of the street-wise youths whose dialects he could barely understand. "The most violent thing that ever happened in Ripon was someone getting drunk and getting in an auto accident," says Kehrein. "But here were kids who literally lived life and death every day."

Kehrein was also confronted with the anger of his black classmates, who argued with him about the problems of the African-American community. Still, their words failed to move him until racial unrest erupted in April 1968 over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

As riots, looting, and fires raged around the school, Kehrein and dozens of other students crowded into the room of a black classmate, Mel Warren, looking for answers.

"Mel basically put his finger in our faces and said 'You don't really care about our community. You're here because you're scared, or you would have been here months ago,'" Kehrein recalls. "Deep down, I knew he was right."

After graduation, Kehrein and his wife, Lonnie, decided to stay in Chicago to build a ministry focused on racial reconciliation. But the first church they joined ended in disaster. In 1976, a dispute between a black pastor and a white pastor led to the church splitting along racial lines.

By this time, Kehrein and his family had moved to Austin, a black community abandoned to decay by the flight of white residents. There, Kehrein started Circle Urban Ministries (CUM), a community outreach group that provides legal, medical, and family counselling for the poor. But CUM needed a church partner.

Then in 1983, Kehrein met Washington. Drawn together by a need to prove that faith could heal racial hostility, they soon became close friends. Washington launched Rock Church in CUM's conference room. With a pulpit made of two cardboard boxes draped in cloth, he started preaching to a mixed group of about 50 people.

Together, the two men proved a powerful team. Their joint ministry thrived, uniting blacks and whites in worship and service to the inner city. In 1985, the two organizations, which are financed separately, moved into a large, abandoned Catholic school. Their total staff grew to 100. Meanwhile, Rock's congregation multiplied, attracting not only Austin residents but - to the disbelief of many - numerous middle-class blacks and whites from the suburbs.

"We really like the enthusiasm of the worship and the cultural richness," says Donna Hanert, a designer from Oak Park, Ill. She joined Rock Church four years ago, leaving a congregation she describes as "primarily white and quiet.... We feel that God wants to be worshiped by us together," she says.

Racial reconciliation in action

On any given day, dozens of needy arrive at the doors of Circle Urban Ministries in the heart of Austin. Some pick up bags of groceries from a food pantry, or flop down on a bed in a temporary shelter. Kindergartners burst through the doors of the new Circle/Rock Prep School. Down the hall, a 50-year-old grandmother learns to read. In surrounding blocks, the community group has restored hundreds of apartments, launched two small businesses, and begun constructing a four-story medical building.

Serving more than 15,000 people a year, CUM represents "racial reconciliation in action," says Kehrein. "The inner city is essentially the product of our racial alienation," he says. "We believe that past injustices must be redeemed, and in a ministry like ours, the human needs are right around the corner."

Kehrein should know. For more than 20 years, he and his wife have raised three children while working to revive the destitute neighborhood. "A lot of us are confused about why the inner city is how it is," he says. "But if we remain in isolation, we can only share our ignorance. If we share deep relationships, we can share our knowledge."

Fudge Ripple Sundays

A Sunday service at Rock Church offers promising images for 1990s America.

In the front row, a white man with a speckled gray beard cradles his black foster child while swaying to gospel music. Further back, a conservatively dressed white couple sing arm-in-arm with a black woman whose dreadlocks coil high atop her head and spill over her shoulders.

Fanchon Jenkins, a black mother of seven who knows what it's like to be stared down by an all-white church, steps forward to take the hand of a white visitor who is casting about for a prayer partner.

Yet beyond such signs of racial harmony, Rock Church members are quick to admit, joining the church brings culture shock. Many have had to struggle to leave their "comfort zones" and befriend someone of another race. Misunderstandings are inevitable, they say.

"It's definitely not just a nice little 'hold hands and dance around' intercultural thing," says Ms. Hanert. "It's really tough at times."

Rock Church has tackled the nitty-gritty job of working out racial discord with characteristic boldness and flare. Four times a year, it convenes a "Fudge Ripple Sunday." Before church, blacks air concerns and complaints at the "chocolate" meeting. Afterward, whites do the same during a "vanilla" meeting. Finally, everyone gets together over fudge ripple ice cream and Oreo cookies to hash out the problems.

"Fudge Ripple Sunday" may sound light-hearted, but the issues raised often are not. When a white woman and a black woman were arguing over the O.J. Simpson verdicts, Washington intervened with a striking illustration.

"Would every man of color old enough to have a driver's license please stand?" he asks. About 20 people rise. "If a white policeman has never stopped you undeservedly, or wrongly arrested you, or grossly disrespected you because of the color of your skin, please sit down."

Every man but one remains standing.

"I want you, my brothers and sisters of the lighter hue, to take note," Washington says.

While seizing on such explosive public issues, the meetings also grapple with resentment in the congregation over everything from whites' punctilious worship style to blacks' casual use of the term "nigger." In this way, the church forges trust and understanding that are vital to its central goal of committed, cross-racial friendships.

Candor at Rock Church is paramount. Members express concerns anonymously in written notes. Washington moderates the discussions. Otherwise, he says, "it's a little bit like Dodge City."

Breaking down walls also means that people learn to laugh at themselves, as happened when Washington read this comment: "It seems odd to me, to sing songs at our church with words like, 'Wash me whiter than snow.'"

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