Home Pastors Arlington Heights All-White Church Welcomes First Black Pastor

Arlington Heights All-White Church Welcomes First Black Pastor

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After 23 years of Lutheran ministry in predominantly black communities in the South, Michael Johnson was hired to lead an all-white congregation in Arlington Heights.

It was a call he couldn’t deny.

“This is an opportunity for God to show not only his love but also how he brings cultures together,” 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 so many black (pastors) serving white congregations.”

For years Johnson had ministered to the black congregations in Baltimore; Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was working in Mobile, Alabama, when he was chosen to lead church in Arlington Heights about 15 months ago.

Now Johnson and his wife, Marilyn, are the only black members of their church.

He is one of a handful of black pastors at the head of predominantly white religious communities in the more than 5,900 churches in the country. Synod of the Lutheran Church of Missouri, 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 these churches did not pass the torch or mentor enough young leaders who could step in, Johnson said.

“I have served our (synod) by helping congregations to revitalize and refocus. We call them righting churches,” Johnson said.

He aims to do the same for Arlington Heights Church, where the number of mostly gray-haired older adults of predominantly European descent is shrinking.

At a recent Sunday social-distancing service, around 50 worshipers gathered in person under the church’s barn-style wooden roof to hear Johnson preaching on the value of coming together.

“We are the changing agents of God,” he told the congregation.

Dorothy Finley, 92, said Johnson brings new ideas and a different style of ministry to the herd.

“I love his sermons,” she said, adding that she didn’t care about her skin color or race.

Several of the members said they were happy to have Johnson there because he brings a new perspective.

Church members chose Johnson from 10 candidates considered for the post. He was the only black pastor in the pool.

“I think he should feel more uncomfortable than us,” said Renate Dykstra, 83. “I hope he can make the church grow.”

Founded in 1947, the church’s membership has peaked at over 1,100 members. The number of members has decreased considerably over the past 20 years. Now, there are only about 79 active devotees attending in-person services and about 240 registered members.

Dykstra said the COVID-19 pandemic hampered attendance as many members have health issues and the on-site preschool was closed for several months at the height of the virus spread.

Johnson’s arrival was a welcome change, said Frederick Volft, 63, who grew up among blacks in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

“I have had a difficult life,” Volft said. “I can relate to him. He’s going to say it as 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 minority youth from local high schools to engage with the congregation. He hopes this will lead to attracting new blood and diverse members.

“We hit it off right away,” said Don Laube, 88. “He just hit him every Sunday for me.”

While there are obvious cultural differences, Johnson said the need for validation, acceptance and respect is common to all communities. But he sees challenges to the survival of the congregation, including a need for more racial awareness and inclusiveness as there is still some resistance and a lack of understanding of other cultures.

Johnson said the church has not kept pace with the changing demographics of the suburbs.

“There has to be a change and also a level of adjustment to include the others,” Johnson said. “When you don’t assimilate well into your community, then… your growth decreases. Maybe they have to adapt to their times… but to get that message across, that’s the challenge.”

Many suburban churches and congregations nationwide are facing a similar crisis of declining membership, especially among the younger generations.

Johnson was placed as a candidate for Arlington Heights not because he was black, but because he was the perfect man to lead the church, said Reverend Jamison Hardy, English district president of the synod , which governs this region.

“He’s very focused on raising awareness and trying to get involved in the community,” said Hardy, who was a classmate with Johnson at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne. “This is one of our oldest churches… in the greater Chicagoland area. I firmly believe that we need to be connected to the community we serve in. He has a skill set, personality type and experiences life that I think would be successful in the Chicago area. “

Hardy said revitalizing churches is part of the synod’s initiatives.

“The growth of the congregation has stagnated over the past 30 years,” he said. “The country has become very hostile to God and to the church for a variety of reasons. We are seeking to try to re-engage and reconnect with the gospel message.”


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