Connections: David W. Searles
Dec. 8, 2013
Diversity Without Division
David W. Searles is pastor of Central Assembly of God in East Boston, Mass., a predominantly African and African-American church. But 23 years ago, while serving as a youth pastor in Gloucester, Mass., Searles wrote a resolution adopted largely intact during the 1989 AG General Council that called for repentance on racism. Searles, 52, recently earned a doctorate from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Mass.) in ministry in complex urban settings. He spoke with John W. Kennedy, Pentecostal Evangel news editor.
evangel: Why did the topic of racism interest you?
DAVID W. SEARLES: There were a number of significant things shaping my own life to bring me to the place to propose the resolution. There wasn’t any kind of acknowledgement of racism in the Assemblies of God at the time. My own motivation started at Central Bible College (Springfield, Mo.). Spencer Jones, pastor of South Side Tabernacle in Chicago, came and preached a sermon about urban ministry that struck a chord for me. I remember watching Eye on the Prize, a PBS series on the civil rights movement.
I began to reflect on how many AG people were on the side of the police efforts to stop the marches using attack dogs, or at least quietly going along with the existing social structure. I conducted research, and it seemed like more often than not we were either opposed to any kind of change on racial division or not willing to rock the boat.
evangel: You crafted the resolution yourself?
SEARLES: I was the sole author. The resolution committee tweaked a couple of things. I’m so glad Wanda Carter made the recommendation to adjust the language to call racism “sin” (see Pentecostal Evangel, Aug. 25, 2013, p. 20).
evangel: Why did it take so long for the AG to formulate such a statement?
SEARLES: For a good chunk of our history we reflected the culture; we adopted the culture. In fact, by being uninvolved, we supported racism in some ways. I found this striking given the interracial roots of the Pentecostal movement at Azusa Street.
evangel: You’ve remained involved in fighting racism.
SEARLES: We’ve tried to preach and teach about racial reconciliation and what that means to be a Christian in the United States. We try to find ways to be open to confront our own prejudice and sin. We’ve been meeting in the Racial and Ethnic Committee to nurture racial and ethnic diversity in the Southern New England Ministry Network.
evangel: What lessons do Christians still need to remember regarding racism?
SEARLES: We may be blinded to how our culture shapes our lives. In an urban setting you are more aware of diversity. I grew up in a largely white community in Illinois. As a white Christian, I had to confess my own participation in our culture’s racism. The resolution called us to repent of racism we may find in ourselves, our churches, and our societal structures.
evangel: Of course many white people don’t think they have any racial prejudices.
SEARLES: A church may say, “We’re multiethnic because we have some people of different races attending.” But does that mean those people have the possibility to be fully included in every ministry opportunity in the church? Are people of different races teaching Sunday School, leading worship, and serving as board members? Is it possible a black person could become the pastor? Does the structure of the church prevent those in the minority from ever taking a leadership position?
Churches can provide a safe environment to talk about racism. We need to open up the conversation. People from different racial and ethnic backgrounds may say some tough things that need to be said in order that we might be healed. The church must provide the opportunity for those things to be heard.