Worship at Pullman CRC: an Interview with Rick Williams

Every Sunday more than two hundred people, about 80 percent of them Black, gather on the south side of Chicago to praise God in a building that once served as a funeral home. They are members of Pullman Christian Reformed Church.

Worship at Pullman is less traditional, more spontaneous than that found in most CRCs. The people clap freely and occasionally sway to music from many different traditions. And they become involved in all parts of the liturgy: members regularly read Scripture, offer prayer, receive the offering, usher, and make announcements at Pullman CRC.

Rev. Anthony Van Zanten, pastor of Roseland Christian Ministries in Chicago and member of the RW Editorial Council, talked to Pullman's pastor, Rick Williams. You'll find that interview on these pages. You'll also find the impressions of Martin LaMaire, a writer who visited the Pullman church and talked to some members of the congregation. Together these accounts, and the pictures that accompany them, should give RW readers a glimpse into the worship and ministry of this small urban church in Chicago.

Tony: The purpose of the interview is to try to pick your brain and hear the rhythm of your heartbeat as you talk about what worship is like at the Pullman CRC in Chicago. Perhaps you could begin by describing the makeup, location, and history of Pullman CRC. We want to know the context of your ministry.

Rick: To understand the present makeup of the Pullman church, you have to go back to the late sixties and early seventies—to the change of the community from White to Black, the outreach of the Pullman church into the Black community, and the church's first ordained pastor, Rev. Harold Botts. In 1977 the church made a move to its present location, the former Rose-moor Funeral Home, 424 E. 103rd, corner of Vernon and 103rd. Carl Kromminga, Jr., came in 1977. Harold left in 1980, and I came in 1981 and was ordained here. Until December 1986 Carl and I led a team ministry at Pullman.

Today at Pullman we have about 57 families, 150 professing members: 80 percent Black, 20 percent White. In general our worship experience is a balance between emotional restraint and spontaneity, a balance between the traditions of the CRC and the Black Baptists.

Tony: Typically, when Carl Kromminga was still here, did you both participate in the service?

Rick: Yes, when he preached, I was the liturgist, and when I preached, he was the liturgist— and we always had laypeople take part in the liturgy too. Now that I am here alone, the lay contributions don't seem as awkward. I think that when both Carl and I were leading, the lay participation made the service kind of cluttered.

Tony: The lay participation— would that be for prayers, readings?

Rick: Scripture readings, calls to worship, singing, congregational prayers.

Tony: Is lay involvement important for your worship?

Rick: Let me say a little more about the dynamics of worship in our church. We're committed to the priesthood of all believers— and to making that commitment visible in a worship experience. That means the pastor doesn't lead everything. It also means that not every prayer or reading has to be as "correct" or "polished" as it might be if the pastor were offering it. In our service we make room for the expression of gifts of the heart.

Tony: When you think about your Sunday morning worship together, what comes to mind? What's the purpose of your service?

Rick: We have a statement that says "the people of God gather to praise him, to be renewed, to give thanks, to hear his Word, and to depart for service." I think the purpose and flow of our services run together—and the people see it.

Tony: On the south side of Chicago how important is that Sunday worship experience?

Rick: I used the word balance earlier. I'd like to add rhythm to it. The worship service ought to fit into the rhythm of our week. We gather on Sunday as God's people to praise him and to be renewed—and then we depart to serve. The next Sunday we return again for praise and renewal, then depart for daily service. Week after week, we follow that rhythm. Worship, in my estimation, is celebration and renewal— to leave and serve again.

Tony: If I visited your service some Sunday morning, what impressions would I leave with? What—in your liturgy, your style of worship together—would jump out at me?

Rick: You would notice that we are a multiracial congregation Black and White people worshiping together. You would also notice that our worship is sensitive to our differences and to our need—as Blacks and Whites—to build bonds of trust. A sermon I just preached on Ephesians typifies that sensitivity. It was a sermon on "destiny." We are destined in love to be God's children, God's adopted children, God's multicultural adopted children.I think that would hit you.

Tony: Do you use the Psalter Hymnal regularly in worship?

Rick: Yes, we do. But many of our Black members are not very familiar with the Psalter Hymnal— sometimes because of musical idiom. "Amazing Grace," for example, is a song that's familiar to all—but Blacks sing it one way, Whites another. Someone is bound to comment, "That's not the 'Amazing Grace' I know." Sometimes those differences create tension, but they also open up opportunities to reach out to each other.

One of my missiology professors, Dr. Charles Kraft at Fuller Seminary, said something I will never forget: "Perhaps one of the areas in which we can really show love for each other most in the church is in this area of music." We try to show love by representing the variety of musical tastes in our congregation. We're not always successful, but we're trying. In fact, we recently hired some trained musicians—a Black couple from a Baptist church who can play anything from Bach to Boogie—to lead a choir.

Tony: Will they also be playing for congregational singing?

Rick: We didn't hire them for that purpose, but they're open to doing it. Last Sunday a White couple in our church asked the musicians to present David Hoekema's "Covenant Song" [Psalter Hymnal #272] as part of the service of baptism for their

child. It was fantastic—and it was good for our White members to hear a Black person sing that song.

Tony: So I take it that there's excitement about the ministry of music in worship—and that the church is willing to pay money to see that ministry grow.

Rick: Oh, there is, and we are!

Tony: Pullman is a strong community church. In other words, you have a constant flow of visitors. What do visitors say about the worship experience at Pullman?

Rick: Most people immediately pick up a sense of friendliness in our church.

Tony: Have you trained people to be friendly?

Rick: Not really. I think it has to do with Pullman's origins. We started as a mission church, and our survival demanded getting people in. One of the ways to get people in is to be friendly. So I think that dynamic is built into the people of the church. Still, as we grow, it becomes more and more important to be intentional about our relationships with visitors. We are no longer the storefront "everybody knows everybody" church. We must learn to work at making visitors feel comfortable.

Tony: You've told some stories that really flesh out the sense of drama in worship. Any other stories that come to mind about the high points in worship or about things that you've tried and discovered didn't work?

Rick: I want to come back to the matter of balance in more detail. Even though the people in our congregation come from many different cultures and traditions, there's a glue that holds them together—in many ways they think and'worship alike. I think what it comes down to is that our congregation attracts a certain type of White person and a certain type of Black person. The person who wants to raise her hands, shout, and give testimonies will not feel comfortable in our church. Neither will the person who wants to be in church for two or three hours, or the person who wants the pastor to do everything, or the person who is against any type of emotional expression in worship.

Tony: It sounds like you and your congregation have found ways to affirm your identity and let it become part of your strength. People know who you are.

Rick: Yes. But we have to be reminded once in awhile that anybody and everybody is welcome here. Like any congregation, the people at Pullman bring cultural things to worship—ideas and actions that seem to tell some people they're welcome and others they're not. We're not always aware of those things.

I see the CRC opening its arms to the nations. Like any church we're sometimes afraid of change—what it will do to our doctrine, to our ethnic purity. I say, let's trust God and move out. The struggles we face won't destroy the church—or its ethnic identity. Instead, through opening up, the CRC will begin to see ethnicity as a relative cultural value. We will understand more fully that our highest value is not our cultural identity; it's our Father who is God.

Worship in an Interracial Church

When the choir at Pullman CRC finished singing a contemporary hymn during a recent worship service, the interracial congregation applauded. "We applaud because we want to show our appreciation for the contribution the choir made to our worship," said Marva Waller, a deacon at the church and chairperson of the education committee.

"If we are especially moved by a certain song, we're likely to clap in unison while the choir is singing," said Yvonne Rayburn, a sister of Waller and director of the church's youth activities. "Clapping is part of our Black heritage," she said. "In Black churches I knew as a child, there were no instruments, so people made sound with their hands." Many of Pullman's Black members grew up in Black Baptist or Methodist churches where the mode of worship is informal and often exuberant and free-spirited.

In its worship Pullman CRC stands between the stereotypes of Black churches—where people sway back and forth and break out with spirited, continuous clapping while singing, and shout "Hallelujah!"— and undemonstrative, White Reformed churches—where such bodily movements are never seen, and where emotional expression is not considered reverent behavior in the house of the Lord.

Visitors who attend a morning worship service at Pullman CRC will notice that the order of worship lists songs from two sources. The first is "Praise Him—Songs and Forms for Worship," a laminated folder containing words to fifty-six traditional gospel songs and contemporary hymns. In it one will find many of the hymns that have become favorites among Black Christians: "Steal Away to Jesus," "Standin' in the Need of Prayer," "Balm in Gilead," and "Sweet, Sweet Spirit." The second source is the Psalter Hymnal (1959 edition) of the Christian Reformed Church.

Worship at Pullman is structured, but not static. Reverence is evident. "Worship here lifts me up, makes me look forward to the week that is about to begin," said Phylis Patterson, a Pullman member. "There's such a friendly atmosphere in the church; I look forward to greeting the people each week." Her husband, Walter Patterson, added, "In our worship, you can feel the warmth and the love; the church is in the hearts of the people." The Pattersons, who are Black, claim "There's no color line" in Pullman. "Everybody is made to feel welcome."

Sandra Nydam, a young Black woman whose husband is White, paid tribute to her church's openness, saying, "We grow more into the Lord in this interracial congregation; it's easier to love all kinds of people here."

Bill Grevengoed, White, a teacher at Roseland Christian School, expressed his thoughts about worship: "Worship has always been important to me. I never belonged to a church where I could feel so at home as I do in this church. You can be yourself here. The sense of family at Pullman is tremendous."

"I get enough spiritual food here to last me for the rest of the week," said Yvonne Rayburn. Marva Waller, added, "It's spiritually strengthening to worship. If I miss a Sunday here, I feel very down. I try not to miss a Sunday service."

—by Martin LaMaire, a retiree who serves as a news correspondent for The Banner and as clerk of the council at Ebenezer CRC, Berwyn, Illinois.

Anthony Van Zanten is a retired pastor of Roseland Christian Ministries Center in Chicago.