Culturalism more than racism

 There is an ongoing debate in this country about how much of a factor race is in our churches, politics and everyday life.  While acknowledging that there is still racism in me and in our society, I’ve come to the conclusion that even more powerful than racism is what I will call “culturalism,” that is a dislike of and resistance to people whose values and lifestyles and beliefs grate against your own.

Following is a story about what happened at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Forest Park when I was the pastor there several years ago.  It’s anecdotal, of course, but it at least illustrates my point.


Gladys Otegbeye came toSt. Paul’s for the first time in the fall of 1984. When I greeted her after worship, I heard her speak the kind of English you would learn in a British prep school but with an African lilt.

I didn’t really think she would come back. Black folks are Baptists, I thought, or Pentecostals, and the congregation that worshiped at the corner of Brown andDixonfelt like neither. I dutifully wrote her a “good to have you with us” letter, however, and said that we hoped she would come again.

She did! She came the very next Sunday, and this time she brought her husband, Ayodeji, with her. During our five minute chat after church, I learned that Deji had earned an MD inNigeria, had just started a residency atCookCountyHospitaland had played for the Nigerian national cricket team. Gladys had also received some kind of medical degree. They both were Anglicans, so the Lutheran liturgy felt familiar, and they were renting John and Lynn Valastyan’s condo which was a short two block walk from the church.

Gladys and Deji seemed to be oblivious to the comments some St. Paul’s members made about these first two black members. The Otegbeye’s could have come straight out of Leave It To Beaver. Deji, especially, expected people to like him, which was quite a shock to white folks who had become accustomed to seeing angry blacks in the news, like the three sprinters who raised their fists in a black power salute after receiving their Olympic medals in Mexico City.

Deji had nothing to be angry about. His family was affluent enough to send him to college and medical school in Nigeria. He was an accomplished athlete. It was white folks who were in the minority in his home country. His ancestors had endured neither slavery nor Jim Crow. If the bumper sticker proclaiming It’s All Good had been around in 1984, Deji and Gladys might have pasted one on the back of their car.

The Otegbeyes won the congregation over with charm, good manners, irrepressible optimism and their enthusiasm for life. It was almost funny in a sad kind of way to watch people–who thought they didn’t like black folks–become color blind when it came to the Otegbeyes.

Their biggest fan was Josephine Becker. Jo lived with her husband Albert inMaywood, the town which was just west ofForest Parkand 80% black. Most of the congregation thought ofMaywoodas a battle zone ever since the riots that happened atProvisoEastHigh Schoolafter Fred Hampton, a Proviso graduate, was killed by the police inChicago.

AlthoughSt. Paul’s members thought the Beckers were crazy for continuing to live inMaywood, they had a grudging respect for this slight white woman with several teeth missing, because they knew they would catch holy hell from Jo if they ever bad mouthed black folks in her presence.

Jo was an equal opportunity excoriator. Maywood council members, who were all black, would cringe in terror if Jo was on the warpath about something they had done and was sitting in the audience just waiting for the end of the meeting when the residents could voice their concerns.

So, when Olatunji Chukuemeke Otegbeye was baptized on October 19, 1986, there was joy atSt. Paul’s. Jo felt vindicated. I felt grateful that this first step in integrating the congregation had been made so easily. And everyone else was happy simply because one of their “family” was becoming a child of God.

The best, however, was yet to come. Two years after Tunji was born, everyone began to see that Gladys was again pregnant. As she grew increasingly large, the women in the congregation who knew about these things began to speculate that Mrs. Otegbeye might be having twins. Sure enough, in the second week of Lent, Gladys and Deji became the proud and soon to be very tired parents of twin boys. When I visited them in the hospital, we agreed that their sons would be baptized on Easter.

March 26, 1989. The usual ten people came to the sunrise service at 7:00 am, and sat in Parish Hall an hour later, drinking coffee and waiting for the Sunday school to get their act together and begin serving the Easter breakfast. I was preoccupied with greeting all the Poinsettia and Easter lily members who were wolfing down coffee cake and quiche and with rehearsing my sermon, so I hadn’t noticed that it was 9:45 until I heard Bob Wolff beginning his long organ prelude in the choir loft.

I put on my alb and stole, prayed with the liturgical assistant in the sacristy and stepped into the chancel to see 40 Africans–friends of the Otegbeyes–sitting next to Omah Zimmerman, Shirley Zapfel, John Valastyan, Lil Jacknow, Phil Schneeberger and Marge Seidel and 90 other white folks.

Yorubas, Hausas, Ibos, Zulus and German-Americans sang hymns about new life and resurrection. We heard good news about God’s power to transform dying into rising. We said we believed that Christ was crucified and rose again on the third day. And then I splashed water on two babies and said, “Ibukunoluwa Chukwaka, I baptized you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Ebunoluwa Ewere, I baptize. . . .”

A few minutes later I stood at the altar and said the ancient words, “This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And there, as Johanna Wojtkiewicz knelt next to Deji Otegbeye and reached out her hands to receive bread and wine, I felt like Dr. King’s dream was coming true. It was like, for some reason, I had been invited to come along to the mountain  top with Moses and catch a glimpse of the promised land.

As I stood at the door shaking hands after worship, everyone said it had been a service to remember. Indeed it had. But it only lasted an hour and it never happened again. Of the 40 Africans, only Chuks Echeazu and his family ever came back. And after the Otegbeye’s moved toFloridaa year later, Chuks stopped coming.

Join the discussion on social media!

Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

One reply on “Culturalism more than racism”