February 2, 2021

​Multicultural Church: My Journey

Sometimes being uncomfortable at church is a good thing.

Chukwuma I. Onyeije

Isaiah envisioned the millennial kingdom as the place where the Lord would be revealed in all His glory, with His unique splendor ubiquitously evident. Messiah would suffer but the glory of the Lord would also be seen (Isa. 53; 66:18, 19, etc.). Though the disciples witnessed Jesus’ glory (John 1:14), not all humanity has seen it yet; however, they will observe it at the Second Coming. Meanwhile, Isaiah 40:5 plaintively calls for all believers to be united. Unfortunately, we sometimes fall short of this goal when unity tries to work things out for multiple cultures.

First steps

My immigrant parents brought me to the United States when I was 4 years old. When I was 10, they bought a home in a small suburb north of Syracuse, glad to move away from the Bronx in New York. It did not occur to us, however, that our new elementary school had only four African American students—three from my family. Years later, when people asked me if my elementary school was integrated, I would say, “After we arrived.”

On our first Sabbath in Syracuse, my father used a map to find the closest Adventist church. I cannot tell you what we learned that day at church—I was 10; but my father’s con­versation with the helpful pastor has remained clear in my family’s memory ever since. The pastor gave my father the same explanation that has been given many thousands of times to Adventist newcomers in many American cities about finding a congregation where we would worship more comfortably.

Biblical unity and the celebration of diversity are not mutually exclusive.

Soon after this, my family joined the Mount Carmel Seventh-day Adventist Church. We understood later that we had become part of a regional conference, an organization that is part of the Adventist Church’s structure in the United States. I have long tried to square the practice of worship prevalent in most American Christian communities with Isaiah’s theology of unity. I also believe strongly that our freedom to choose how we express our religion is one hallmark of religious liberty.

As Kyle Haselden wrote, “Everyone knows that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life.”* It would appear that this is also true for Seventh-day Adventists on Sabbath. My question is: How comfortable is our Adventist family in our current worship arrangements?

Along the road

This article neither exhaustively describes, nor seeks to denounce, nor proposes to defend, regional conferences. I simply comment that in the years since the establishment of this system a calcification of thoughts and actions has led to introductions like mine even as far back as 1976.

The interactions my family had with other churchgoers were not unusual in the mid-1970s. Many people can share similar experiences. The  1940s’ arrangements we still maintain were undertaken for the good of all. Today it is still not unusual for morning groups of Adventists to greet some strangers and ignore others based largely on differences in appearance (attire, race, class), suggesting deeper realities: like us, not like us.

Much of it is unconscious behavior, vetting the stranger by inquiring about where she works or where he went to college; asking such questions as “Is your husband home today?” or “Do you live far from here?” At a benign level, people seek connection. But at another level, the group is replicating itself. It is freezing out unwanted futures. It is attempting to control what few things can be controlled in a rapidly changing world. It is rejecting unpleasant, “uncomfortable” realities.

The truth is that anyone who feels out of place experiences some level of discomfort when they’re the “other.” That discomfort, however, can actually benefit a congregation sometimes. It can force us to seek our true identity in Christ, an identity formed on much more than the color of our skin. It can compel us to take inventory of the people we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with. And that inventory can be beautiful.

Many if not most Christians have been taught that race, class, and ethnicity are dimensions of identity that must be left behind after becoming a Christian. Biblical unity and the celebration of diversity, however, are not mutually exclusive.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul shows that ethnicity and other aspects of diversity can be redeemed and presented as mission resources rather than barriers. As he discusses the missional use of redeemed cultural and ethnic particularity, he writes, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews” (verse 20). With this statement Paul affirms to the Corinthians that his ethnicity and cultural awareness did not disappear when he became a Christian. It is Paul on the flip side of Galatians 3:28, where ethnicity, class, and gender are not to be exploited to establish cultural and religious superiority: “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (KJV). It is his transformation of pre-Christian history, culture, race, and class into a mission-usable resource, deployed to reach other Jews with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. It is his establishment of points of missional contact rooted in important aspects of the ethnic and cultural identity that he shared with other Jewish people. It is his empowerment to speak the cultural language of his people to benefit his community.

Going forward

My hope for the Adventist Church is that congregations and communities choose to become more challenged—more uncomfortable—in wrestling with the idea of welcoming not just color but culture. Ideally, expressions of worship, teaching, evangelism, and discipleship will be so richly influenced by multiculturalism that Christ in all of His beauty may be known more fully by many.

When a new job brought me to Atlanta, Georgia, more than 17 years ago, I joined the Atlanta North Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia. Atlanta North has gathered us from many corners of the globe: from South America to the American South, from Canada to Jamaica and Nigeria, from Ireland to Korea. Our greatest aspiration is to endorse, embrace, and celebrate our uniqueness, empowering us to establish the ultimate culture: the kingdom of heaven. That way everyone, regardless of ethnicity, finds their comfortable worship home together.

* Kyle Haselden, in New York Times, Aug. 2, 1964.

Chukwuma I. Onyeije, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist in Atlanta, Georgia, is an elder at his church. He has been married to Chichi Onyeije for 28 years. They have three sons.