Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of byFaith Magazine.
When Noel Sengele and his wife first arrived in St. Louis as immigrants from Congo and accepted an invitation to New City Fellowship, they were disappointed. At their first visit to the church, they were appalled to see infants baptized during the service. “I told Pastor Leon, ‘I’m gone. No way can I stay here!’” Sengele remembers. “Leon explained to me that infant baptism doesn’t save you. We are saved by grace through faith. He said, ‘We are together on that, so everything else will be fine.’”
Eleven years later, Sengele serves as an elder at New City Fellowship. He says he and his wife struggled for two years over infant baptism because it was so foreign to them, but they stayed at the church — attracted to senior pastor Barry Henning and New City Fellowship’s leaders and by the heart they had for the community. He’s since discovered that New City is unique among American churches. “When you go to white churches, you see black people. But when you go to black churches, you don’t see white people,” he laments. At first, that was disheartening for someone who had long idealized American life; now, it increases his enthusiasm for the diversity of New City Fellowship.
“When you come to New City Fellowship, you see black and white and Latino and Asian together. It’s about the fact that we are all sons and daughters of God, regardless of who you are. All different walks of life coming together. This is how the church should be,” he says. “When you come to our church, you will see Anglos singing Lingala, French, Spanish, African languages, Asian languages… It’s amazing!”
Myles describes New City’s work alongside other churches in the community as a reflection of Jesus’ own life and ministry of healing, clothing, and feeding.
But Barry Henning, who planted New City Fellowship in 1992, insists he didn’t pursue diversity for its own sake. “My desire from the very beginning was striving for reconciliation. We were looking for God to bring reconciliation to the people of St. Louis.”
That heart for reconciliation led Henning to reject the white suburban church as the ultimate expression of God’s people. After graduating from Westminster Seminary, he was convinced there had to be something more. He found “more” at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he lived and worked in the inner city, embracing poverty for the first time. Henning says that living “very poor” for five years with his family as minorities in an African-American community opened his eyes. “We saw an incredible movement in the kingdom and learned so much about the grace of God.”
Moving to St. Louis in 1992, Henning hoped to translate his experience into a church that could embrace all peoples as a manifestation of God’s glory. The mission of New City Fellowship is steeped in a biblical understanding that the Gospel reconciles people not only to God but also to one another and to the broken creation. “We pursued reconciliation because we believe we ultimately need rich and poor, black and white, Asian, Latino, and everyone else to be the full, mature expression of the body of Christ in this world.”
Belonging to a homogeneous church, he says, is like being blind since birth. A man who has never seen doesn’t know what he’s missing. “The wealthy church, or the all-black church … are they blessed? Yes,” Henning says. “But what people don’t know is what they are missing.” A mosaic of vibrant color that reflects God’s glory and His purposes in the world.
Not Black and White
But that colorful view brings with it complex issues that are not solved by black-and-white answers. Embracing the complexities of diversity has necessitated also embracing as many shades of gray as there are colors of skin.
Tony Myles grew up in inner-city St. Louis, and the only white people he remembers from his youth are teachers. But after college and his discovery of the teachings of Reformed thinkers, Myles auspiciously met two co-workers sorting packages at UPS who invited him to check out Covenant Seminary. After graduating from the seminary and planting an African-American congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee, Myles was drawn back to his roots in St. Louis.
“I started grabbing ahold of this vision of the church being the people of God in the city, being used to transform and bring about change,” he remembers. In St. Louis, unlike Knoxville, racial tensions were very much on the surface. Myles knew that “change was going to take more than African-Americans being committed to that. It was going to require all God’s people to be committed to change.”
Now, as New City’s associate pastor, Myles helps cultural and racial minorities adjust to a heterogeneous environment. “We grew up in the black church — that was an experience that shaped us. In coming to New City, you lose some of that connection.” That loss of cultural connection can be most painful for new immigrants who long to establish their own space for cultural expression. “One of the challenges is helping people both to grieve that loss and see the gain of being part of a new community where you are learning to walk together.”
Henning says that the adjustment was not only on behalf of the congregation’s minority members. The white leadership had to ask tough questions, he says. “Do I actually believe that there are African-Americans, or poor, or Latinos who may not have the same theological grid that I’ve had the privilege of getting, but who have been equally taught by God? Are there ways in which I need them?”
“From the perspective of the white leadership, we had to prove a commitment to keep learning through humility and repentance,” says Henning. “Many paternalistic and dominant cultural attitudes came to the surface that needed to be challenged and corrected. Because we were in a context of constant preaching of grace and committed love … and commitment to submission to black leadership … we were able to have many, many good and sometimes hard conversations about these issues — and still do.”
While Henning estimates that it took 10 to 12 years before African-American believers felt an equal sense of ownership of the church, those lessons have translated to other ethnic groups who attend the church — the largest being West African and Congolese. Today, New City boasts a session of 19 members, more than half being African or African-American. Senior staff includes three Anglos and five Africans or African-Americans.
Healing for All
Henning credits New City’s success as a multiracial, multicultural community to its focus on God’s kingdom as a place of healing for all. Early on, leaders determined to put their main attention on the poor and disenfranchised: widows, the fatherless, immigrants, and the materially poor.
“Rather than devolving into spats about personal preferences, our time and resources are directed in working together to show compassionate love to folks in genuine need,” he says. “It is hard to think too harshly of a brother or sister who is side by side with you sacrificially loving and giving to help others in their time of need.”
“Many paternalistic and dominant cultural attitudes came to the surface that needed to be challenged and corrected.”
Those needs are not hard to find in the heart of St. Louis, says Tony Myles. The church’s offices and most of its ministry are located within the city limits in the predominantly African-American community of West St. Louis. It’s largely composed of single-parent households with low incomes. So an integral part of New City’s mission is serving its own community through such activities as tutoring in the local public high school, providing health connections to new immigrants, funding a private school that is committed to reconciliation and justice through education, and organizing workdays to assist the poor and widows with home maintenance.
Myles describes New City’s work alongside other churches in the community as a reflection of Jesus’ own life and ministry of healing, clothing, and feeding. “We want people to get a picture of a God who not only sets them free in relationship with Himself but is very near to them in their need,” he says. “This is a picture of the church that people here haven’t seen in a very long time.”
Noel Sengele recalls a clear memory when he saw this picture of the church. One day shortly after his arrival in St. Louis, he came home from work to find his previously empty apartment furnished by the church. “There was a bed, sofa, microwave, new sheets, and towels — everything a newcomer could need.” Now he helps newly-arrived West Africans adjust to their new homes in St. Louis. He does it for the Lord, he says. And when he invites them to New City Fellowship, he warns them not to be deterred by the infant baptisms.