Plantations, Colonialists, and the Innocents who wander there

Northside Chapel


When Whitey Moves

I’ve been playing “wanna read it, don’t wanna read it” with Christena Cleveland’s piece on “Urban Church Planting/Plantations”  It’s easy for me to retweet or “share” on something that with a minute’s reading I think “yeah, that’s right…” This piece for me was more complicated because it touches deeply on my own story.

I lived through the urban ministry movements of the 60s and 70s. I was a white foreign missionary who didn’t know anything in the 90s, and I have now pastored a small, multi-ethnic congregation in a struggling South Sacramento neighborhood for 17 years. I’ve watched white flight to the suburbs, seen plenty of white-missions-projects overseas and to the inner city jn America, and now watch the ongoing “Friends-ification” of the city center again. When Whitey moves or gets a notion, everybody else has got to adjust and not always for the better.  Yeah, I get that.

Babe in the Woods

My father, pictured above, would have been 79 today if he were alive. He came to Paterson New Jersey to turn a “mission” into a church in 1960. He told his own story in his memoir Chains of Grace.

In many ways when he and his new bride (and coming children) moved into the struggling First Ward of Paterson he was spectacularly ill prepared for ministry there. He was raised in Christian Reformed Church parsonages during the depression and World War 2 all over the American prairie as his father ministered mostly to small agricultural Dutch immigrant communities. He was educated at lilly white (or wooden-shoe-dutch) Calvin College and Calvin Seminary and had very little exposure to the African American community.

He spent 36 years loving and learning to serve that community. In his book you can find plenty of confession, ways that he sometimes did more harm than good, but if anyone wants to hear the credentials of his work you should talk to those who knew him, knew his work, knew his heart and ask them if Paterson would have been better if he had never come.

When I reflected upon his life last year in preparation for his eulogy I wondered how he was able to serve given his lack of preparation. The conclusion I came to was his heart. He was without guile. He did not come to be served, but to serve. Even while there was nothing hip or cool about him, people who knew him could sense that he genuinely loved them and cared for their welfare. They could tell that he was there to live out “your well-being at my expense” and that was what he did.

He made up for his initial lack of understanding of African American culture with a desire to serve and to love and in time he learned and his service was perfected by that learning.

The Heart of All Ministry

I very much agree with what I understand to be the heart of Ms. Cleveland’s piece.

I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job. Last fall, I attended an urban and multicultural church planting conference that gathered national church planting leaders from over 30 denominations. As I looked out over the room, I couldn’t help but notice that the group was about 95% white (and 99% male!).

When I asked the group how they figured that a group of white men could possibly be equipped to lead urban church planting movements among non-white and other oppressed folks, the room got really quiet. No one had a good answer. Indeed, it seemed as if they had never reflected on this question before.

Privilege says I’m called and equipped to minister to all people (but minorities are only called and equipped to minister to people who are just like them). Privilege says that the largest ministry with the most resources is the most effective ministry.

I have seen and lived this from both sides. I saw many well-intentioned but naive “missionaries” come to the inner-city only to do more harm than good, to offend the people they said they wanted to serve, to create relationships of unhealthy dependency and to actually reinforce racist stereotypes and biases on both sides. Yep. Happens every day.

I’ve also lived that life. I was a young, well-intentioned but naive pastor who went to the Dominican Republic to try to help and serve the Haitian pastors living and working in the DR. I too was in many ways spectacularly unprepared to be of any earthly or heavenly good to those fine people. I hope in the long run my sojourn there did more good than harm but I don’t really know. I certainly benefited greatly from the experience, but did they?

I learned on Twitter that Augustine said the three most important factors in the spiritual life are “humility, humility, humility” and I think he was right.

If I have to chose a missionary who is prepared with learning, or a missionary who is humble, I’ll take the humble one. Why? Because all preparation as we do it tends to be theoretical, abstract and approximate but humility enables the missionary to learn from the specific context and specific people they are called to serve.

Ms. Cleveland calls for mentoring which is good, but if you have a mentor without humility your mentor will probably be of little use. Humility is the key. 

Not Black and White

Now most of you can probably stop reading at this point, and if I were a good blogger I would stop now, but I’m not a good blogger and while I agree with the heart of her piece, and the reasons she didn’t proceed as I will is undoubtedly that she is a better blogger than I, there is more I’d like to say.

Another reaction I had to the piece was “it isn’t so black and white, and it isn’t really about black and white either.”

Every day there are missionaries coming from Africa, Korea, Haiti and many other places in the world to America’s cities as missionaries. They aren’t bringing money but many of them are equally unprepared. I’m sure some are humble and others are not. It isn’t just privilege, power and financial success that erode humility, all sorts of other success does as well. Even though they may be coming with a prideful spirit because of the ministry success they have experienced in their contexts of origin, I don’t think I would discourage them from coming. I think it is part of the miracle of grace that even bad missionaries add to the kingdom of God. God can use these failures that look like failures or even like successes to do a work among his people.

Contexts are Complicated

When I think about the context that my father came into as a young man it was hardly as black and white as a lot of our generalizations suggest. Paterson in 1960 was at the tail end of the Great Migration which has been wonderfully written in Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns. Stan Vander Klay was a cultural immigrant in some ways working with a community of cultural immigrants. They were all struggling to find their way together.

The “mission” he inherited had been a well intentioned endeavor by the community of Christian Reformed Churches that were in the process of migrating, or fleeing, depending on their motivation, outwards in the post WWII suburban movement. Some of the tender-hearted Christians of those Dutch churches saw the struggles of the African American community and wanted to help, so they gave their time, their money, and their hearts to their efforts.

Now it would be nice to make a lot of judgments about these lay volunteer missionaries, that they were somehow less tainted by racism or more enlightened by multi-cultural savvy than those who didn’t serve, but I’ve never really found that to be the case. Racism and bias colors all of our lives in ways we are conscious of but mostly ways we are not.

The story of dear Mrs. Vogel wanting the young black boys of Paterson to build shoe-shine boxes in the 70s was famous in our family. For her this would be a wonderful shop project and could help them earn a bit of money too!

How could she have been so tone-deaf to the racial stereotypes that the civil rights movement was so strongly critiquing? No one who knew her, however, had any question about her commitment to love and to serve the people at Northside and she was loved, treasured and valued for it. If mission work is only for the pure in heart then the Lord would only have himself as a missionary and the Holy Spirit might be wasted.

The missional context of Paterson was enormously complex as one immigrant group tried to follow Christ’s call in the only ways it knew how to the migrating descendants of a forced immigrant group. The results were messy and not always good but I think most of us who lived through that passage praise God for what he was able to accomplish through it.

Overseas All Over Again

These strands were played out for me all over again when I was in the Dominican Republic and we hosted work teams to help with the construction of schools and churches. The dynamics of cultural dependence are very strong in the Caribbean church communities. Generations of well-intentioned missionaries have made their way to these islands to bring the gospel, help with education, do relief and development. As with many colonial stories the missionary efforts were only one part of other political and economic relationships. The relationship of the US government and corporations to these small islands and countries is well documented if mostly ignored by many.

My presence wasn’t of a character different from the work teams, ill informed persons coming down with resources to try to make a difference sometimes blind to the ways in the relationship the economic asymmetries did harm to our own messianic self-images as it did to theirs.

Yes, helping does hurt sometimes, but the weighing of these matters is also often beyond us. On one hand we have The Poisenwood Bible and on the other the surprising discovery of what those 19th century colonial, proselytizing missionaries accomplished.  Our judgments are always our judgments and we try to do the best we can but the longer I live the more I have to doubt what often seems obvious in the moment.

The Friends-ification of the Cities

When I visited New York City after having been out of the area for 20 years I was shocked at how the city had changed. I wondered “where did all these young, good looking white people come from? They weren’t here during the Abe Beame days that I remembered growing up!”

What had changed? “Friends”, “Sex in the City” and a hundred other stories and reasons had fueled “gentrification” with a passion. We’re in the middle of that wave just like Stan came to Paterson in the middle of the white-flight wave.

These waves are never clean or discrete. Many of the churches. Ms. Cleveland talks about are large, white, suburban congregations that grew during the Seeker days and many of these megas continue to have deep resources, missionary zeal, optimism and sometimes pride.

The church in which I serve was planted during urban missions, racial reconciliation movement that my father had been a part of. Many of the people in my congregation, black and white, have been here for 40+ years quietly living the vision of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. My congregation, like my father’s, are minority, small congregations surrounded by larger African American churches, Hispanic congregations, and here in Sacramento larger Chinese congregations and churches of other ethic groups from all over the world.

West Coast and East Coast

One of the things I picked up quickly when I moved to Sacramento in the 90s was that the racial dynamics were very different here than they were in Paterson or Grand Rapids Michigan where I had gone to school. In 2002 Time Magazine called my city “America’s Most Diverse City”. Sacramento’s story of race relations is different from Paterson’s or I’m sure also Buffalo’s.

Probably the most significant large, mega-church cluster in Sacramento is flagshipped by Bayside and First Covenant in the suburbs. A few years ago they started Bayside of South Sacramento.  They were lead by a well respected African American pastor who did not originate in their denomination but was well loved and appreciated until his recent death. My impression on one visit to their church was that they tried to contextualize the seeker ethos of their other congregations to the ethnic make-up of South Sacramento.

“Pastors are kingdom builders, they build their own kingdoms.”

Relationships between churches and pastors in a community is always complex. The first friend outside my church that I made after I moved to Sacramento when learning I was a pastor bluntly told me of his impressions of pastors. “Pastors are kingdom builders. They build their own kingdoms.”

He had grown up in black baptist churches in Southern California and had been a member of some in Sacramento as well. His vocation was in the political sphere and he was used to being blunt. I appreciated his frankness and could very well understand his complaint. In his experience pastors, not unlike politicians, said they were all about “serving the people” but many of their actions and behaviors lead to the suspicion that they were really in it for themselves. I wasn’t going to argue with him. I too knew it to be true.

When I read Ms. Cleveland’s piece I could easily imagine turf and ego on both sides of the divide. My small denomination with its small church planting effort in Sacramento has to confess and check its own egos when the Bayside behemoth moves into our neighborhood. They have resources like money, network, talent, etc. that we cannot match. The impulse to religious market consumerism wells up in our hearts and we feel envy and imagine ourselves to be “the competition” even though a small church like mine isn’t even a blip on their radar. As churches too often scrap over sheep, trying to expand our resources and reputation by competing for the already committed a fairly post-Christian city we need to check our own hearts and listen again to our Master.

So yes, I agree with Ms. Cleveland’s complaint about the damage that naive and prideful white church planters can do in a community. I also imagine that some of the resistance they face comes from some of us who have been here a while and for all the wrong reasons don’t welcome the “competition”.

Summary Thoughts

  • In the end I don’t think the naive and the prideful will last long in the city. If their pride and hunger for success in ministry wealth and reputation is driving them they will always be looking for greener pastures until and unless they find a place where their idolatries will flourish and probably be eventually and perhaps mercifully exposed.
  • Large, wealthy, suburban congregations who live in the decline of the seeker movement might consider planting congregations among the suburban poor. While the young, beautiful, educated, priviledged, and often white flock to the cities the poor are struggling in under-serviced now decaying suburbs.
  • A contrarian approach is not a bad way to go when it comes to mission targets. Look where everyone else is going and go in the opposite direction. There are many undesirable communities where you can find people who are hard to love. There is never a line to serve them. What about the mentally ill?
  • Humility remains the key. Ministry in hard places can wring the pride out of you. It is one of God’s painful mercies. Poverty can be different in a lot of different ways. Find the crowd and love those who are being abandoned by them as they take their resources and their popularity with them.


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Institutional Church, Missional and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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