Towards a Multi-Cultural Church by Pat Merricks

Salem United Methodist Church in Reidsville, (Northern Piedmont District of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church) is now considered a multicultural church. As a member and lay leader of Salem, this is exciting!  I have always felt I was a member of a “multicultural” family of God.  Keeping in mind that a multicultural church is not simply about skin tone, but about the intentional engagement of cultures; learning about each other and what makes us who we are.

This journey for our church started about a year ago when our minister announced his retirement.  The Pastor Parish Relations committee went into high gear and began asking our congregation what we were looking for in a pastor.  We are a small country church in a rural setting with all types of neighborhoods in our immediate vicinity. There are large high dollar homes on a golf course, moderate homes in several neighborhoods and there are also mobile home parks and homes in need of much repair. Many different cultures are represented.  Our ministry outside our walls is already diversified and multicultural.

When we met with our district superintendent, we had an extensive résumé for what we would like to see in our next pastor.  Of course, we knew we were asking for more than any one person could deliver. However having it down on paper helped us discuss the really important characteristics we hoped to find.  The top of the list was preaching and teaching the word of God and being able to help us reach outside our walls to the community around us.  We also had a sister church and their needs were very similar.

During the process of evaluation with our DS, she suddenly asked if we would be receptive to a pastor who was African American.  We had never really thought about it but we felt that our congregation would be accepting.  We had already begun a ministry of giving free hotdogs once a month in the winter and weekly in the summer. There had been a very good response to that and we had established relationships with many of the people coming (several different cultures). We have people coming to our church regularly from this ministry and they are African American. God was preparing us!  Our church is a very friendly and welcoming church so we said yes, we could do that.

Eventually the process of getting a new pastor did turn to multicultural.  Our DS was recommending Rev. Rodvegas Ingram and changing our sister church to a church he already served in Eden.  Part of the reasoning for this was the distance he had to travel between his current two churches.  Our PPR committee was excited about this.  I had served on a missional network committee with him and several had heard him speak or heard good things about him. There was a positive attitude about this change.

On the Sunday, we announced him; we gave out a sheet with his picture and bio information.  We announced that we would be a multicultural church.  There were some who were surprised but when the leadership of the church talked with the congregation, there was overall approval of trying this.  We heard over and over again as long as he preached the word, we will be fine.  We only had one couple get really upset and leave. They were not members of our church and did not participate in anything but Sunday morning worship.  They actually tried to stir up discourse over this in our congregation but it did not work.  We wished them well and continue to pray for them.

Since Rev. Ingram has been at our church life has been exciting.  There is a new atmosphere in our congregation. There is joy in coming to church.  In the beginning with Rev. Ingram’s permission, we placed a banner with his picture in front of our church welcoming him.  I believe we had folks visit out of curiosity but then they came back.  We have members attending regularly who had not come for years….they like the atmosphere of our church! We have visitors almost every Sunday and we have home bound members who look forward to Rev, Ingram visiting them.

When Rev. Ingram first met with our PPR, he said he would be respectful of our style of worship. We told him we appreciated that but we wanted him to be himself.  His style has worked very well for us.  Our congregation feels free to worship however they please, quietly in their seats, clapping hands, saying amen.  This change has been good for our church and our community.  Growth is happening in our church but more than that we are growing close to our new sister church and learning to love and accept each other. We are truly learning that when it comes to loving our Lord, we are not so different.

Recently, we had a four-night revival.  Rev. Ingram and his wife, Rev. Tamara Ingram led it. Our church was almost filled with folks from our two churches, Rev. Tamara Ingram’s church, our community and our family and friends.  On the third night I looked at the diversity of people coming together to worship God, engulfed by the Holy Spirit and I thought, “This is what church is supposed to be.”

As we look ahead, it is exciting to think about where God will have Rev. Rodvegas Ingram lead us. There is so much need in our surrounding community. There is so much need in our county as a whole. Working with our missional network I believe we will help make a difference.

We can only imagine the uncertainty that Rev. Ingram must have felt when he walked in our church to preach that first Sunday.  We are so glad he came. We appreciate how he helps us understand and accept those different from us.  Our church has embraced him, his family and our sister church.  God has truly blessed us.  My prayer is that we use this to minister to all cultures.

It is my belief that the positive attitude of our church leaders and the gifts of our new pastor made this transition easy and acceptable to our congregation.  Change has been good for Salem United Methodist Church.

Submitted by Pat Merricks, Lay Leader of Salem UMC of Reidsville.

For further reading, please check out this companion article by The Rev. Rodvegas Ingram about he feels his appointment to Salem UMC was brought about and has been blessed by God.

The Rev. Nancy Rankin has also written an instructive piece called “8 Questions to Answer before Starting a Cross-Cultural Appointment.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Proclaim! (The WNCC Justice and Reconciliation Team newsletter).