Forest Hill Church's 'new thing'
The sign in front of Forest Hill Presbyterian Church that proclaims “See, I am doing a new thing!” refers to the hiring of the Rev. Veronica Goines as the church's first African-American co-pastor.
The story of this historic call started in 2010, when a horrifying racial incident threatened one of the church’s young members. The young man, soliciting money for his football team, was searched at gunpoint by Pepper Pike police after a 911 caller reported a black youth trying to break into houses with a gun.
When church members demanded a public apology, the city of Pepper Pike refused, saying its response would have been the same if the call had been about a white youth with a gun.
The problem was, there wouldn’t have been a 911 call if the boy had been white. Only through the lens of implicit bias does a well-dressed, respectful and respectable young man with a cell phone, going door-to-door to raise money for his school, become a criminal suspect wielding a gun.
Forest Hill Presbyterian has long protested structural racism and fought for fair housing, but this racial profiling of one of its own was a wake-up call to new action.
Educational initiatives and letter-writing campaigns were being discussed when longtime church member Ron Register stood up and said, “Wait a minute. What about the log in our own eye?”
Register, an African American and former president of the CH-UH school board, confessed he sometimes felt uncomfortable mingling with the predominantly white congregation after worship on Sundays. “Instead of marching on city hall, or writing letters to the newspapers, maybe we should work on relationships between blacks and whites here at Forest Hill Church,” he said.
A long conversation about racial inclusivity within the more than 80-percent white congregation ensued. Members realized that their past efforts, including shared programs and activities with predominantly black churches, weren’t enough. Finding themselves a long way from the beloved community described by Christ, they resolved to change the congregation itself.
They looked at their goal of being a warm, diverse and inclusive church and recognized that not everyone perceived this warmth. They looked at their staff and realized that, despite the congregation’s commitment to racial inclusion, the only African Americans were custodians. They looked at their pews and saw that, despite the growing numbers of African Americans in the congregation, the numbers didn’t reflect the neighborhood around them. And they realized that Martin Luther King Jr.’s claim that the Sunday morning worship hour was the most segregated hour in America was still true.
In response, they began “Courageous Conversations on Race,” teaching members to recognize subtle racial bias in themselves and others. They fostered interracial relationships and educated members to recognize and confront both covert and subtle bias.
When their longtime associate pastor moved to Denver, they aspired to seek a wide diversity of candidates to fill the position. They also committed to replace the traditional church model of a senior pastor assisted by an associate and instead sought a co-pastor to share equally in leading the church further along the path of restorative justice.
After interviewing scores of applicants of all races and genders, Forest Hill Presbyterian Church found Goines to be by far the most outstanding candidate and the best choice to join the Rev. John Lentz.
The community is invited to join in celebrating Goines’ arrival, and to learn more about her at www.fhcpresb.org.
Peg Weissbrod is a freelance writer and publicity coordinator for Forest Hill Church in Cleveland Heights.