At the time, Willow Creek’s seeker-sensitive approach was redefining the ministry philosophy of numerous congregations. So there was a tremendous demand for training, equipping, and practical resources. This led to the founding of a companion organization called the Willow Creek Association, and these two entities partnered to run a steady stream of conferences all year long.
These conferences’ impact wasn’t limited to church leaders who traveled thousands of miles to attend. Willow Creek was also a major source of inspiration and equipping for me, and I credit it with being the place where most of my leadership skills were honed and developed. A huge job perk of working at Willow Creek was being able to attend these conferences, and I rarely missed one.
But as much as the environment of Willow Creek had shaped me and as much as these conferences had built my leadership skills, I was feeling lost. I had experienced the beginnings of a racial awakening, but I was in need of someone to guide me into the next step of the journey. The question “what am I supposed to do?” burned within me, and I was desperate to find answers.
At the time, I was working on the staff of Axis, a young-adult ministry that was dedicated to reaching twenty-somethings. Other members of the staff were wrestling with issues of race and cultural identity as well, so we committed to reading some books and discussing them together. One of the authors who challenged our thinking was Dr. Michael Emerson, at the time a professor at Rice University as well as a leading scholar on race and religion. His book Divided by Faith played a significant role in the racial awakening of Pastor Bill Hybels, who encouraged the entire congregation to read the book.
One of the themes that jumped out at me was the hypersegregation of the white American church, a term Emerson and his colleagues coined when researching racial segregation in cities. They measured each city based on a range from zero (complete racial integration) to one (complete racial segregation). If a city measured .90 or higher, 90 percent of one group would have to switch neighborhoods to achieve integration; in that case, the city was hypersegregated. A score that high indicated a city’s racial makeup. As Emerson said, “Values this high could usually only be achieved through laws, discriminatory lending and real estate procedures, threats, and other racially unequal practices.” It was sad but not surprising to see that a number of cities in America approached the value of .90.
I was vaguely familiar with the racial history of our country, so it seemed plausible that certain cities still reflected the effects of unjust laws, procedures, and practices. What I didn’t expect, though, was that this level of racial segregation reached beyond just cities; it was present in the American church as well. Emerson and team applied the same research criteria when studying congregations and discovered that conservative Protestantism exceeded these values of .90. This seemed statistically impossible, which led Emerson to suggest, “Even if someone were in control of all conservative Protestantism and had the power and will to consciously assign whites and nonwhites to separate congregations across the nation, obtaining a value of over .90 would be a difficult feat . . . such segregation values are astonishing.”
Revelations like this fueled my desire to find a way to break out of the white-centric world I had been in my whole life and to pursue a more multicultural reality. I began to evangelize enthusiastically about this vision within Willow Creek, though many had been passionate about it long before. In the naiveté of youth, I quickly became the annoying, self-righteous white guy. I felt I had finally seen the light, and I was determined to make everyone around me see it.
The tension I felt due to my growing racial awareness continued to intensify, and it was clear to me that something was going to have to change.
Adapted from White Awake by Daniel Hill. Copyright (c) 2017 by Daniel Hill. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Check out our interview with Daniel Hill on SBE here!