Strength Through Diversity
Founded by Swedish immigrants, the ECC continues to be an immigrant church. Post World War II urban demographic change and post-1965 immigration patterns have transformed the ECC from an ethnically and racially circumscribed denomination to one of America’s most diverse churches. How did this transformation happen?
Oakdale Covenant Church was the first Covenant Church with a majority African American congregation, and its history provides a lens through which to see the larger history of African American Covenanters.
Oakdale was established in 1902 as a predominantly Swedish congregation. By 1967 its attendance had shrunk below twenty, due to the white flight that followed the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North after the first and second World Wars. Other Covenant churches in Chicago responded to these changes by closing or moving to the suburbs, but Oakdale decided to stay in the city and continue ministry with a goal of racial integration. From 1969 to 1970, Willie Jemison, an African American pastor, and Craig Anderson, a white pastor, served a racially mixed congregation together.
However, demographic changes like the Great Migration and White Flight continued pressing Oakdale Covenant Church in new directions. By 1975, Oakdale Covenant was flourishing as a majority African American congregation under the leadership of Willie Jemison. Now the largest African American congregation, Oakdale has continued to grow and has expanded its ministry to include the Oakdale Christian Academy and Childcare Center which address the educational needs of the community. Jemison (1929–2011) continued to serve the Oakdale congregation and mentored many other African American pastors in the Covenant.
The African American presence in the Covenant continues to grow, with over forty African American congregations at present. Jerome Nelson became the first African American conference superintendent in 2005. Some African American churches in the Covenant parallel Oakdale’s history of demographic forces redefining congregations whereas others – like the multiracial Citadel of Faith Church in Detroit, Michigan – are newly planted Covenant churches and still others – like Walk of Faith Covenant Church in Mound Bayou, Mississippi – are deeply rooted in historic African Americans communities. These varied histories are part of the greater story of God’s work within the Covenant that continues to move the church closer to the founding ideal of the denomination: that the church be “as big as the New Testament” and a true reflection of the Kingdom.
Latinos have been part of the Covenant Church for more than half a century. The first Hispanic Covenant congregation was started in La Villa, Texas in the early 1950s. After World War II, First Covenant Church in downtown Los Angeles experienced white flight to the suburbs and a new wave of Hispanic immigrants from Mexico, Cuba, Central and South America. A vigorous Hispanic congregation developed there in the 1960s under the leadership of Eldon and Opal Johnson, Covenant missionaries who returned from Bolivia. Soon it accommodated more than 300 people from 15 different nationalities.
Douglas Park Covenant Church experienced a similar transition. The third oldest Covenant church in Chicago, Douglas Park served a largely European American population through World War II. The growth of a Hispanic community in the neighborhood in the late 50s and 60s led to increased neighborhood outreach under the leadership first of Carl King and Paul Stone, then of Richard Carlson and Herbert Hedstrom, supported by the Department of Home Mission. Daniel Alvarado was called to Douglas Park in 1972 as the first Spanish speaking pastor and Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico de Douglas Park was formed. It worshiped parallel to the primarily white Douglas Park Church until the latter closed in 1999.
At the present time there are more than 50 Hispanic congregations in the Covenant. Most of the presently ordained Hispanic Covenant ministers are graduates of CHET (Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos) or have taken the Covenant External Orientation Program in Spanish. Hispanic Covenanters represent the fastest growing ethnic group in ECC.
During the heat of the civil rights movement the first Korean-speaking Covenant churches were formed in San Francisco and Marina, California. Under the leadership of Ed Larson (Pacific Southwest conference superintendent) and pastor Elmer Pearson. The number of Korean-speaking Covenant churches continued to grow through the eighties.
A number of Asian-American churches were planted in the 1990s to combat the “silent exodus” of second-generation Asian Americans, not at home either in the immigrant churches of their youth or non-Asian churches. Among these was Park¬wood Community, pastored by Peter Cha in the western suburbs of Chicago. An intentionally pan-Asian church, Parkwood became the Covenant’s first second-gener¬ation Asian American church through adopted at the 1997 Annual Meeting. Under the leadership of Peter Wong and Jim Gaderlund, Grace Community Covenant Church of Los Altos, California became the first Asian American Covenant church plant in 1998.
Through friendships and ministry networks of Asian-American Covenant pastors, more second-generation churches joined the ECC. Today we have almost thirty vibrant and unique churches that are led by Asian Ameri¬can pastors or are predominantly Asian American in their makeup. This is in addition to the immigrant ministries of seventeen Korean, one Chinese, and four Southeast Asian churches. These churches vary in size from small to very large. They are monocul¬tural, multicultural, and multiethnic. They are mostly concentrated on the East and West Coasts and in Illinois and Texas, but their influence is reach¬ing throughout the entire denomina¬tion. Asian American Covenanters are teaching at North Park and other prominent colleges and seminaries. They are serving as a denominational director, an associate superintendent, and other conference staff members. They are contributing in many other ways on committees, boards, and commissions. Our Asian American story is just part of so many stories that make up the beautiful mosaic God has created in us.
Begun over 125 years ago by Swedish immigrants, today more than 20% of ECC congregations are classified as ethnic (non-white, the largest being African American) or multi-ethnic. Active ministerial associations provide fellowship, encouragement, and training for African American, Hispanic, Sudanese, Korean, and other Asian-American clergy. In 2004 the Executive Board of the ECC produced a “five-fold test” to assess the authenticity of ethnic ministry and diversity in the ECC, including a commitment to shared power, increased ethnic participation in leadership, and a collective narrative that embraces the diverse stories of those comprising the Covenant. The ECC experiences the strength that comes from diversity.
*Text compiled from contributions from Jorge Maldonado, Greg Yee, and Kurt Peterson.