When a Small-Town White Church Becomes Multi-Ethnic Overnight
I encountered Jeremy Byrd online a few weeks ago. We ended up talking on the phone. The story of his congregation is something every church leader needs to read. He pastors in the small town of Jacksonville, IL, a town that is 85% white. However, about a third of his congregation is black. In fact, they are Congolese. And they showed up almost overnight. It’s not an ideal multi-ethnic situation, but the church is making it work. Here is their story.
- What’s your background and your church’s history?
I was called to the ministry in 1997. After wrestling with what that looked like, my wife and I moved to seminary. Our family served churches in Tennessee over the past decade, but we were recently called to serve as senior pastor of Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, IL. Leaving the south, we really didn’t know what to expect in western central Illinois. What we found was a church that has historically embraced change and challenge. Lincoln Avenue was founded in 1953, and has relocated, changed their name, and completed multiple building campaigns.
- How many Congolese people are at your church and how did they get there?
Before my ministry at Lincoln Avenue began, members with a heart for missions and ministry to refugees encountered and began a relationship with the local Congolese immigrants who provide a large percentage of the workforce for a nearby company. What began as a Bible study has become a Lingala/Francophone worship service. On average, our congregation sees 80-100 in attendance, and we are working with other Congolese communities throughout the region to launch new works and establish an informal support group for pastors and their families.
- Why do you believe God has chosen your church to receive the Congolese people?
From the outside looking in, I believe God birthed this ministry because members of my congregation have a mindset for missions. Lincoln Avenue has held long-term missionary relationships with peoples in Western Africa, the Dominican Republic, Spain, and Honduras. When the families of Lincoln Avenue saw and recognized that the world was coming to them, several of them reached out to embrace them with the gospel.
- What are your plans for assimilating them into your church?
This is an ongoing discussion. To be honest, we aren’t sure how to assimilate these Congolese brothers and sisters, but we are willing to stumble our way toward that end. Our congregation has tried to serve the Congolese. Our deacons helped by serving in the ordination process and by administering the Lord’s Supper to the Congolese. I believe our next step is to work with the leaders of the Congolese community to create a singular vision for our ministries. Past discussions reveal that they view themselves as Lincoln Avenue. That’s a great start. In order to create more relationships with the Congolese community we have recently began offering ESL classes, and inviting more of our congregation to become personally involved in the ministry. It is going to be essential to have immigrants entering into our congregation and residents intentionally investing into the immigrant community.
- Are there any unique challenges to being a multi-ethnic church in a small town?
There are language and cultural barriers that will have to be addressed and overcome. Since we are in a small rural community, translators are few and far between. We have individuals who speak French, but the Congolese do not speak pure French. However, we are seeing some progress. In March, I was invited to preach at the ministry’s third anniversary celebration to more the more than 150 in attendance. This past Sunday, our children’s pastor led our congregation in a baby dedication for a Congolese family with several Congolese families attending our primary worship service.
- Given the increase in ethnic diversity in the United States, how might your church serve as an example for other congregations?
I would like to think our congregation can encourage others to be bold. We don’t have the details worked out, but we can’t let that keep us from trying. Many times our models and methods work great in a classroom, but life is not lived in an ivory tower. The first step is to see what God is doing around you. Then, prayerfully take the first step of establishing relationships that offer opportunities for dialog and understanding. Then, keep praying, because you’ll have to lean on God for vision and leadership moving forward.