Synod: Our Family Reunion

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by Emmett Harrison

This article is an attempt to share the experience of a relative newcomer moving from the margins to the mainstream—or to be more precise, moving from the balcony to the main stage.

My journey in many ways follows the contour of yesteryear, when persons of color were relegated to special seating areas in public gatherings—to the back of the bus, separate rooms, or the balcony. Most African Americans and many other minorities can easily relate to this sense of not “belonging”—you are there but you are not.

My first experience of attending the Christian Reformed Church’s annual meeting of synod was like that.

I came to Grand Rapids, Mich., in the early ’90s as a delegate to the church’s Multiethnic Conference. This conference was held concurrent with synod in order to give minority delegates a bird’s-eye view of how synod does its work.

On the opening day of synod, the minority delegates were welcomed by a high-ranking denominational official who referred to us as “our customers in the balcony.” My mouth flew open. We all sat shocked, asking each other, “Did he really say ‘our customers in the balcony’?” What made this blooper more intense was that there was all this talk about being one family, God’s family. Many of us continued discussing this as we gathered in our various caucuses and workshops.

I don’t know how it came to be that I was chosen to speak to synod on behalf of the Multiethnic Conference delegates, but I remember saying, “It’s great for us to be here. We’ve enjoyed the joint worship times and hearing wonderful reports about how God is using the CRC all around the world as he gathers the nations to himself. All of this is good; being here is good. But we feel like we are guests in someone else’s home. If we are all family, then synod is a family reunion.”

I expressed that we wanted to feel more at home and be invited to participate in the family activities, not just to watch from the balcony. I believe my comments reflected the deep yearnings of most of my fellow delegates.

Shortly following that experience at synod I received and accepted a nomination to serve on the board of Christian Reformed Home Missions. After a year of service, Home Missions asked me to chair its New Church Development Committee. The doors to the rest of the house began to open. I served a total of six years on Home Missions’ board and ended my final year as vice president. Those were among my most vital and rewarding years of service to our church family.

I grew tremendously in understanding our collective mission as an increasingly multicultural family of God. I received great encouragement and support as we sought to embrace God’s vision for the CRC.

From the Balcony to the Floor

The winds of change continued to blow and the challenge to bring even greater diversity to every level of our church life took on new form in 1996. That was the first year synod allowed members of underrepresented minority groups a place and a voice at synod.

Delegating ethnic advisers was a bold new step. I had the privilege of serving as part of that first group, which also included three Asians and one Native American. I, along with other former balcony dwellers, was now seated on the main floor.

The door to the house was ajar—though not fully open. We were on the sidelines. We had the privilege of the floor, but not the vote.

Once again the value was in being there. It changed the way synod deliberated. There was a great deal of mutual learning. On the one hand, voting delegates to synod became more sensitive to how the issues and discussions affected minority family members. And the ethnic advisers not only advised but learned how to process and influence synod by means of its “Rules of Engagement.”

From the Sidelines to the Table

The door swung wide open for me in 1997 when Classis Lake Erie sent me to synod as a minister delegate. That came as a result of the classis taking diversity seriously. Our commitment in Classis Lake Erie is to be intentional about delegating underrepresented family members.

The ability not only to have a voice but also a vote, to make a contribution, to help forge a more inclusive process of nurturing and guiding God’s family is, in my opinion, the most critical need that we have as a church.

Becoming an official delegate to synod opened other doors, namely appointments to study committees, which ultimately shape the future direction of our denomination.

We must continue to move forward by creating structures and processes that encourage greater participation at every level of our denominational life together. We must resist the trend to downsize or otherwise limit input and participation to a smaller number of family members.

Our goal to become the All Nations Family of God (see Rev. 7:9) demands that we roll out the welcome mat, embrace and affirm the values represented in the rich cultural and ethnic traditions among us, and strengthen our unity in Christ.

Until all members of our family are assured that they matter, that they belong and are needed, we will be impoverished.

If, however, we send a strong, clear message that we are all on a mission together and that there’s room at the table for everyone, we’ll be enriched by the blessedness of our diversity. And the Spirit of God will empower us to reach and enfold many more people from every tribe and nation.

My election last year as the first person of color to serve as an officer of synod sends a powerful message that we have taken another big step toward becoming a more inclusive family. Some say the change is slow in coming. That may well be true. Yet we should not be satisfied with a one-time event but continue to increase and enlarge participation until we reflect the beauty of the complete mosaic that is the family of God.

With that as our goal, we create a family reunion that transcends cultural and ethnic differences, uniting all of God’s people for the common purpose of glorifying God!

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