The Bumpy, Rewarding Road to Diversity

by Allison Hurtado, staff writer
Skokie Valley Baptist Church

In the picturesque village of Wilmette, Illinois, you’ll find Skokie Valley Baptist Church. Wilmette is a Northshore suburb of Chicago bordering Lake Michigan. There are diverse neighborhoods with vacation homes, commuters into the city and, more recently, large immigrant populations. SVBC began in the 1950s as a Swedish Baptist church with a strong emphasis on supporting missionaries. As the church grew, it built its current facility in Wilmette. But like most churches, as the years went on the congregation began to stagnate. 

It was 1992 and Ed Brown was attending seminary at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, enrolled in a preaching class taught by Dr. Bob Duffet. One day after class, Duffet asked Ed if he would preach at his church, Skokie Valley, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. Ed, being African American, didn’t find it a strange request, and thought it might be a class assignment. He accepted, even though he had no idea where Wilmette was located.

Sue Tanner sat in the pews that day.

“This first time I heard him preach, it was fantastic,” Sue recalls. “His sermon was so down to earth. He preached right from the Bible. We were all drawn to him.”

Ed returned to seminary classes and his full-time public school teaching job in Blue Island, Illinois. Skokie Valley invited him back to preach once a year for six years. In 1996 he was asked to preach for the duration of the summer.

“As a school teacher, I was off, so I figured why not?” Ed said. “During those eight weeks the congregants got to know me, and at the time they were looking for a new pastor, but I wasn’t qualified.”

Ed always imagined himself working with an inner-city urban ministry in Chicago, not preaching at an all-white church in wealthy Wilmette. But God woke up the hearts of the church, Ed and his family. By the end of the summer, he was asked to apply for the senior pastor position.

Sue remembers it as a natural progression, although she admits she was surprised at what God was doing. After all, Ed was the first African American pastor to preach at Skokie Valley – but he became their first African American pastor. 

“Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen. It’s really changed the church a lot,” Sue said. “People are just drawn to Ed, and our church has become even more welcoming to people of all backgrounds.”

Ed officially started in June 1997, and while it seemed like a smooth transition for some, it wasn’t for everyone. 

“I truly believe it was a God thing. Had this been the normal process of sending in a resume and that’s all the board sees, it wouldn’t have happened,” Ed said. “The fact that the congregation got to know me brought us all to the conclusion God wanted me to be there.”

It was a risk for Ed and his family. They had to sell their home and move to a suburb they knew little about. He knew the church, but was hesitant. As Ed put it, pastors don’t have job security. Would it be a six-month gig? Or would he be there a year? But every inner-city job he applied to didn’t work out. Unbeknown to Ed, the SVBC leadership team faced pushback, but prayed ceaselessly about his position.

“We were taking a chance with this position, but I felt if they were willing to take a chance on me, I would take one on them,” Ed said. About 60 families left the church in the first year of his pastorate, but Ed says he didn't notice immediately, thanks to God's grace. “When I saw the first annual report, it really hurt. But God is wonderful. Some came back, and God replaced every single one of those who didn’t.”

He later learned that many in the church were fighting for he and his wife. Over the years Ed has done weddings for member’s grandchildren, dedicated babies and performed funerals. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a path of acceptance. While many people embraced, loved and cared for Ed and his family, some did not.

Ed recalls a few visits he made to hospitals to see members who were dying. 

“One person told me, ‘Pastor I want you to know I didn’t vote for you. I was one that didn’t, but I can tell you right now that I love you,’” he recalls. “When people introduce you to the doctor or hospital staff as their pastor, and say, ‘Hey this is who I’ve been telling you about, this is my pastor,' that’s when you know you’re accepted.”

For Ed, love is the key. He admits his experience at Skokie Valley has been wonderful and full of God moments, but not always easy. Ed says showing people true love, regardless of what happens, breaks down barriers. 

“The lines have been crossed between white and black. We are Christians and children of God,” Ed said. “It makes no difference what our skin colors are.”

Skokie Valley is now home to people from nearly every continent. Combined, there are about 30 languages spoken among attendees. The church has navigated different issues with grace and understanding. Music style has been a challenge, learning how to blend contemporary with tradition hymns has itself been a process.

“At first I hated the screen with the words on it and didn’t like that people sang without hymnals,” Sue admits. “But we were all willing to explore different avenues to make people comfortable. The church wants to help people become committed followers of Christ.”

As the church has become multicultural and diverse, one may want to ask Ed how he did it. But he stands firm. He didn’t do it. God did.

“We didn’t have a plan to have a diverse church. We focused on preaching the gospel and serving our community and reaching people from different places,” Ed said. “We celebrate diversity and don’t ignore it.”

Converge MidAmerica executive minister Gary Rohrmayer says Skokie Valley is one of the most culturally and economically diverse churches in his district.

“Pastor Ed’s contagious preaching, commitment to the gospel, shepherding heart and courageous leadership are the keys to success both culturally and numerically,” he said.

The church has adopted culture diversity Sundays, with parades, flags from different countries, a potluck dinner with dishes from all over the world. There are Bible studies and workshops focused on diversity, and preachers visit from different ethnic groups. Ed doesn’t shy away from racial issues or concerns from the congregation. The church addresses them. He also says the leadership team is extremely welcoming and represents the diversity of the congregation. 

“Not every church needs an African American pastor,” Ed said. “But there need to be people of color on the leadership team. You can say all you want about being diverse, but if you don’t show it, that tells people you aren’t serious.”

People feel at home at Skokie Valley. They step out of their comfort zones. And they love God. After 32 years, Sue is still a member. Why?

“It’s the preaching, the music, the diversity, and I get to be friends with people I might not ordinarily meet,” Sue said. “I get to hear their stories and pray with them. God has allowed us to connect with each other and allows us to see into people’s hearts. We experience his love for everyone. That’s what makes it special.”

Learn more about Converge's diversity.

    Point - September 2018

    Point Magazine

    Our official magazine, publishing captivating stories of God's work in our midst.

    Subscribe for free >