[CHRISTIANITY] Houston Pastor Strives for Diversity
- HOUSTON PASTOR STRIVES FOR DIVERSITY
By SAM HODGES
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS/Special Contributor
Rodney Woo, pastor of Wilcrest Baptist Church in Houston, baptizes
Chris Smith as Mr. Smith's fiancée, Javandia Elder, waits her turn.
HOUSTON If Hollywood ever makes a movie about Wilcrest Baptist
Church, the three-hanky scene will be the party for Rodney Woo's 10th
anniversary as pastor.
Before that 2002 event, he'd been exhausted by his long effort to
turn a declining, nearly all-white congregation into a stable,
thoroughly multiracial one.
"I only quit about once a week," he recalled with a laugh.
But at the party, Wilcrest's rainbow membership turned out in force.
They brought Dr. Woo to tears as they read the list of 25 nations of
birth in the transformed congregation, with representatives standing
one by one.
It was a little like Jimmy Stewart coming to realize at the end of
It's a Wonderful Life that things would have been worse for Bedford
Falls if he hadn't stuck it out.
So far, Hollywood hasn't called on Dr. Woo and Wilcrest. But their
story is featured in the new book People of the Dream: Multiracial
Congregations in the United States by Michael Emerson.
The book's bottom line: Multiracial churches are rare, hard to
sustain and worth the trouble.
"We live in what we call 'a tension,' and that tension is good for
us," Dr. Woo said in an interview.
Photos: A day of worship at Wilcrest Baptist Church
Dr. Emerson, a Rice University sociologist, added during the same
discussion: "When these congregations are successful, there's a
dramatic effect on the people involved, in terms of who they know and
their understanding of faith. People get a much bigger view of God."
Dr. Emerson and his research partners spent six years studying
multiracial congregations in the United States.
Their definition was any congregation in which no one race
constituted 80 percent or more of the membership.
Decades after Martin Luther King Jr. popularized the idea that Sunday
morning is America's most segregated time, Dr. Emerson and his
colleagues found that only about 7 percent of the country's
congregations are multiracial.
Even that overstates it, Dr. Emerson said, because many of those are
headed toward being overwhelmingly one race.
"In terms of stable, integrated churches, it's more like 31/2
percent," he said.
Cultural differences in worship style, segregated neighborhoods
around churches and the voluntary nature of church attendance (as
opposed to, say, the forced integration of the military, public
schools and many workplaces) help explain the rarity of multiracial
Churches that commit to diversity do so for different reasons. As
People of the Dream makes clear, Wilcrest was trying to survive.
Wilcrest, a Southern Baptist Convention church, opened in 1970 in a
predominantly white area along southwest Houston's busy Wilcrest
Drive. It flourished, reaching a membership of about 500.
But social change came fast, and by 1990 the neighborhood was only 24
percent white. With white flight, Wilcrest's membership plummeted.
The pastor wanted the church to move farther out, but deacons
rejected the idea, and he resigned. In looking for a replacement,
Wilcrest's leaders learned of Dr. Woo, then a 29-year-old seminary-
trained pastor of a rural church south of Fort Worth.
Dr. Woo (whose siblings include David Woo, a photo editor for The
Dallas Morning News) is one-quarter Chinese. He grew up in a mostly
African-American neighborhood of Port Arthur and is married to a
Mexican-American woman. His father was a Southern Baptist "home
missionary" in Port Arthur, working with all races in various social
When Wilcrest called, Dr. Woo was eager to follow his father's lead
in multiracial ministry. But in a dramatic interview with church
members, he said he would take the job only if they would follow his
lead in reaching across racial and cultural boundaries.
The church hired him early in 1992, but before his arrival, more
families left. He learned that one member proposed asking him to add
a "d" to his last name, worried that "Woo" would scare people away.
But most were with him on the general idea of becoming a diverse
"One person summed it up best," Dr. Woo said. "She was a godly
matriarch of the church, and she said, 'Pastor, we hear what you're
saying, and we know it's right. We just need somebody to teach us
Dr. Woo began by insisting that members enthusiastically greet all
nonwhite visitors and ask nonwhites they knew from work to try the
church. He made an extra effort to call on such visitors at home.
In that first year, he and the members also drafted a vision
statement, which continues to be prominently displayed in the
vestibule: "Wilcrest Baptist Church is God's multi-ethnic bridge that
draws all people to Jesus Christ, who transforms them from
unbelievers to missionaries."
A milestone came when the church hired, on Dr. Woo's recommendation,
a young black man named James Darby as youth minister.
"That broke all kind of barriers," Dr. Woo said. "It changed the mind-
set, that you could have a leader of a different race."
After a gang-related drive-by shooting in the Wilcrest neighborhood
claimed the life of a black teen, Mr. Darby led 125 church members on
a march that ended in prayer at the bloodstained spot where the
That sent a powerful signal that Wilcrest Baptist cared about the
community and had diversified its leadership, Dr. Woo said.
Soon, the church had an infusion of nonwhite members, particularly
young people, and modest growth overall.
But there were problems. For example, the different races had
different attitudes about starting meetings at the appointed time.
And some groups felt comfortable calling the pastor "Rodney," while
others saw that as an insult, insisting on "Pastor Woo."
Balancing the church's lay leadership proved difficult, as did
balancing worship style.
Kimberly Parnell, who's black, professes deep love for Wilcrest. But
when she began attending about a decade ago, the music choices held
"Oh, my goodness, 'Bringing in the Sheaves,' " she recalled, droning
out a few bars to demonstrate Wilcrest's previous hymn singing.
Music minister Monty Jones gradually included more
contemporary "praise music," as well as African-American and Hispanic
songs and styles.
But the changes drove off some white members.
People of the Dream has a chapter titled "Shadows" that describes
various internal struggles. The normal stresses of church life
rise "exponentially" in a multiracial church, Dr. Woo said.
In fact, some white members who were initially committed to change
finally left. "They just got tired," he said.
Dr. Woo felt close to burnout himself, especially when Mr. Darby, the
youth minister, and Mr. Jones, the music minister, moved on in the
late 1990s. Although the church was far more diversified, whites
remained a majority, and growth had stalled.
But Mr. Jones soon returned, deciding he felt called to multiracial
worship. The church gave Dr. Woo a sabbatical for rest, reflection
Then in 2002 came his 10th anniversary party, which he describes as
an important public affirmation that the multiracial approach was
Since then, as described in People of the Dream, Wilcrest has caught
a second wind, growing and further diversifying.
About 500 attend Sunday morning worship services; the number of
native countries has surpassed 40. No race has a majority. Instead,
Wilcrest has large percentages of whites, Latinos and blacks, with
some Asians and several interracial couples. About 60 of the members
Dr. Woo inherited remain, including some young adults who have
returned to the church they grew up in.
The stresses haven't gone away, but the church has begun to pull in
members from around Houston who want to worship in a multiracial
setting, seeing that as a fulfillment of the Gospel. Wilcrest also is
sponsoring a new multiracial church near Houston, led by Mr. Darby.
Dr. Emerson writes in People of the Dream that there are five major
racial groups in the United States, but also what he calls "sixth
Americans." These belong biologically to one of the five groups but
form important social relationships across racial lines, overcoming
stereotypes and helping to create what Dr. King called the "beloved
Congregations like Wilcrest are an incubator for sixth Americans, Dr.
Emerson suggests. Dr. Woo agrees, and he notes a growth in worldview
and spirituality among those who persevere in the church.
Ms. Parnell, for one, is glad she stuck it out.
"I have friends of every race," she said. "That's what I like about
Wilcrest it forces you to reach out to somebody who doesn't look