By Tiffany Knowlin, South Carolina Annual Conference
It was April 2008. I was living in Atlanta, GA working at an organization called United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. In previous months, I had decided to return to South Carolina and serve a local church; however, I did not know where I would be sent. One Tuesday morning before leaving for work, I received a phone call, and I was told that my assignment was College Place United Methodist Church. In a moment of disbelief, I said, “Really?” and then I said, “Is it typical that you all would send a first-time pastor to that church?” The district superintendent responded to my questions, and as he spoke, I recall fear and uncertainty flooding my mind. In addition to never serving as a senior pastor, I knew that College Place had never had an African American pastor, they had never had a woman pastor, and they had never had a pastor under the age of thirty.
On my first Sunday as pastor, there was a knock on my office door, and, after an invitation was extended, an older gentleman with a kind face entered. He said, “I remember when I was a boy and the church voted that our black custodian could sit outside our church doors and listen to our preacher preach on Sunday morning, and this morning you are our preacher.” His words gave me chills. Even now, as I remember and reflect on my experience, I am reminded that Queen Esther too was presented with a challenge that she was uncertain about, a challenge that she had not asked for. Scripture says the king had issued a decree to destroy the Jews that live in the land of Persia. Esther was the king’s wife, and she was also Jewish, but she had found it politically expedient to keep her identity a secret. Mordecai, Esther’s adopted father, demanded that Esther talk to the king on behalf of the Jews in order that their lives would be saved. Esther responded in fear as she explained, “If I enter the court and the king is not pleased with me, I could lose my life” (see Esth 4:11).
Like Esther, I too was fearful as I prepared to journey to this new place. I was fearful of rejection, fearful of not being wanted or accepted, fearful that difference would divide a church and possibly a community.
This year’s WellSprings Journal theme is “Unity in the Church.” The psalmist reminds us “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! Such unity is indicative of the kingdom of God. It is the place that believers ought to aspire to live, move, and have our being. However, both the people of College Place and I learned that unity does not happen automatically. It takes time, effort, commitment, intentionality, and, most important, the power and love of Jesus Christ.
I cannot say College Place and I achieved the level of unity and blessing the psalmist describes; however, as we journeyed together, we learned some critically important lessons that matured our faith and aided us in living into the unity God desires for God’s people in this life and the life to come.
One lesson was: Don’t try to change people or their culture to make it your own, and don’t change your culture to make yourself more like others. Instead, seek to meet each other half way as you honor all cultures present.
As a black woman in South Carolina, I am clear about several unique cultural differences that exist among black people, white people, and the growing Hispanic population in our state. As I began ministry at College Place, I was, and I continue to be, clear that it is not my responsibility to make black people white or to make white people black. Instead, my ministry was and continues to be about affirming and celebrating commonalities and simultaneously honoring difference. For example, I have always been a part of church where there was a call-and-response during worship, and persons were invited to stand and share prayer requests aloud. This was not the tradition at College Place; yet, as more blacks joined our community, the congregation opened itself to the call-and-response tradition. In addition, people were invited to stand and share prayer concerns. Such invitation greatly affected our church. Several people, both black and white, participated in this communal act as they shared information they would not have shared in other settings. People were enabled to better know one another and pray specific prayers for each other. Simultaneously, because everyone was not comfortable sharing aloud, prayer cards were always available in the pew racks. Our intentionality of honoring cultural traditions of all present made our church appealing to varying people. In fact, some interracial couples found a unique home at College Place.
As the congregation and I grew in relationship, we quickly learned that unity does not equal homogeneity. If God needed or wanted everyone to be exactly alike, that is how God would have created us. Instead, we are all created in the image of God, with unique gifts and graces. Each person brings the particularity of culture, tradition, language, and so on, to God’s church and ultimately to God’s body. However, it is the Spirit of Christ that binds us to one another and to God. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (NRSV) Paul reminds us, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.” Hence, scripture explicitly tells us that the body of Christ is a diverse unit, made of varying parts that work together to make a whole.
As committed Christians, the people of College Place and I allowed ourselves to be stretched by Paul’s words. Though we did not feel like a unified body, we believed Christ was our common denominator. Christ was greater than our differences. If we truly believed this, we had to decide if we would see our difference as a liability or as an asset.
I firmly believe that when difference is viewed as an asset, unity can be promoted. However, such a viewpoint did not, and often does not, come easily. In fact, as we journeyed the road to unity, we had to learn: race is easy to see, yet not everything is about race.
College Place is a historically white church; however, as time progressed, our black population greatly increased. Several Sundays, our church’s racial demographic was about 50|50 white to black. Like many churches, we had differences in style and type of music that people liked to hear and sing. After a few years, a praise group formed. This group sang contemporary and gospel music. Such music was attractive to several people, and the formation of this group benefited our church as it diversified our music ministry. An obvious characteristic of the praise group was that the majority of the group was younger than the members of the traditional choir. In addition, many members were African or African American.
A few months after the praise team formed, a member of the traditional choir said to me, “How can we be a multicultural church with a black choir and a white choir?” After raising such a question, I responded, “I have never referred to you all as the white choir.” After a few moments of silence and reflection, I facilitated a conversation about how easy it is to focus on race when the real issue is one of genre.
Race and age are very visible difference, yet when believers commit to creating and fostering unity in the church, we are challenged to see difference while not allowing it to blind us or thwart us from working together. The traditional choir and praise team sang different genres of music, yet when the music director helped them to communicate, they also worked to discover music that crosses cultural and generational bounds. Periodically, they rehearsed and sang together on Sunday morning. They chose not to allow difference to prevent them from honoring and glorifying God together.
College Place’s commitment to making their cross-racial appointment work promoted unity. They worked to create a space for different people to worship God.
Finally, as we journeyed to unity, the church and I had to learn: to give and to receive grace from each other.
Though there are many resources available for pastors and churches participating in multicultural ministry, College Place and I were not aware of such resources when we came together. Unfortunately, little work was done to help prepare the people of College Place and me for our union. Hence, we did not know how to be together. We did not know that difference can be, and is, a gift within the body of Christ. We had to figure out how to live together, how to honor one another, how to care for and love one another. We also realized we were not, nor would we ever be, any other church in our community, our district, our conference, or beyond. We were challenged to be uniquely us. Only when we stopped seeking to be anyone but ourselves could we begin to comprehend the unity and the gift of diversity that Paul proclaims to the Corinthians and much of the New Testament Church.
We were challenged to realize that there was not a Jewish church, a Greek church, or a Mede church in the New Testament. Instead, there was a church in Rome, a church in Ephesus, a church in Philippi, and varying other places. Unity required that we recognize and embrace that we were not called to be a white church or a black church. Instead we were called to be College Place United Methodist Church, an integrated body of believers in Columbia, SC, seeking to worship God and transform the world through the love and hope of Jesus Christ.
Unity in the church is work. It is hard. It is uncomfortable; it does not just happen. However, if we seek to live out the portrait the psalmist paints in Psalm 133, we must be intentional. Believers must be deliberate in our effort and our commitment to honor and respect difference as we work together to worship the one living God. There will be difficulties and challenges to work through, yet as we do the work of the kingdom, fear of rejection, fear of acceptance, and fear of division cannot reign.
Queen Esther was afraid. She was also different; yet she did not allow her difference to prevent her from being God’s agent. I am grateful that my fears and difference, and the fears and difference of College Place, did not prevent us from striving “to live together in unity.” Though I am no longer the pastor of College Place, I am certain that both they and I have been forever changed and transformed. Real, meaningful, and productive relationships are risky. They are difficult, and they take time to grow and develop. Neither College Place nor I requested to be risk takers. We did not choose to come together. However, we did decide to faithfully stay together as we pursued Christ and honored who God created us to be, individually and collectively. We sought unity, and we sought to be God’s agents. In the process, we realized difference is an asset in the body of Christ.
2019 – Unity in the Church
2018 – Claim Who We Are in Christ
2017 – Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel
2016 – Birthing a Worldwide Church
2015 – Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations
2014 – Empowerment for All
2013 – What Next?
2012 – What Does the Lord Require of Us?
2011 – See, I am Doing a New Thing
2010 – Voicing Truth With Grace
PDF archive – 1987 to 2009
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WellSprings, A Journal of United Methodist Clergywomen, is published by the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
Editor: HiRho Y. Park
Managing Editor: Barbara A. Dick
Editorial Circle: Patricia Bonilla, Neelley Hicks, Anita Phillips, Jacqui Rose-Tucker, Trudy Hawkins Stringer