Shades of White Flight is the only work of sociology-history that has sucker punched me. Reading more than a chapter a day was emotionally rending, because I lived in South Chicago’s Roseland, complicit for years in the Christian Reformed fear, flight and little fight that Mark Mulder describes, documents and dissects.
My fellow CRC members were by no means the only white Christians streaming to Chicago’s suburbs in the tumultuous late 1960s. We stand out so disconcertingly, though, since we claimed Gospel Truth for the whole world. Yet, under pressure of economics and unacknowledged prejudice, we proved unable to forge spiritual and social bonds with people of different colour and culture. Thus we effectively abandoned our portion in the city that Jeremiah 32 urges us to make good for God.
Until my late teens, I belonged to the congregation that led Roseland’s Christian Reformed exodus. Then I too escaped – first to Grand Rapids, then over decades to points east, south and north. At first, largely unaware of what I had fled or why, I was relieved to be away from the bewildering, latterly violent, neighbourhood in which I was raised worshiping twice a Sunday. Yet we lived as if the Christ we loved and worshipped owned none of Roseland’s square inches.
So, I offer reluctant thanks to Calvin College Sociology Professor Mark Mulder. He slices with painful, yet healing surgical grace through decades-old fogs of personal and communal unease, anger and bitterness, hitherto articulated only in discrete minutes of church councils, classes and synods. Delving into those primary sources, Mulder resurrects memories of pastors and former leaders in Roseland and Englewood CRCs’ enclaves.
He details how seven CRCs there never developed a spiritual identity of place to guide healthy communities through inevitable social crises. Thus, when post-World War II waves of African Americans migrated from rural Jim Crow South to the industrial North, my churches fled. Mulder argues that ethnic isolation of CRCs and Christian day schools forged an astonishingly portable society. In less than a decade all seven Englewood and Roseland CRCs scurried to southern and western suburbs.
Mulder claims that the CRC’s congregational polity rendered regional and bi-national judicatories (Classes and Synods) impotent to slow the flight or to inspire daring, risky resolve in the hearts of local decision makers. Little social savvy or theological glue held the disparate congregations together; each planned to relocations almost entirely without mutual consultation. For example, 3rd Roseland built a new sanctuary and parsonage a mile and a half west of its original location. Yet less than nine years later it disbanded, heading to Lansing, Illinois to join 1st Roseland’s suburban remnant.
My own congregation, 4th Roseland, left in 1970. It rented Chicago Christian High School’s auditorium for worship without informing other churches, soon becoming Orland Park CRC. I remember my own fear of staying after broken windows, though also feeling apprehensive because our churches failed to understand our place in a city that we’d thought belonged to God. Instead we ran, in part because of deep-seated, unacknowledged racism that is still part of my sub-conscious.
Curiously, Reformed Church in America congregations remained longer than CRCs. Mulder attributes this to a polity vouching greater authority over property ownership through the Classis and denomination than the CRC’s. For instance, Emmanuel Reformed stayed in Roseland until 1989. Though its ministry gradually shrank, Emmanuel made many attempts to work with community leaders until worshipers dwindled to fewer than 30.
As a companion to the Englewood-Roseland study, Mulder also treats the crisis that nearly exploded when black families from West Chicago’s Lawndale CRC tried to send their children to Cicero’s Timothy Christian School. Cicero CRCs’ councils ignored Synod’s condemnation of systemic racism. Yet Mulder is not without sympathy for that Christian Reformed community’s plight, recognizing that threats of violence to school property and students evoked understandable fear for safety.
This demanding and significant book might scald Mulder with hot water from some Chicago-area church leaders. Yet they were simultaneously desperate agents of the exodus and victims of huge economic forces and social chicanery far beyond their control. With “block-busting” and “red-lining,” teams of greedy realtors took over large areas of Englewood and Roseland. Exploiting white fear and thus compounding latent racism, they scared white residents into selling below market value, later peddling the same houses to black families at excessive profit.
Sadly, many unacquainted sisters and brothers in Christ, black and white, suffered in ways we still struggle to comprehend and deal with today.