Charlene Brown: Impatiently waiting

The search for a church committed to racial reconciliation didn’t go quickly. But the waiting for it, like the waiting of Advent, was a time to learn to love God and neighbor and find miracles in small and surprising places.

I had prayed, for months on end, for a church that valued racial reconciliation -- if not in practice, at least in word.

Since moving to Durham, N.C., in fall 2008 to begin my master of divinity degree at Duke Divinity School, I had visited multiple churches. I had wondered: Is this possible, Lord? Will the vision of every tongue, nation and tribe giving glory to the Lamb be seen only in Christ’s return?

My longings exposed my impatience and my inability to trust God in the waiting.

Yet waiting is a Christian practice full of hope and anticipation. During Advent, we hope for the birth of the Christ child, and we anticipate the day when Christ will come again.

My waiting for a church committed to racial reconciliation was no different. Even with hope, waiting is difficult. I want results now. I want God to answer with lightning bolts or angels singing.

But our God sometimes works quietly, over time, in humble places and through surprising people.

In 2009, I met Franklin Golden, the pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church. I instantly wrote him off as an ambitious white pastor with a vision for growing churches in color but not relationship. I’d been in churches that desired a picture of diversity without authentic community. I was not interested in being a token black person in the congregation.

I told Franklin that the Holy Spirit had stirred a passion for reconciliation and justice in me during my undergraduate years at the University of Virginia.

“I saw God begin the work of healing a racially segregated campus and believe that God is doing that in churches too,” I told him.

Franklin described St. John’s as a small church with a small budget. The congregation had a median age in the 50s and was all white.

Baffled, I didn’t say much. The more he spoke, the more I was filled with skepticism. The demographics Franklin mentioned, in my mind, could not yield the kind of fruit that we both dreamed about.

Racial reconciliation seemed to be a ministry for new church plants with lights, hip pastors and loud bands. I was amazed at this pastor’s willingness and excitement to dream beyond what he could see, but I was still suspicious.

“God surprises us sometimes,” he told me. “And I believe this can happen at this tiny church on Roxboro Road. They are open, and they are willing.”

I wanted to be open and willing, too. I wanted to trust God, this pastor and this congregation. I held on to hope as my mind created questions and doubts and my heart told me to join this church.

A group of young adults -- of different races, backgrounds and stories -- started worshipping at St. John’s and joined the church. I expected instant transformation. I thought we would see a vision of Revelation 7, every tribe and every tongue worshipping God here in Durham, N.C. Yet even with the increase in diversity, we felt like we were still waiting at a crossroads.

We spent more than a year at this crossroads.

We committed to each other by adding opportunities during the week for prayer, dinner discussions and Bible study in our homes. We learned to sing each other’s music. We diversified our leadership, and we regularly shared our stories and journeys about how God had led us to the place of anticipation.

It was not enough for us simply to worship on Sunday mornings; we desired to be present in each other’s lives.

We had our own ideas of what church should look like -- how long worship should be, what traditions we should keep, what music we should sing. We thought we could create a plan for a multiracial, multigenerational church and flawlessly execute that plan to get there.

While we were waiting, we were learning to receive what the Lord was doing in our midst. And we saw, in that waiting, that we had to surrender our notions about what it means to be church. The glimpses we have seen of God’s kingdom manifest on earth are far grander than what we might have planned on our own.

The season of waiting, the in-between time, helped us learn to love God and others well. We learned to be more patient and trusting with God, and with each other. The more time we spent actively waiting together, the more our ideas of church were transformed.

Emerging from a season of waiting with a renewed vision and passion for ministry, we are replanting our congregation as Bull City Presbyterian Church in February 2012. The new church recognizes the new work that God did and is still doing among us.

We are committed to being a multigenerational church as diverse as Durham with a heart for campus ministry and the vulnerable in our community. Bull City Presbyterian is partnering with Iglesia Emanuel, a Latino PC(USA) congregation, in their outreach to a growing immigrant population.

St. John’s did a lot of waiting. In fact, we are still waiting with hope.

We are witnessing that when we stand in places of uncertainty, we can be hopeful that God faithfully meets us there.

In the waiting, we catch glimpses of the Lord. And when the waiting ends, we will see the fullness of the kingdom.