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Punching Prejudice





He has the heart of a pastor, the affability of a high school quarterback and the guts of a heavyweight boxer. Here's how pastor Scott Hagan is striking a blow to racism--not with his bare fists, but by 'loving without limitation.'

Michigan pastor Scott Hagan has already made plans for August 14, 2032. That night, Hagan and his wife, Karen, plan to gather with their children and their spouses--and their grandchildren--to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

"If this comes to pass," laughs Hagan, who is only 40, "it means a lot of things went right in life."

That's the first thing you learn when you meet Hagan: The man dreams big--and talks big. He puts his money where his mouth is.

Several years ago, Hagan, author of They Walked With the Savior, sensed God calling him away from sunny California to Grand Rapids First Assembly of God. The result? He is bringing healing to one of the nation's oldest wounds: one that politics, ultimately, cannot heal: racism.

"A politician doesn't know how to heal it," Hagan explains. "All they can do is compensate for it with a system. Churches, we're the healers of the heart. The pastor, the people who speak prophetically, we're the only ones who can really bring the message of transformation."

Hagan has seen walls of denominational and racial division breaking down in Grand Rapids. Pastors are meeting for prayer and fellowship, holding joint services and assertively reaching out to their community.

Churches working together to build greater unity in their cities is nothing new. But Grand Rapids is no ordinary city.

"Evangelical Christianity is to Grand Rapids what Mormonism is to Salt Lake City," he says. The city of 200,000 houses some of the nation's largest Christian publishers, including Baker Book House, Eerdmans and Zondervan, a leading producer of Bibles, including the widely read New International Version. Locals say Grand Rapids has been called "Little Jerusalem" because of the influence its publishing houses have had on the broader body of Christ.

It was in Grand Rapids in 1947 during a General Council meeting that the Assemblies of God made an infamous decision against the ordination and inclusion of African Americans into the denomination.

Hagan is quick to point out that the Assemblies is now "bold" and "courageous" in its approach to racial reconciliation. But, he explains, "When you go back and read through the minutes of that General Council, it was very, very painful and difficult to see."

He adds: "When I read about this decision to exclude African Americans, Grand Rapids became a city of spiritual significance for me personally. I felt this spiritual awakening and this confirmation that the Lord wanted to do something very special, specifically in the area of inclusion and belonging in this city."

A SHEEP IN SHEPHERD'S CLOTHING

Raised in Seattle, Hagan describes himself as "a sheep who for several years has doubled as a shepherd."

Four years ago, Hagan was in Sacramento, California, leading a thriving church with more than half of its members nonwhite. Then, the Lord led him and his wife, Karen, to leave their California oasis for Grand Rapids First when former pastor Wayne Benson retired from the church.

"Only the voice of God could have taken us away from [the Sacramento suburb of] Elk Grove," Hagan says.

Harvest Church was the couple's first church plant, a ministry that Hagan wanted to reflect Revelation 7, where people of every tribe would gather together in worship. He took special pains, crafting letterhead that portrayed people of every ethnicity even before the church began.

"We wanted everything we had to say, 'This is the church we want to head toward,'" Hagan says. "'We have no idea how to get there, we have no idea what the bumps will be, but this is where we want to head.'"

For Hagan, the process began by developing friendships with people of color who visited the church. "I made a point to have dinner with them right away and stated my heart to them," he says. "I said: 'This is what God has put in my heart, will you help me? I need your help. I need you in my life. Would you teach me?' And whenever I would say this, this feeling would come over people like, yeah, this is right."

Naturally, he says, people of color rose into leadership, and in eight years it grew to 1,500 members. The ministry planted seven daughter churches, and Hagan became area presbyter for the Sacramento region, overseeing about 25 churches. He says he was happy and content.

Then the Hagans received a call from Grand Rapids. "We really felt God wanted to do something fresh," Hagan says. It didn't hurt any that during a prayer meeting the night before he received the call, someone prophesied to him that God had a big assignment for him.

Two thousand miles away, the prominent Assemblies of God congregation in Michigan was in the wake of a four-year revival led by evangelist Stan Rijfkogel of Memphis, Tennessee. "We saw thousands saved, and the lives of members transformed ... but the underlying, deep invisible work of God was preparing the church for change," says former pastor Wayne Benson. "That word 'change' became a theme during the revival."

After the revival, the church was hungry for racial diversity in its membership. The ministry even hosted racial sensitivity training to prepare.

Enter Scott Hagan, with his passion to "love without limitation."

"I am convinced theologically this is the heart of Jesus," Hagan says. "When I look at His life, when I look at the Word of God, this isn't a thing He's showing the church. This is who Jesus was. It should have been this way all along.

"You could fire me over one of these issues because I would have to give up what I believe is the heart of Jesus, which is to love without limitation."

Change didn't come without a cost. Hagan changed the church's worship style, incorporating a multicultural worship team and gospel choir. He canceled Sunday evening services for cell groups, and he opened a coffeehouse.

Hagan describes the adjustment as "spiritually and emotionally difficult." He says the church's lack of diversity was a reflection of the stratification in the broader community. Upon his arrival, he had four initial goals: to see the church make a clear, prophetic declaration that they were moving in the direction of unity; to initiate lunches with 100 local pastors; to teach a series titled "The Cross of Many Colors"; and to hire minority staff from outside the community as positions became available.

Now two years on, 10 percent of the church's members are people of color. Michael Daniels, who is African American and has been a member for 15 years, says he has become more involved in the ministry now that it has stronger outreach efforts into low-income and inner-city communities, and he says he feels more connected to his church family.

GOD'S QUARTERBACK

Helping people from diverse and sometimes divided backgrounds has been one of Hagan's critical challenges, both in Elk Grove and in Grand Rapids. But Hagan has the affability of a high school quarterback (though at 6 feet 3 inches tall he played college basketball) and a disarming charm.

His relational style has helped foster fellowship among local pastors from various denominational backgrounds and helped move them beyond cultural differences.

"Ninety percent of your life is common; culture is like the outer 10 percent," Hagan says. "... The differences are simply ... the bow on the package. The gift inside, the content, is still the same."

Hagan can easily rattle off statistics showing income and educational disparities between whites and nonwhites, he can put African Americans' spirituality and Democratic political leanings in historical perspective, and he can even sit through a meeting with civil rights activist Al Sharpton and understand his point of view.

But Hagan says the process wasn't easy. He read history books, watched documentaries--and listened carefully to two close African American friends.

He notes, "At the turn of the 20th century, the body of Christ experienced our most historic and revered modern revival, Azusa Street. For nearly three years Azusa Street bloodied the lip of racial prejudice that saturated post-slavery America. But the work was never fully completed."

Hagan says that almost no discernable change has occurred in the 97 years since Azusa Street. "Our cities remain socially and spiritually bankrupt while denominations lob their lifeless messages of reconciliation from behind their safe cultural walls. There are many friendly churches in America, but we lack the desire and mechanisms to aggressively heal the collateral pain of many Americans."

Area pastors say Hagan has served as a catalyst to help get ministers from diverse cultures and denominations fellowshipping together. Says pastor Wayne Schmidt of Kentwood Community Church in Grand Rapids, a Wesleyan congregation. "You tend to reach people like yourself most easily and effectively. The problem with that is that it doesn't look like heaven. Pastors are rethinking the way they do church."

"I thank God for bringing Scott into the community to be a catalyst," Schmidt says. "This is not going to be done with an event. It's not going to be something that's not met with skepticism. But there needs to be a group that will persevere."

For African American pastors, deeds have been more meaningful than words. Hagan endeared many to him when he became the only white pastor to participate in a prayer meeting targeting the city's attempt to quash efforts to name a local street after civil rights hero Rosa Parks. He later was the first white pastor to host a service honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

But, Hagan admits his own learning curve was "personally very humiliating." He says he's made insensitive comments--as recently as last year--and though he can't explain why, he says several years ago he opposed interracial marriage--but only between blacks and whites.

"It was an irrational, emotional reaction that I had," Hagan says. "When I stepped back intellectually and looked at it, I said, 'There's no justifiable position for what I'm thinking here, so why am I so emotionally connected to this, and why am I reacting to it?' That had to completely work itself out of my system."

Following Hagan's transparent example, longtime Grand Rapids First members Marilyn and Ron Wierenga, who are both in their 60s, say their views of other cultures have changed as they developed friendships across racial lines.

"Our parents, we knew they had some strong stereotypes," Marilyn told Ministries Today. "They thought they were doing better than their parents. We thought we were doing better than our parents. You think you're not prejudiced. I wanted [nonwhites] to have the same things we had. But it really falls short because you don't develop relationships."

REMEMBER THE TITANS?

The picture in Grand Rapids is beginning to remind Hagan of his favorite movie, Remember the Titans. "[The film] showed the joy of that reconciliation and the feeling of victory, that feeling of triumph when we get past those man-made walls," he says.

The two coaches--one black, one white--"have these moments of awareness, where the lights went on about their own internal stereotypes. They realized that the way they had been raised, the things they had thought, things they had promoted were not true. Seeing people come into the light like that is just tremendous."

Those "aha" moments are what keep Hagan motivated, and they serve as one of the tools he uses to measure his effectiveness in ministry. "When you continue to touch one life at a time, it's like tiny little tributaries and trickles that come down a mountain and form into a little creek, then a stream that fills up into a river. All these little victories along the way are going to form a change in our society and a change in the church. You gotta believe that, one life at a time."


Walking With the Savior

Scott Hagan is pouring his passion for God's people into a new series of books. His message: There are no 'minor players' in His kingdom.

Pastor-turned-author Scott Hagan likes to read between the lines.

In his new book, They Walked With the Savior, Hagan writes about minor players in the Bible who came face to face with Jesus and accepted major roles in God's kingdom. In the process, he helps readers to draw closer to Christ and helps them plug into His eternal purpose for their lives.

Christians often think of themselves as a gift to those that don't know God. But many times it's the other way around, says Hagan, who observes that non-Christians can help believers by "showing us how far we have drifted [in our faith]."

The lost "have a way of bringing out the spiritual weakness in all of us, especially on their turf," Hagan writes in They Walked With the Savior. "Sure, it's one thing to be bold in the church lobby. There are lots of spiritual giants in a church lobby. It's safe turf and the numbers are on their side."

When Christians encounter an unbeliever, the non-Christian searching for answers "[gets] someone who hasn't prayed in months. Or they need someone to stand up and be courageous, but instead they get a blank stare from someone gripped by fear."

Yet that realization can drive Christians back to Jesus to renew their relationship, Hagan says in reflecting on the story of Peter's betrayal of Christ. The servant girl who asked Peter whether he knew Jesus--prompting the disciple to deny that he did--"made him feel empty and in need by her words," Hagan says.

In one of a series of reflections on people mentioned only briefly in the Bible, Hagan speculates that the girl's question may have come from curiosity about Jesus. "Maybe she was like most of the world to come, caught somewhere between the facts and fictions of faith," he writes. "Maybe she was trying to find someone with an answer. Instead she found someone without a spine."

Along with the servant girl, Hagan finds faith lessons in 19 other biblical encounters with Jesus, including Simon of Cyrene, Martha, Bartimaeus, the Samaritan woman and the boy whose lunch was multiplied to feed thousands of people. Charisma editor J. Lee Grady says that "more than just describing the lives of these minor characters, Scott unfolds their lives and their stories so that we can uncover hidden meaning in the words of Scripture."

Hagan blends his thoughts on the different encounters with personal stories and observations--among them the day a change machine's rejection of his dollar bill because of its bent corners caused him to wonder about Christians who fear they will be turned away from heaven because of their imperfections.

Published by Charisma House, which like Ministries Today is a part of Strang Communications, They Walked With the Savior is the first in a trilogy in which Hagan shares different lessons from the Bible's large "supporting cast." For more information, visit charismawarehouse.com or call (800) 599-5750. Read a sample chapter at www.ministriestoday.com.


The Cross of Many Colors

Seven practical steps any pastor can take to break down the walls of racism that keep people in our communities--and churches--apart.
By: Scott Hagan

1. It begins with celebration, not toleration. Most people can tell immediately when they are being tolerated. Heartfelt enthusiasm for people and their stories goes a long way when it comes to modeling the love of Jesus.

Discrimination is denying someone the right to have. Segregation is denying someone the right to belong. Jesus didn't die so we could have things; He died so we could belong. Communicating that sense of belonging is the responsibility of pastors and the church.

2. It happens best in a house. Until we begin breaking bread with people who are different from us in our homes, we will not have reconciliatory breakthrough. Your home is your sanctuary far more than your church. Having someone in your home is worth more than a hundred meals at a restaurant.

3. Seek to understand. Passion flows like gravity. People in our churches feel dismissed from the journey when they see their own leader lacking a personal passion for reconciliation. We each need solid and safe relationships where we can ask someone from a different race or culture to help us understand. Three simple words can change our lives and communities: Help me understand.

4. Acknowledge the power of social conditioning. When Peter told the Lord three times that he wasn't interested in mingling with Gentiles, he was basically telling God that the power of his upbringing was stronger than the Holy Spirit in his life. It's vital that we recognize the power our upbringing has over God's ability to use us freely for His kingdom today.

5. Stop going out of your way not to reach people. To become a church that looks like heaven, the pastor must see color as the blessing, not the barrier.

Satan often tells the church it will take sacrifice to reach people. Actually, it is the opposite. We must go out of our way not to reach people. By avoiding places we fear and people who are different, we are essentially saying that the time it will take to reach out matters more to us than lost people. To experience the joy of oneness, we must pass through the needs before us and no longer avoid them.

6. Recognize that legalism and racism are the two major enemies of God's kingdom. When you look at the ministry of Jesus and the writings of Paul, there were always two major opponents to the kingdom: legalism and racism. Both stood like Goliaths joined at the hip, and those giants still mock the church today. The pastor of the local church has the exciting opportunity to live out the core message of redemption, which is reconciliation.

The local church must make certain that the injustice that keeps many of our children from the basic opportunities of food, clothing, shelter, education and opportunity are addressed. Why do we classify those things as "political" and not expressions of the same grace you and I received?

Most people are not prejudiced; they are ignorant. Even fewer are actually racist. But when prejudice or racism rears its ugly head, the pastor must bloody its lip.

For most of us who serve as pastors, if we had a deacon or elder living in adultery and we chose to sweep it under the carpet, it would cost us our ministries. Yet we allow racial pride to exist in our midst without a loving confrontation. May God renew the courage of the cross in our lives.

And may we see it as a colorful cross from this day forward.


Adrienne S. Gaines is news editor for Charisma magazine.

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