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Milwaukee church transcends race

MILWAUKEE — Minister Keith Brumley and his wife, Margaret, prayed in 2004 that God would lead them to a church that would stretch and challenge their faith.
They had another offer, but chose to work with the Northtown church.
Keith Brumley described serving with the integrated congregation — which is almost an equal mix of white and black — as the answer to his prayers.
“The city of Milwaukee is one of the top five most segregated cities in the country,” said Brumley, who is white. “That’s why we need to be a witness to our community to say that there’s nothing Christ can’t transcend.”
Northtown, a 200-member congregation started in 1975, is in a mixed neighborhood, both racially and economically, with large luxury homes across the highway from blocks of older apartment buildings.
Rob McRay began preaching for Northtown in the mid-1980s and reached out to the black Churches of Christ in Milwaukee, as well as the independent Christian Churches. That laid the groundwork for an influx of black members later.
Elder Corwin Russell, who grew up in an all-black church, first visited Northtown in 1999.
“Northtown had a big impact on me and allowed me to see God in a different way,” Russell said. “Race was not an issue at Northtown, and people extended themselves to reach out to my family and enable us to plug in.”
Elder Dave Spenner said Northtown’s integrated leadership helps foster greater dialogue among the membership.
On a practical level, the leadership is careful to include all perspectives, Brumley said.
“We don’t want to rob ourselves of the richness of culture here at Northtown,” he said. “We always attempt to include a mix of people on committees and the like.”
Northtown Church began in 1975 as a missionary church to fill a geographic gap in northwest Milwaukee. It was supported by Highland Street Church of Christ in Memphis, and initially was led by Harold Shank and Bob Epperly, with about 14 in attendance.
By 1977, members moved into the current building on 107th Street with 75 members, still with outside support.
The church’s location is neither urban or suburban, right off a major freeway and only a few blocks from the boundary of the nearest suburb. Though there were a few black members and mixed couples in its early days, it was predominately a white church.
“The spirit of Christ allowed people to feel accepted at Northtown,” recalls Roger Root, an original member. “From the beginning, we wanted to be a different kind of independent church. It was a very friendly church from the start, with some progressive ideas. It was not our initial goal to be biracial, however.”
Root had been raised in an urban church of Christ that went from mostly white to 90 percent black over the years. He wasn’t raised prejudiced, but admits to some difficult times growing up in Milwaukee and attending predominately black schools — he knew what it felt like to be a minority. However, after being at Northtown for 30 years, he says, “It’s pretty hard to be prejudiced when you get to know people.” He credits his faith for changing his attitude.
Rob McRay began preaching for Northtown in the mid-1980s. McRay had a strong vision for unity, reaching out to the black churches of Christ in Milwaukee, as well as to the area independent Christian churches. This relationship with some of the black churches laid the groundwork for an influx of black members later.  
Corwin Russell was the first notable African-American to become a member at Northtown. He grew up in an all black Church of Christ congregation in Milwaukee. Although he loved his home congregation, around 1999 he became dissatisfied there and began looking for another congregation to worship with. Because of the positive history his congregation had with Northtown via preacher swaps and other contact, he considered Northtown.
He visited Northtown twice before bringing his family, as he was concerned about how the church would accept them. The style of worship was different than what he was used to, but he found the people to be very friendly and genuine; their attitude and openness was refreshing. He was especially impressed with the leadership style that empowered its members to be all they could be in service to God and the church.
Little did Russell know that Northtown had been praying for diversity, and viewed his family as an answer to prayer.
Other African-American families heard about Russell’s positive experience at Northtown and began to check it out. Russell’s intent was never to draw members from the other black churches, and urged people who questioned him about Northtown to use their own judgment.
“It really said something about some of the issues in the black churches; typically loyalty is very strong in the black church, so this was a significant message to our sister congregations,” Russell said.
Theresa Thomas has been a member at Northtown Church since 2000, when she left another all-black congregation in Milwaukee. Also at odds with some policies at her former congregation, she says that finding a mixed church was very important to her and her now deceased husband, Edsel.
“We looked at a church in Racine that was mixed, but the drive was too far,” (almost an hour away) she said. When they started attending Northtown, there was only a handful of other black members. However, they liked that it was a teaching church that searched the Scriptures and tried to follow the Bible. 
Root says the congregation was very excited about the new members, although there were certainly cultural adjustments to be made.
“We tried to concentrate on what we had in common in Christ,” says Root.  “There were some who didn’t like the cultural differences, whichever side they were on.  Those who couldn’t adjust, left.  Those who stayed made an effort towards unity; that’s the purpose of the church.”
Northtown Church has had a fairly even racial mix for the last 10 years. The movement of members from the other all-black Churches of Christ has slowed in recent years, with most new African-American members either unchurched or from other denominations, according to Russell.
“When we all come together, the challenge is to appreciate each other, especially considering the atmosphere most of us have to deal with in working in Milwaukee,” says Russell.  “It says a lot about the power of God and Northtown’s willingness to submit to God.”
Now an elder for about four years, Russell says he never envisioned himself in that position. As the only African-American in leadership at Northtown, he has never felt slighted, but treated as an equal.  “I love working with these guys,” he says, referring to the other elders, who are both white.  
One of the biggest needs Russell sees at Northtown is to continue efforts to incorporate all racial styles, especially in worship.
Elder Dave Spenner agrees. “We have those who are already Christians … who bring their own historical perspective of worship which blends with their identity of racial heritage. These preferences are sometimes interpreted as racial issues, and take on racial tension.  For example, we sometimes hear [complaints] about the songs we sing, that we don’t sing the old songs they’re used to singing.  Well, I was raised a Catholic and my wife was Lutheran.  The fact is, we’re not singing anybody’s old songs.”
Spenner says an integrated leadership has helped with greater dialog among the membership; they’re always striving for balance in the ministry leaders.
“Another issue we have to work very hard on is fellowship,” says Spenner.  “We [the leadership] are continuing to search for activities that all are comfortable with and like to do.
“I think our number one concern is that we need to share with each other across racial lines,” Thomas said. “Sometimes I don’t think my white brothers and sisters really understand the struggles we [African-Americans] deal with.”  She advocates all races to drop their pride and be more “real” with each other. “We have to step out of our comfort zone some more and be open to each other. Shut the color out and just love people.”

  • Feedback
    Good Series and interesting story.
    Looking from the outside I had some concerns ….it’s considered an integrated leadership yet from the article it appears that the minister is white, two elders are white, and you have one black leader. I wouldn’t call that integrated but I guess it’s a start.
    Also, when leaders say things like….”WE sometimes hear complaints about the songs WE sing….that WE don’t sing the old songs THEY’RE used to singing”. This makes me question things a little. I mean it seemed as if the THEY’RE is a certain race that has some worship concerns but I didn’t hear a heart that desired inclusion.
    Just my reflections after a glance. Keep moving forward in Milwaukee though, you’re on the right track.
    October, 8 2008

Filed under: National Staff Reports

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