Early one Thursday afternoon in June, about 20 doctoral students from Fuller Theological Seminary gathered in the lobby of River City Community Church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.
They’d come from Pasadena, California, for a weeklong, intensive course and spent the morning touring River City’s space in a renovated warehouse. Now they were gathering for a question-and-answer session with several church leaders over jibaritos from a neighborhood restaurant.
The first question was one most of the students likely were wondering: What particular challenges does River City face as a self-described “multi-ethnic” church?
That’s because its “very rare” to find one church that is embracing both multi-ethnic and community development church models, founding Pastor Daniel Hill admitted to the group.
When the church first started in 2003, Hill, who is white, said its core team was warned, “You guys are trying to hold together some different church models that don’t normally go together.”
But reconciliation and neighborhood development are two of the three pillars that guide River City.
They also are part of the vision that attracted leaders like Pastor Carlos Ruiz and Brandon Green, a pastoral apprentice, to River City in its early years.
Reconciliation isn’t just a trendy buzzword at the church, according to Green, who is black. Nearly half of its members are white; about 20 percent are black, 20 percent are Hispanic and 20 percent, Asian. Church staff and elders are similarly diverse, he said, and they are intentional about creating “a rhythm of thinking of the other,” celebrating heritage months and engaging tough issues on Sunday mornings.
The Bible tells us that God reconciled us to Himself through Christ, that He gave us the ministry of reconciliation, he said. And, he said, “For practical purposes, we can’t accomplish what we seek to accomplish without reconciliation. Just pragmatically, it can’t happen.”
And what River City seeks to accomplish is justice, Green said, specifically the “shalom” of its city and especially of the Humboldt Park neighborhood. It constantly is asking the question, he said, “In what ways can I engage this by being a neighbor to those around me?”
The ‘ultimate vocation of the Christian’
The third pillar at River City, what holds it all together, is worship.
That’s the “ultimate vocation of the Christian,” according to Ruiz, director of community groups at River City.
Ruiz leads worship about once a month at the church. For the pastor – who was born and raised in Mexico, where he lived until he moved to Chicago to attend the Moody Bible Institute – it’s important to sing the Spanish songs he grew up with.
He used to provide translation for their lyrics, he said. Now he insists, “Just sing it. Sing along, and trust me.”
There’s something to singing together in a different language, he said – something to knowing that the language is spoken by other people in the neighborhood, that in 2010, the population of Humboldt Park was 47 percent Hispanic.
“It’s not so much the act of singing but what that means and how that shapes the way that you approach worship,” he said.
Seeing God rightly
Other pastors bring their own cultural backgrounds and worship styles to River City. Sometimes the worship on Sunday mornings includes lively gospel music. Other times, it’s quiet and contemplative. It may even include a hymn or two.
“It is in the place of worship where we all become the same,” Ruiz said. “At the same time, there’s the tension of the not yet. … In the context of worship, we all need God, and we’re supposed to be in the same posture.”
It’s also in the place of worship where we begin to see God rightly, according to Green. And if we see God right, he said, we can see everything else right.
“Worship, to me, is a recalibration of sorts. It’s a community recalibrating together. There’s something beautiful about that – that a multi-ethnic community comes together and esteems value to God (and) ultimately esteems value to each other because of it,” he said.
“That’s the beautiful part about worship and reconciliation.”