Photo: Westminster Theological Seminary
Rev. Eugene Callender
Photo by Westminster Theological Seminary

Martin Luther King, Jr., along with Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Alex Haley, and Kanye West have something in common.

All of these well-known African Americans have a connection to the Christian Reformed Church.

This month as part of Black History month, the CRC Office of Race Relations is highlighting stories of the contributions of African Americans through ministry in the Christian Reformed Church.

Many people know the familiar faces of several African Americans serving in ministry in the CRC today — Sheila Holmes, Reggie Smith, Michelle Loyd-Paige, Emmett Harrison, Laura Pritchard, James Jones, Jerome Burton, and James White to name a few.

But there are a number of stories that have fallen out of our common narrative, stories that we would be wise not to lose.

One such story is that of Rev. Eugene Callender. He officiated at Billie Holiday’s funeral and was the first African American ordained as a minister of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church. Callender served as a home missionary and then as a pastor at Manhattan CRC in Harlem, New York City. He left after a few years to pastor a church in another denomination.

But as a CRC pastor, Callender made his mark on the church. For instance, he took in a young writer named Alex Haley and encouraged him to write what would become the best-selling novel Roots.

Callender didn’t shy away from opportunities to share the gospel — he publicly debated Malcolm X. He invited Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak in Harlem for the first time. He also started one of the first alternative schools for dropouts in the United States.

But Callendar was by no means the only one ministering in Harlem. The worship leader in Callender’s church was a man named James Allen. Allen, once a drug addict, started a ministry through the church that has since become the model for rehabilitation in the state of New York, the Addicts Rehabilitation Center (ARC). Dante Venegas, one of the first black pastors in the CRC, worked there before coming to serve Madison Square CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Through his work with the ARC, Allen led a choir that recorded a couple of albums, one of which was titled Walk With Me. That title track was featured in the rap song “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West. Like Callender, Allen’s reputation frequently preceded him. He was featured on the Nightline talk show with Ted Koppel a number of times.

Rev. Robert Price is the Black and Urban Ministries Team leader for Christian Reformed Home Missions, and he serves as associate professor of Evangelism and Urban Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. Price states, “When you read Callender’s book [Nobody Is a Nobody], you see his sense of call to the community, to get involved in the social problems that existed there over and against planting the traditional church.”

Price visited Callender in New York on a couple of occasions before Callender’s death in 2013. On those visits, he had the opportunity to see James Allen’s ministry through the Addict’s Rehabilitation Center firsthand.

“Callender and Allen recognized that drug abuse was more than a crime; it was a sickness. As a sickness, it required healing, not jail time. This was groundbreaking work.” Callender described it this way:

Perhaps the most obvious feature which one can notice in our attempts to relate the gospel to our community is our awareness of social concern. In Harlem we must be aware of the teeming thousands whose need for a total and most virile ministry cries out from the disintegration of their overcrowded streets. As one sees our parish actively concerned with the struggle against bad housing and ill-health, various forms of injustice or inadequate education, against the scourge of drug addiction and the loneliness that breeds delinquency, one really does feel that this concern is not being used as some kind of “bait” to attract people in their need to some specially religious event but that it is recognized as an integral part of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission of his Church.

Price’s commitment to ministry has that same Reformed approach. “My job is to get out in the culture and be involved. That is what being Reformed is all about. Calvin was involved in the public space. He didn’t just sit in his church waiting for people to show up.”

These stories are just a sampling of the impacts made by African Americans ministering in the CRC. Leaders like Callender, Allen, and Price are among many African Americans who are following God’s call by ministering through the Christian Reformed Church. Their stories are part of our story because they have shaped the world we live in.

To learn more about Rev. Eugene Callender, read his book, Nobody Is a Nobody.

To read some of the stories mentioned here, go to this site: Black History Month.