Panel Reviews Lessons Learned From Segregated Christian School

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Panel 1From left: Johnathan Bradford, Chris Meehan, Rev. Duane VanderBrug and Rev. Reggie Smith. Denominational mores and entrenched racism yielded to scriptural inclusiveness following black parents' struggle during the turbulent 1960s to enroll their children in a segregated Christian school in Cicero, Ill, a suburb of Chicago.

The effort to unsuccessfully integrate Timothy Christian School — and the scriptural lessons learned from the fracas — was recounted at a recent panel discussion held at Calvin College's Chapel.

The 1960s dust up eventually birthed the CRC's Office of Race Relations.

Panelists included Rev. Reggie Smith, Christian Reformed Church director of race relations and social justice who acted as the panel's moderator; Rev. Duane VanderBrug, pastor of Lawndale Christian Reformed Church Lighthouse from 1966-1969; Johnathan Bradford, former executive director of Inner City Christian Federation whose minister father, Eugene Bradford, played a role in getting the CRC Synod to declare racism a sin; and Chris Meehan, senior news writer for CRC Communications and author of the book "Growing Pains: How Racial Struggles Changed a Church and School."

Struggle started in 1965

Panel No. 2The struggle to integrate Timothy Christian School started in 1965 when a group of black parents attending Lawndale and Garfield Christian Reformed Churches asked the Timothy school board permission to enroll their children.

At the time, Cicero was a town of 70,000 residents of European descent that had earned the reputation as the "Selma of the North."

It was inevitable a power struggle would ensue, resulting in delegates taking the matter to Synod, as well as a lawsuit against the school and, ultimately, creating the CRC Office of Race Relations.

"The problem was Cicero was a highly racist community with a history of violence," said VanderBrug. "There were risks involved. God only promises us His presence."

"This (Cicero) was a standard urban grid with houses close together, meaning the population was dense, meaning they knew each other very well," said Bradford. "But during that protectionist neighborhood grew some very painful attitudes.

"Hate was not far away from urban Cicero."

The struggle soon escalated into an ecclesiastical debate.

Overture to CRC Synod

Panel No. 3Members of the audience broke into small groups to discuss the role U.S. churches play in the struggle for racial equality. "My father wrote an overture to the Synod in February 1968 that was the first strong condemnation of racism, saying racism was not allowed in any form in the church — racism was sin," said Bradford. "That passed the Synod however, the people of the classis did very little to enforce the decision of Synod, therefore the board of directors of Timothy Christian School persisted in their denial for several years."

A classis is a group of churches within a geographical region that has the authority to deal with matters that concern its churches.

Meehan said the Timothy school board grappled with the one-two punch of neighborhood racism, threat of violence that included potentially burning the school down and fear for black students' safety.

An insular community

"Certainly, Cicero was a racist community, an insular community and driven by that was the whole business of blockbusting," said Meehan.

Blockbusting is the practice of convincing owners to sell their property cheaply because of the fear of people of another race or class moving into the neighborhood and later profiting by selling for a higher price.

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"People from Cicero had come from Chicago and were very fearful black folks would come into their community, knock down the value of their homes and they'd be in trouble," said Meehan.

"Given the nature of Cicero, it's possible it would happen," he continued. "It wasn't just simply they were black covenant children they did not want them in their school. At some level they were trying to protect the children."

Tired of being stalled, VanderBrug coordinated bus service so students could attend Lawndale Christian School, some 28 miles from where they lived.

Meanwhile, the Office of Race Relations took Timothy Christian School to federal court whereby the judge said he did not have the authority to order the school to integrate, but still castigated the school for its all-white student body.

Eventually, the Timothy Christian school board decided to move to the more racially tolerant Elmhurst suburb in 1972 and parents of Lawndale and Garfield Christian Reformed Churches established their own school, West Side Christian School.

"The (lawsuit) just melted away," said Meehan.

Lessons learned are for today

With the August protests of white nationalists and neo-Nazis bearing tiki torches in Charlottesville, Vir. and controversy over NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against blacks, the ability for the CRC denomination and the Christian school to be more inclusive is a lesson that stands the test of time, according to Meehan.

"The CRC really faced for the first time the whole issue of racism," said Meehan. "Who are God's children? Johnathan's father who wrote the overture really said to the Synod the Timothy school board was sinful and we need to call sin for what it is."


Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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