Courtney T. Ball

White Boy Preaching to a Black Church

For the for the first time in my life, someone yelled at me while I preached.

She shouted out, “You can say that again!”

So I did. “I’ll say it again! There’s more than one way to be baptized in the Spirit!”

More shouts of “Amen!” “All right!” “Preach it!” And some laughter too. They were having fun pumping me up.

I was not an experienced preacher, and it was my first sermon to this congregation. They wanted to make sure I had a good time of it, and their encouragement helped more than I expected.

I was preaching about the baptism of Jesus, how the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, into isolation, suffering, and temptation. I was trying to make the point that a baptism in the Holy Spirit can lead us to unexpected, sometimes painful places, but that God leads us to those places so we might learn, grow, and better love the world.

It was a message that congregation knew well enough. As a nearly 100-year-old African-American congregation, they had lived through plenty of pain, and they knew how to love. At the end of my sermon, they demonstrated their ability to love by giving me a standing ovation.

I had never received a standing ovation for anything, let alone a sermon. It felt really, really good.

It was Denver, 2002. As a second-year seminary student at Iliff School of Theology, I was required to serve in a local church as part of my field education. My hope was to serve at Evanston UMC, the small, comfortably progressive church my wife and I attended occasionally, just a few blocks from school and our apartment. I applied, but they chose another student.

I hadn’t planned well, and by that stage in the game, I had two choices left: a youth pastor position in a suburb west of Denver, or Scott United Methodist, a mostly-Black congregation on the northeast side of town. I absolutely did not want to do youth ministry, so I applied at Scott.

Was I nervous about serving in a Black church? Not at first, actually. Conceptually, it sounded like a good experience for me. True, I was a White boy from Iowa, which is not the most diverse state in our union, but I had always had non-White friends.

However, I absolutely did get tense when I showed up and was one of two or three White faces in a large group of Black people. My anxiety was a surprise to me, and I immediately felt ashamed of it. There was no logical reason for me to worry. It wasn’t like the situation or people were threatening in any way. On the contrary, every single person was very warm and inviting. But in spite of their friendliness, I couldn’t shake the gut-level feeling of being totally out of place. Though I didn’t put it into words at the time, I think what made me most anxious was the overwhelming sense of, I don’t know the rules here.

There was nothing to be done other than work through it and learn from it, so that’s what I did. I spent the school year there under the guidance of a wonderful Senior Pastor. I led Bible studies and worship, preached sermons, prayed with people, listened to their stories and their songs, watched their lives unfold, both the good and the bad.

In short, like a lot of student pastors, I faked it until I made it. Gradually, I grew very comfortable at Scott. This isn’t to say racial differences ever went away completely, and I wouldn’t have wanted them to. It’s just that after a while they weren’t such a big deal to me like they appeared to be when I walked into my first worship service there.

In the end, my time at Scott UMC turned out to be one of the best parts of my seminary education. It was such a supportive, encouraging congregation for students. And I’ve never preached anywhere that was nearly as much fun as preaching in that church. They made even my bad sermons feel good.

It’s no secret that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times of the week.  I also know that in some ways that’s been helpful to African-American communities. Black churches have historically been one of the few places where African-American citizens felt completely free and empowered. Especially in the south, those churches functioned as a refuge but also as engines for social change. The civil rights movement of the sixties would never have had the power it did without strong Black congregations.

On the other hand, I don’t think Sunday segregation has been at all helpful to White churches or White Christians in America. Our cultural isolation has kept most of us from ever getting beyond that initial anxiety we feel when we walk into a room of non-White people. (Of course, many of us never even get that far.) All we ever experience is the difficult, awkward stage of interacting with other cultures, the part that makes us afraid and therefore irrational.

But if we are lucky enough to get beyond that weirdness, there is so much good that can come from it. We can learn from one another, appreciate differences, have real conversation, and see each other fully as children of God.

I’ll never forget one time I was in Bible study at Scott, and I hesitated to share my take on a piece of Scripture. I knew others in the group would probably disagree with my interpretation, so I held back. Sensing my hesitation, one of the older women in the group pushed me to say what I really thought. “How are we supposed to have a real conversation if you don’t say what you think?” she asked. “Maybe we’ll agree and maybe we won’t, but at least give us the chance to hear it.” She wanted real dialogue, real community, real faith, and she invited me to join in completely. It was a great lesson for me as an aspiring pastor.

Getting to real, diverse community is not exactly simple and definitely not always easy, but I am convinced that genuine cross-cultural dialogue is essential to healing the brokenness of our world. Jesus knew this, and he set a good example when he left his community and regularly ate in unfamiliar places among people with whom he wasn’t supposed to dine. He built diverse community around the table. It’s no coincidence that the table is where he told us to remember him.

I realize that people reading this will come from all different kinds of communities and backgrounds. Each situation will be different, and I can’t tell you the best way to start or strengthen cross-cultural interaction in your location. Just let me say this. If you have the chance to interact with a community outside your familiar comfort zone, my advice is to go for it. Better yet, if you are a leader in a congregation where you can encourage cross-community relationships, please do everything you can to make that a priority. Reach out to pastors or imams or rabbis from other ethnic communities. Get around a table and take the time to get comfortable with people you typically think of as “other”. I promise, it has the potential to be as powerful as any other ministry you could do.

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Courtney Ball

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Wow, That must have been a fascinating experience to pastor that church. I am sure there were a lot of areas for self examination and growth on your part and on the part of the congregation. Some situations God calls us to are life-changing. Whether an event, place, person, or experience. God’s calls help to shape and mold us into the people He would have us become. For some people the journey is a one time immediate realization. For others it is many experiences and a gradual growth. It is all good. I think it is wonderful that you have the ability to journal/blog, and share your experiences with others. Many things you have written have touched me, as this article did. I just do not always take the time to comment on your site, I usually just read what you have sent to my e-mail. I have a “Courtney file” I put many in. Thank-you again for sharing. I enjoy reading your missives.

    • Thanks, Denise. It was definitely a great learning experience.

      It’s true what you say about the different ways people grow. Everyone has his or her own journey.

      Thanks also for the feedback on my writing. It’s always good to hear when people connect with something.

  • I was moved by this piece Courtney
    I think first of the big black warden at Fort Madison; Crispus and Edna became good friends of Nancy and I. Then the wonderful sisters in Fort Madison who were good supporters of mine as supt. in that school system. Then the Hispanic parents in Marshalltown who loved the education their kids were getting. They didn’t have good public schools where they came from. The great ladies who have worked in Matthew 25. last year in Dubuque we again met the attorney who helped with M25 for a few years. I can’t remember her name now. Only once the High School Principal and I went to the black church in Ft. Madison on ML King Day. Wow were we openly received!

    Each of those experiences enriched my life so much.

    And yes i feel stifled by our small white, older congregation. i miss the diverse experiences and I know I have had few, compared to most people.

    So diversity enhances our lives. We need to find ways to embrace and search for more.

    Thanks for the piece. Maybe a Gazette opinion piece?

    • I’m glad this piece connected with you, Steve. Thanks a lot for your comments. I agree that it can feel stifling to go back to a homogeneous setting after experiencing more diversity.

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