Cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments: Profiles of four New England pastors

March 21, 2017

“I’m never going to go in anywhere – I don’t care where it is – when I walk in anyplace, I’m not going in there feeling inferior to anybody or exalted over anyone.” – Pastor Crystal Gardner

There are 83 ethnic minority clergy (out of 399) actively serving in the New England Conference, according to the 2016 Journal. The Conference does not have data on the ethnicity of all congregations, so the exact number serving in cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments is not known, but many are.

We talked with four pastors who are currently serving in cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments about their experiences. Over the next month, the pastors share some of the joys and challenges of working across cultures as well as some advice for pastors and the congregations that seek to welcome them. This week, meet Crystal Gardner.

Pastor Crystal Gardner, 53, is an African American serving a predominantly white church. She’s also a Baltimore Ravens fan in Patriots’ territory – so she knows something about working across cultures. 

But that’s not how she thinks of her appointment.

“By earthly standards, I’m the pastor of a cross-cultural/cross-racial church,” she said, “but by spiritual standards, I’m a pastor of one of God’s holy churches where all of God’s people are welcome and stand on equal ground.”

When she was about to start her appointment in 2011, she was given a book on racism and white privilege. She opted not to share it with the congregation.

“I didn’t feel it was necessary – we’re not going to start talking about racism if we don’t have to,” she said. “The choice is ours. Let’s see where we go first; if we have to deal with it, we’ll deal with it. If we don’t have the issue, we’re not going to invite the issue.”

The label cross-cultural/cross-racial, Pastor Gardner said, doesn’t tell people anything meaningful about the pastor or the church.

When she first came to Whitman United Methodist Church, there were only a handful of members left. There had been some issues with the former pastor, and Pastor Gardner saw she would have to rebuild trust – both within the church and in the community.

She also saw a 5-Star United Methodist Women’s group and a vital thrift store – and that was what she was going to talk about when asked to describe her church.

“I’m going back to tell the whole Conference and everybody about this church – you’re working down here; you have a thrift store, you have a Five-Star UMW. People don’t know. By the end of this first year, people are going to know,” she said.

Pastor Gardner said she recognized that “the church needed a lot of love.”

“You can’t go in there thinking about racism when you have a church that’s hurting,” she said.

So her approach was this: “I just went in there looking at everybody as a child of God, just like I’m a child of God,” she said. “Race, in my eyes, didn’t ever play a part.”

Her view was shaped, partially, she said, by her experiences growing up. Her father served in the military, “so we were always around various people, and his side of the family is mixed race; there’s never been a big difference between white and black for me.”

Pastor Gardner served in the Army herself, and has worked for 30 years for the Army Corps of Engineers, where she is Senior Project Manager Biologist/Scientist.

Pastor Gardner said she’s ready to deal with racism – and has – but still believes it’s important to go into an appointment without pre-conceived ideas or expectations based on others’ experiences.

“No matter where you go, flush your eyes,” she said. “Don’t go in there with blinders on, and don’t go in there with anybody else’s opinions or thoughts. Flush your own eyes, so you can see clearly what you’re going into.”

It’s like the announcements you hear in the airport, she said: If it’s not your bag, you shouldn’t try to carry it; just leave it alone.

Even without that baggage, it hasn’t always been a smooth journey.

Pastor Gardner told the story of a member who greeted her new pastor by saying: “So we got another [n-word].”

“I said, ‘Can you define that for me? What exactly is a [n-word]?’” Pastor Gardner recalled, and went on to tell her: “I’m a child of the most-high God. I’m an heir of salvation. You can’t get no better than that, so no matter how you see me, God sees me as precious in his sight. And that’s all I look to, and the same is true with you.”

Despite that inauspicious first encounter, when the woman was facing surgery a couple of weeks later, she asked Pastor Gardner to come to the hospital to pray with her.

At the hospital, Pastor Gardner told the woman to consider what she’d said, and told her, “I bet God’s going to change your mind.”

When the woman was recovering, Pastor Gardner told her: “Before you went under the knife, the last face you looked at was a person you called a [n-word]. That’s the person who prayed you through this. Somewhere in your mind or in your heart, God wouldn’t let you have any rest. He made you ask me to come to the hospital with you, because if you had not asked, I would not have been there.”

Pastor Gardner said she doesn’t entirely regret the remark, which she thinks was a test “to see if I was who I said I was.” And, she said, it may have helped bring about a transition.

“Two weeks later she apologized for calling me that,” Pastor Gardner said. “She’s become my biggest fan. She has since brought a few of her friends to join the church.”

Pastor Gardner said she’s not naïve about racism, especially in the post-2016 election climate, but says she finds comfort in history and in her faith.

“Jesus faced these things. What did Jesus do? Jesus was spit on. He experienced racism. The woman at the well faced racism; she wasn’t supposed to talk to Jews, but Jesus talked to her anyway,” she said. “We have to still be in the mind of Christ. It’s not like it hasn’t been in history before, so we know that it can be overcome. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just stand firm in our faith.” 

Next week: Meet Jinwoo Chun, serving Belfast UMC in Maine.