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A Conversation with Calvin H. Bowers

LONGTIME LOS ANGELES minister, educator and author discusses race relations and challenges facing Churches of Christ.

Calvin H. Bowers has served as a minister, college administrator, professor, author and father. At 81, he still preaches for the Figueroa Church of Christ in Los Angeles. His experience, education and wisdom keep him in demand.
Born in Selmer, Tenn., he was the eighth of Ollie Bowers’ nine children. While attending Pepperdine University, Calvin Bowers was hired by the Figueroa church as minister of education, then associate minister. From 1994 to 2010, he served as the successor to R.N. Hogan in the pulpit of this historic congregation, which began in 1938. He continued his education at Pepperdine, earning two master’s degrees before completing a doctorate in 1981 at the University of Southern California.
On a two-year leave from Figueroa, he served as academic dean of Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, from 1967 to 1969. He then returned to Pepperdine, where he served as dean of ethnic and urban studies from 1969 to 1976. Later, he served as director of equal opportunity and professor of communication and religion from 1976 to 2004. Currently, he is special assistant to the president of Pepperdine.
He is the author of “Realizing the California Dream, a history of African American churches in Los Angeles from 1902 to 2000.” In 2012, he published “Ollie’s Kids: A Family’s Journey,” which chronicles his family’s remarkable history.

What are your experiences with race relations within Churches of Christ?
When I became a member of the Church of Christ at the age of 14, I was optimistic about the role and future of the church. I wanted to be a part of carrying the Gospel of Jesus into all the world.
The superintendent of schools in McNairy County, Tenn., where I lived, was a member of the Church of Christ. He wanted me to be the first African-American to enroll at a Christian college 20 miles from my home. The response came back stating that the school had no provision for Negro students and recommended that I go to a high school in Nashville, even though I had graduated from high school.
In 1955, after graduating from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., I tried to enroll in graduate school in all of our Christian colleges and was only accepted at Pepperdine. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I did not know a single person. I met some benevolent people at Pepperdine, where I completed two master’s degrees.
In 1969, I began teaching at Pepperdine. This gave me an opportunity to develop a curriculum reflecting many cultures.
My approach in working with people of other races is to realize that each culture and subculture has its unique set of problems. To begin, we must admit and proceed to work on our problems together, preferably in a Christian context.
African-American and white churches often seem to be almost unaware of each other. How can they develop stronger connections?
First, there must be a desire to come together, talk and just get to know each other. This will help to reduce stereotypes that have existed for years.
Then, we need to find ways to plan and work together as true brothers and sisters in Christ. If this is genuinely done, we will learn to trust each other and do great works together.
The motive for all such action must be love for God and fellow man. Shallow, occasional gestures do little good in the long run. Such efforts should be pursued with mutual respect.

What is the greatest challenge to being with the same congregation for 56 years?

If I had to choose one, I guess it would be trying to keep the congregation relevant and growing. We have trained many workers and developed many programs like the bus ministry, our zone program and Christian Pal program. We’ve lost many quality workers. Some have passed away, and others have moved on or grown too old to continue serving.
In trying to meet this challenge, I have often said you may find another person to fill the seat, but it is extremely difficult to find someone to take the place of a trained, dedicated worker.
What are the main challenges faced by African-American churches today?
I cannot speak for all African-American Churches of Christ, but from limited experiences, I may offer some observations.
One, we need to improve our study of the Bible so that more relevant Bible school literature and effective teaching can be developed that leads to faithful application of Scripture to daily living.
Two, the goal of the African-American church cannot be to become a microcosm of its white counterpart. In 1933, Dr. Carter G. Woodson wrote a book called “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” I would suggest that both black and white Christians read it.
Three, African-American churches of Christ must marshal, challenge and utilize their professional members by improving their spirituality and increasing their involvement in the work of God. This does not imply using unfaithful people who have advanced educations (2 Timothy 2:1-2).
Four, African-American churches must reach out to other cultures and races to help all to become new in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
What needs to happen for Churches of Christ to become truly integrated?
First, there must be a realization that Jesus came to break down all walls to make us one (Ephesians 2:14-16). Second, we must realize that our unity in Christ enhances worldwide evangelism and that disunity does the opposite (John 17:20-21). Third, when we show prejudice as Peter did, we do not walk according to the Gospel (Galatians 2:11-14).
Realizing these basic truths, we must obey what Jesus wants and make every effort to be like him. There must be efforts to rid our hearts of all forms of prejudice. We must try to understand others in the context of their cultural environment. For example, oppression was the crucible out of which the black experience in this country was born.
I see The Christian Chronicle making the right moves in helping us to understand each other. Such efforts must be duplicated and extended. Now is the time to act for, according to Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
It is my belief that ministry grows out of the context of its environment. In other words, there will always be predominantly African-American and predominantly white churches. The key is that we have the freedom to worship either way.

Filed under: Dialogue

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