United by Faith, Separated by Race: Evangelical Christian leaders want to join forces

Nov 1, 2005

In the weeks that followed Hurricane Katrina, the Chicago area's largest Christian evangelical churches amassed an astonishing amount of manpower, cash and goods.

The 20,000-member Willow Creek Community Church raised $800,000. The South Barrington church also bused 25 volunteers to Waveland, Miss., to help rebuild the Gulf Coast city of 7,000. 

And every four days, the church deployed another volunteer shift of 25. 

Harvest Bible Chapel, a large Rolling Meadows evangelical congregation, adopted Mendenhall, Miss., providing food and shelter for more than 500 families.

Chicago's New Life Community Church, a self-described "Billy Graham in blue jeans" operation, sent several semitrailers packed with supplies to Ocean Springs, Miss., after an evacuee from that town showed up at the South Side church.

These mega-churches share a common faith and a common purpose. Still, what if they could work together?

"We could move mountains," says Wilfredo De'Jesus, senior pastor of New Life Covenant, a mostly Hispanic church in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. "It would be a picture of heaven on earth."

De'Jesus is one of eight charismatic evangelical Christian leaders in the Chicago area who envision just that. They want to coordinate their massive resources to save souls and serve the poor. 

Separately, they've amassed dedicated, growing flocks measured in the tens of thousands. But before their ranks can come together as one army of God, these field generals say they must conquer centuries-old racial barriers.

On Sundays, the pastors pack more than 50,000 worshippers into more than a dozen Chicago-area locations, including several auditorium venues. They employ hundreds of professional staff and can deploy dozens of buses and at least one jet. They pass collection plates that bring in millions a year, and several can be seen or heard on local media programs.

Together, they suggest, their combined clout and resources can work miracles. Marching under one banner, the Gatekeepers, they could end homelessness, curb gang activity and bolster beleaguered Chicago schools with computers and outside help. 

But coming together is no easy task. Race, social conditions and economic circumstance separate the congregations, hindering a unified mission.

To move those barriers in the coming years, the pastors, many of them authors and accomplished public speakers, will lean on the leadership skills that helped them grow their flocks from a few dozen worshippers to thousands. They say a shared faith will light the way.

Though most don't adhere to any denomination, the churches all practice evangelical Christianity. A belief in Jesus Christ and the Bible drives a fervent soul-saving force that packs pews with more faithful each Sunday.

First on their collective agenda is a massive Grant Park prayer service to bless the city, a sort of Gatekeepers coming out party and, they hope, a means to present their mission in a positive light.

It's clear achieving such a goal is years away.

That the evangelical leaders didn't immediately turn to one another to bolster Katrina relief efforts illustrates the group's infancy and how much it has left to accomplish.

"This thing is just too new," explains the Rev. Tony Danhelka of Riverwoods Christian Center, a mixed-race congregation in west suburban St. Charles. With the help of 80 local churches, Riverwoods works strictly with poor populations in the western suburbs. The Gatekeepers is Danhelka's brainchild.

"I felt God breathe into my heart that it was time to call the primary influencers of Chicago together," he says. "The names started to come to me, and I started to write these names down."

The leaders first met last December in a small hotel conference room near O'Hare International Airport.

"We are just getting past the 'Who are you?' and 'Can we really work together?'" he says.

The Gatekeepers include Hispanic, black and white congregations. They are led by largely independent, jet-setting preachers, many of whom also operate relief efforts in poor nations around the world.

A few have founded umbrella groups connecting them with hundreds of like-minded churches. For example, John Eckhardt, leader of the 4,000-member Crusaders Ministries in Chicago, began the IMPACT Network in 1995. Ten years later, he oversees teachings and practices for hundreds of churches across 25 countries.

For Danhelka, rounding up such powerful pastors seemed a daunting task. He didn't know many of them, and the eight had never formally worked together.

"I must confess. I was a little intimidated," Danhelka says. "I mean, why would these people listen to me?"

But since the initial sit-down, executive church members have met every few months, with the most recent face-to-face in mid-September. They realize that, though they are all people of faith, they remain separated by race.

The two largest churches in the group are stark opposites. The 16,000 members of Salem Baptist Church on Chicago's poverty-riddled far South Side are predominantly black. At the other end of the spectrum, Willow Creek's 20,000 members are mostly white and affluent.

Skin color symbolizes larger social barriers, says Michael Emerson, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston and co-author of Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.

"When they try to get together it is very difficult," Emerson says. "They have different cultures, different ways of doing things and approaching things. It is like a complete chasm."

Services at Salem Baptist are noisy, rowdy affairs with dancing, moving gospel music and hours of sweaty preaching. 

Willow Creek affairs are subdued, with services consisting of comparatively soft-spoken sermons, plays and contemporary Christian music.

The focus also differs. Salem Baptist plans to register 200,000 voters. And the Rev. James Meeks vows to use his church's political muscle to push for an independent Chicago police review board. That decision came after an internal department review cleared a white officer who shouted and pointed his gun at Meeks during a July traffic stop.

Willow Creek, on the other hand, focuses much of its resources on alleviating poverty in far-flung developing nations.

The leaders of these two mega-churches have been working for the past year to bring their congregations together. 

Danhelka sees it as the first step toward resolving the differences that divide the Gatekeepers.

Meeks, an Independent state senator and heir-apparent to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and the Rev. Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Willow Creek and spiritual adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have become fast friends.

Perhaps the most public outgrowth of that relationship occurred in June when 25 midlevel leaders from each church took a bus trip to the South to visit Civil Rights sites. The trip was aimed at getting representatives of the two churches to bond and to discuss further collaboration on social justice issues, including affordable housing and inner-city poverty.

At Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., Meeks spoke to the racially mixed travelers about their biggest difference. "There are a lot of white folks who believe the church has no business talking about public policy issues," Meeks said, his words echoing through the church where the Rev. 

Martin Luther King Jr. rallied supporters for a landmark 1965 voter rights march. 

"There is a fundamental divide between us here on that," Meeks continued. "We diverge socially and politically."

Meeks and Hybels expressed a desire to bridge that divide. 

Hybels said he read Emerson's book several years ago, and it "wrecked" him. He was disturbed by the sharp differences between white and black churches of the same faith. He said he began speaking about social justice issues from the stage at his South Barrington church. He admitted some white members are baffled, but black suburbanites have started joining the congregation.

"And every time since [that] I have spoken about [social justice], there is another group of people of diversity who meet me after services and say, 'Now, I'm in,'" he told the travelers at Brown Chapel.

Beyond the public efforts of these two churches, other Gatekeepers congregations have been ratcheting up their interaction. This summer, De'Jesus' church branched out in the city and suburbs. Leaders from New Covenant met several times with Salem Baptist leaders. De'Jesus also made a trek to Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, a racially mixed congregation in the predominantly wealthy and white suburbs. In early November, De'Jesus plans to close his church one Sunday and invite his 1,700 members to attend a joint service at the 10,000-seat arena that Salem Baptist christened in July.

"This is something we have all been preaching," he says. "It is said, 'Sunday is the most segregated day.' And that is not how it is supposed to be. We are trying to change that."

Hispanic churches like De'Jesus' could play a key role in recruiting the predominantly white and black congregations to the same goals. Hispanics, as a general rule, are a "bridge constituency" between whites and blacks, says R. Stephen Warner, a sociology professor on religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hispanics, he argues, are more accustomed to working with people of many races and don't have as polarizing a history with either whites or blacks.

Danhelka, the other pastors and Emerson see these largely symbolic efforts as a good first start.

Emerson, in particular, is encouraged by the promise of what real cooperation between such massive and powerful churches could accomplish toward healing racial strife.

"Socially, the division between racial groups happens in housing, it happens in employment and religion is a major one," he says. If Gatekeepers works, "you are tearing down a huge structure that divides black and white in our country. And that should facilitate a lot more relationships, and form a lot more trust and understanding."

A white corporate bigwig attending Willow Creek, for instance, may be more willing to set up stores on Chicago's South Side or hire blacks if he gets to know them through his church.

While hopeful, Emerson is cautious.

This has been tried before. In the early 1900s, Pentecostal worshippers of all colors made an effort to get together, but, over time, that effort fell apart because of racism. In the 1950s and 1960s, white and black churches cooperated on civil rights, but white churches largely abandoned the cause in the latter stages of the movement.

As for now, Gatekeepers is more concept than cooperation.

"You just wonder if you will ever get past the talking stage," Emerson says.

Those involved say the breadth of what Gatekeepers plans to do, starting with a joint mass and leading to cooperation on social justice causes, will take years of symbolic and meaningful steps. But, they stress, that day will come.

"The biggest obstacles will be ourselves," De'Jesus says. "It is not the resources or the buildings or the money. 

It is, 'Can we continue to plow away and break this wall?' We are doing it. We are trying to build a relationship that will have a foundation. It is not just for one event. Building those kinds of relationships takes time."   

 

Gatekeepers

Crusaders Ministries
Pastor: The Rev. John Eckhardt
Location: Chicago
Congregation: 4,000

Harvest Bible Chapel
Pastor: The Rev. James McDonald
Location: Rolling Meadows, satellite sites in Elgin and Niles
Congregation: 14,000 

Moody Church
Pastor: The Rev. Erwin LutzkerLocation: Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood
Congregation: 1,800

New Life Community Church
Pastor: The Rev. Mark Jobe
Location: Seven Chicago sites and Melrose Park, Palos Heights, Cicero
Congregation: 2,300

New Life Covenant
Pastor: The Rev. Wilfredo De'Jesus
Location: Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood
Congregation: 1,700

Salem Baptist Church
Pastor: The Rev. James Meeks
Location: Chicago's South Side
Congregation: 16,000

Wheaton Christian Center
Pastor: The Rev. Carlton Arthurs
Location: Carol Stream, Aurora and Bolingbrook
Congregation: 800

Willow Creek Community Church
Pastor: The Rev. Bill Hybels Location: South Barrington, satellite sites in the North Shore, Wheaton and McHenry County
Congregation: 20,000

Joseph Ryan

Joseph Ryan is a staff reporter for the Daily Herald based in Arlington Heights. He covers Hoffman Estates. 

 

llinois Issues, November 2005