'Bringing together the cultures': All-white Arlington Heights church welcomes first Black pastor
After 23 years of Lutheran ministry in predominantly Black communities in the South, Michael Johnson was tapped to lead an all-white congregation in Arlington Heights.
It was a calling he couldn't deny.
"Here's an opportunity for God to showcase not only his love, but also how he's bringing together the cultures," said Johnson, 62, now senior pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights. "This is something unique. In our church system, we have many white pastors serving Black congregations, but not as many Black (pastors) serving white congregations."
For years, Johnson had been ministering to Black congregations in Baltimore; Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was working in Mobile, Alabama, when he was chosen to head the Arlington Heights church about 15 months ago.
Now, Johnson and his wife, Marilyn, are the only Black members of their church.
He is among a handful of Black pastors leading majority-white faith communities within the more than 5,900 churches of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which itself is 97% white.
Over the years, the synod has seen membership decline in many Chicago-area congregations that once served several thousand members each. In some cases, the founding pastors and leaders who built those churches didn't pass on the torch or mentor enough youth leaders who could step up, Johnson said.
"I've served our (synod) in helping congregations to revitalize and refocus. We call it the turnaround churches," Johnson said.
He aims to do the same for the Arlington Heights church, whose membership of mostly gray-haired, older adults of predominantly European descent is dwindling.
During a recent socially distanced Sunday service, roughly 50 congregants gathered in person under the barn-style wooden roof of the church to hear Johnson's preach about the value of coming together.
"We are the changing agents of God," he said to the congregation.
Dorothy Finley, 92, said Johnson brings new ideas and a different style of ministering to the flock.
"I enjoy his sermons," she said, adding she's not concerned about the color of his skin or his race.
Several of the members said they were glad to have Johnson there because he brings a fresh perspective.
Church members chose Johnson from among 10 candidates being considered for the job. He was the only Black pastor in the pool.
"I think he should feel more uncomfortable than us," said Renate Dykstra, 83. "Hopefully, he can get the church to grow."
Established in 1947, the church's membership peaked at more than 1,100 members. Membership has declined considerably within the last 20 years. Now, there are only about 79 active worshippers who attend services in person and about 240 registered members.
Dykstra said the COVID-19 pandemic hurt participation because so many members have health problems and the on-site preschool was closed for several months during the height of the virus's spread.
Johnson's arrival was a welcome change, said Frederick Volft, 63, who grew up among Blacks in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.
"I've had a tough life," Volft said. "I can relate to him. He's going to tell it like it is and also make us realize that we need to do more. It's a new learning experience."
Volft said Johnson could energize the church by inviting in minority youths from local high schools to engage with the congregation. He hopes that leads to attracting new blood and diverse members.
"We hit it off right away," said Don Laube, 88. "He just hits it every Sunday for me."
While there are obvious cultural differences, Johnson said the need for validation, acceptance and respect are common to all communities. But he does see challenges to the congregation's survival, including a need for more racial awareness and inclusivity as there is still some resistance and lack of understanding about other cultures.
Johnson said the church has not kept pace with the suburbs' changing demographics.
"There needs to be a change and also a level of adjusting to include others," Johnson said. "When you don't assimilate well in your community, then ... your growth diminishes. Maybe they need to get with the times ... but to get that message across, that's the challenge."
Many suburban churches, and congregations nationwide, are facing a similar crisis of shrinking membership, particularly among younger generations.
Johnson was placed as a contender for the Arlington Heights job not because he was Black but because he was the right man to lead the church, said the Rev. Jamison Hardy, president of the synod's English district, which governs this region.
"He is very focused on outreach and trying to be involved in the community," said Hardy, who was a classmate of Johnson at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne. "It's one of our oldest churches ... in the greater Chicagoland area. I believe strongly that we have to be connected to the community in which we serve. He's got a skill set, personality type and some life experiences that I felt would be successful in the Chicago area."
Hardy said revitalizing churches is among the synod's initiatives.
"Congregational growth has been stagnant over the last 30 years," he said. "The country has become very unfriendly to God and the church for various reasons. We seek to try to reengage and to reconnect with the message of the gospel."