Glenda Eggerling wanted a different experience. A member of a predominantly white ELCA congregation, she began attending additional worship services at an ethnically diverse congregation to gain new insights.
Eggerling’s journey took her to Body of Christ Christian Worship in Ames, Iowa. The congregation is less than 2 miles from her home church, Bethesda Evangelical Lutheran, but she saw meaningful differences.
Bethesda has deep roots in the university town, dating back more than 100 years. Founded by Norwegian immigrants, it didn’t begin offering an English service until the early 1920s. Many things have changed at Bethesda over the years, but not necessarily the demographics.
“As my congregation is nearly 100 percent white, I decided to find a group where there is diversity and simply listen,” Eggerling said.
At Body of Christ, Eggerling found an interdenominational congregation started in 1975 by African American students from nearby Iowa State University. Today, its membership is 45 percent European descent, 45 percent African descent and 10 percent Latino and/or Hispanic.
Soon after Eggerling first visited Body of Christ, Bethesda’s lead pastor, Bryan Simmons, preached in encouragement of Brownicity, an Ames-area, family-focused event that promotes education, advocacy and racial reconciliation. The name comes from a combination of “brown”—“the pigment we all have”—and “ethnicity”—“that which we have in common,” according to event materials.
Some Bethesda members, including Eggerling, attended Brownicity and “discussed how its open, honest dialogue about race relations could help overcome the fragmentation of our culture and begin to bind us together,” she said.
Eggerling’s experiences led her to coordinate a meeting between Body of Christ’s and Bethesda’s pastors, with the goal of forging a partnership between the congregations.
“We have to get this right”
The pastors first met in August 2017, as Ryan Arnold was beginning to serve as Bethesda’s associate pastor. “I came into this conversation where they were talking about how to use what they had learned at Brownicity in other ways,” he said.
The collaboration led to a weekly racial reconciliation study the congregations co-sponsored that fall. Toran Smith, a pastor of Body of Christ, brought in for the study Abdul Muhammad, a doctoral student at Iowa State who has experience in reconciliation facilitating.
“Abdul brings passion and expertise in the areas of multiethnic acceptance, harmony, inclusion and unity centered in our Christian faith,” Smith said. “He is also a tenured social services professional, consultant and trainer, and passionate about the embrace of race relations in the church.”
The congregations joined for an eight-week series of 90-minute sessions, using Brownicity co-founder Lucretia Carter Berry’s book What Lies Between Us: Fostering First Steps Toward Racial Healing (CreateSpace, 2016) as curriculum, along with the PBS series Race: The Power of an Illusion.
“Both the video series and curriculum utilize a systematic way to understand how racism is constructed, how it works and how it impacts society and the church,” Arnold said. Muhammad’s ability to “get people talking” added to the sessions’ success, he added.
“Because of the Christian’s responsibility to reflect the gospel, this work is most important among people who profess Christ. We have to get this right.”
Muhammad started with a common vocabulary. “That means first understanding the idea of race from a biblical framework, then through a careful and thoughtful historical analysis,” he said. “In my opinion, there is no other way. Otherwise we’re simply arguing back and forth about perspectives we assume are equally valid. Because of the Christian’s responsibility to reflect the gospel, this work is most important among people who profess Christ. We have to get this right.”
Muhammad believes that people often “put our culture before our Jesus.” To combat those divisions and explore their shared faith, the study group aimed to “get dissimilar people together to learn how to better answer” the question of how racism affects fellow Christians, he said, adding, “The only way we can discuss the sensitive topic of race effectively is to help people understand the terms of the conversation correctly.”
The first session drew 70 participants, and most returned for subsequent weeks. “Participation was higher than we expected,” Arnold said. “Over 20 percent of our active members participated in the series. That tells me there’s an interest in talking about issues of race in our congregations.”
At the conclusion of the series, the two congregations continued their partnership in ways both big and small. For example, Bethesda’s bell choir recently shared special music during a Body of Christ worship service—a big hit, Arnold said.
The two churches also hosted a joint service, “Worship as One,” blending music, liturgy, Scripture and sermons. After the service, the congregations joined for a blessing meal, featuring ethnic and cultural foods from Scandinavian krumkake and kringla to chicken and collard greens.
In the future, the congregations plan to expand their circle. Several Ames congregations have already expressed interest in joining Body of Christ and Bethesda for book studies, worship and other opportunities.
“Feedback from our shared services was overwhelmingly positive,” Arnold said. “The congregations are excited to join together again in their learning, their worship and their service.”