Cross-cultural pastors face challenges, advantages as they lead during nationwide protests

ARLINGTON—For three months, Pastor Jason Paredes has looked forward to the day when his Fielder Church family would once again gather again for worship. Like nearly every other pastor in Texas, Paredes’ church hasn’t gathered since March.

“I have been looking forward to this moment and the celebration it was going to be—air high-fives, distance hugs and the excitement of seeing everyone,” Paredes said.

But this Sunday, June 7, when Paredes once again stands before his congregation after nearly three months apart because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’ll start his sermon with words he never expected to say: “This is not the way I wanted to start coming back.”

Like many other pastors throughout Texas, Paredes is pressing pause on his current sermon series. Instead, he’ll focus his attention on the need to be unified amidst the cultural unrest that has erupted throughout the country since the death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 25.   

Paredes, a Hispanic who was born and grew up in the United States, is among a number of Southern Baptists of Texas Convention pastors who are of a different ethnic background than the majority of their church during the unique cultural moment that has developed since Floyd’s death. The protests, which have now reached every state in the country, came less than a month after a video surfaced showing African American Ahmaud Arbery murdered in what was reportedly a racially inspired incident in Georgia.

“There are a lot of polarized views, specifically in these few incidents that have come up the last few months and realizing people have different sources of information and different people who are influencing their perspective,” Paredes said. “I have one side of my congregation saying if you don’t stop talking about racial tension, you’re just propagating the problem and you’re turning into race-baiting. Then I have another side of my congregation saying we’re not saying enough. If we’re silent in this moment, we’re going to miss the greatest opportunity to stand up and to speak and be a presence for the gospel of Jesus. These are all members of the exact same congregation.”

Paredes notes Fielder Church has become increasingly diverse in recent years, and the church is praying for an even more diverse future. Currently, approximately 30 percent of the church is from a non-Anglo ethnicity. 

“One of our vision goals that we have for our church is that we would be a radically diverse church so that not one group would make up more than 50 percent of our church,” Paredes said. “Not one ethnic group, not one socio-economic group, not one age group, that we’d be a radically diverse church. So we’ve been talking about this for a long time.”

Paredes has served in various roles at the church for 15 years. He became Fielder Church’s senior pastor in 2016 with the retirement of longtime pastor Gary Smith.

The last time Marcus Hayes, an African American pastor, preached in person to the people of Crossroads Baptist Church in The Woodlands, he was preaching in view of a call. The church called Hayes to be their next pastor during the historic COVID-19 pandemic that prevented them from gathering until June 7. Crossroads is intentional about growing into a more diverse church but is still predominately Anglo. 

Hayes says he has heard nothing but positivity from the congregation about the need to deal with the racial issues that are surfacing in the culture at the moment. 

“We put together a prayer guide for the entire church to be praying through, for God to be preparing our hearts for change,” Hayes said. “This is going to happen only through the gospel, but bathed in prayer. We can’t manufacture change. Change has to come from within. Only Jesus can do that.”

When Andrew Johnson arrived at Memorial Baptist Church in the predominantly Hispanic Denver Arbor area of Houston in 2012, the church was most Anglo. As Johnson has led the church through a period of revitalization, its ethnic background has begun to better reflect the surrounding community.

Johnson, an Anglo pastor in a majority-minority culture, has focused on being a listener and student of culture. Sometimes, he says, the best action a pastor can take is to relate to the experiences of the community.

Johnson says prayer must also play a critical part in how the church engages this topic. Earlier in the week, the church hosted a special online prayer meeting in regard to the recent period of unrest.  

“In moments like this, there is this temptation for pastors and leaders to feel like we need to comment on something because the church is looking for an expert,” Johnson said. “This social media age we live in has kind of made everyone feel like they need to be an expert on every topic. As Christian pastors, the power we have is not in our commentary. The power we have is in prayer. I don’t think as Christians we should do the Christian version of what the world is doing, but doing what the world cannot do, which is access the divine power that comes in prayer.” 

Hayes and Paredes note there are both strengths and weaknesses during this period to being of a different ethnic background than most of their church.

Hayes says his presence gives the church a different perspective on the events they are seeing unfold in the community and around the country. 

“They get to see a young man that is just different,” Hayes said. “That is different from what’s being portrayed on TV, sometimes through movies, through social media platforms, and all that stuff. I think that’s the unique part. They’ll begin to see my heart, and the fact that I only stand on biblical truth. They’re seeing an authentic gospel transformation and what the gospel can really do in the life of any single person. It doesn’t matter your ethnicity, this is the power of the gospel, the gospel walks towards the mess and the gospel redeems the worst. They get to see my heart and go, ‘Man, you know, we love pastor Marcus.’ They’ll begin to hear my story.” 

Paredes notes that it’s often lonely in this situation, though.

“It’s not because of a lack of love,” Paredes said of the loneliness. “It’s just because of cultural dissonance. We’re a little more disenfranchised. For me personally, and I would imagine a lot of people who are serving in churches where they’re the non-majority ethnic background, it is because they’re bridge people. They are able to navigate cultures. One of the things that causes is that it makes you feel like you don’t belong to either culture. That’s a triple lonely place to be. I think, as we’re praying for pastors who are of a different ethnic group than the majority of their culture, we should pray against a definite feeling of loneliness and isolation.”

Despite the awkward situation of gathering after months apart to address this unique cultural moment, Paredes believes gospel fruit will come from it. 

“My hope, more than anything else, is that we look back at this moment that when we came back together again and dealt with the hardest issue, we did so in the light of the gospel of Jesus and they will say God was setting us up for something even greater,” Paredes said. 

TEXAN Correspondent
Tobin Perry
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