Church builds diversity despite crises
By Lindsay Peyton
Pastor Leo Tyler arrived at Bear Creek UMC only weeks before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. For the past year, he’s been dealing with a whole other kind of storm, COVID19. Through it all, the leader has stayed focus on his mission – to build diversity at the congregation. By serving more individuals in the community, regardless of ethnicity, age, gender or background, Bear Creek UMC has become stronger, Tyler said. Despite the obstacles, he remains undeterred in helping the church achieve its goals.
“We are good in a crisis, and it shows,” Pastor Tyler said with a smile.
Just before the pandemic shut down Houston, Bear Creek UMC was thriving. About 250 members attended the traditional service on Sundays and another 130 were in the pews for the contemporary worship.
“We were getting to our limits,” Tyler said. “We were thinking about how to get more room. All at once that was gone. We went straight to videotaping and putting it on our website.”
When the church resumed meeting in the building, following strict safety protocols, the pastor led his flock in a united service.
“We’re all in there together now,” Tyler said. “We’ve been through Harvey. We can do this.”
It was the same strategy he followed at the beginning of his service to Bear Creek, bringing the church together on Sundays.
Tyler had already unified a congregation with its surrounding community – First UMC West Campus in Houston. That location was surrounded by a wide range of cultures, including immigrants speaking French and Swahili. The church hosted different groups, and Tyler eventually pulled them in as neighbors.
Before long, he was preaching seven different sermons a Sunday, one in English and the rest with translators. “I wouldn’t finish until 7 p.m.,” he said.
And Tyler loved it. He wasn’t exhausted at the end of the day – rather, energized. He wanted his next appointment to be a challenge, to make the most of what he had learned so he could pay it forward.
“I know a lot of majority white churches are in a community that has changed, and they need to move into that to embrace their mission field,” Tyler said.
When he was appointed to Bear Creek UMC, it was an answer to his prayers. The congregation was ready and eager to reach its community.
“If something didn’t happen to this church, they were going to die,” Tyler added. “People who love their church don’t want their church to die.”
Instead, they sought change. At the time, about 91 percent of the congregation was white and 3 percent African-American. Another 7 percent attended the Spanish-speaking church.
Tyler not only wanted to reflect the ethnicity of the church’s neighborhood, but also become more multi-generational.
He explained that Bear Creek was established in the 1970s. “It was a growing community of nothing but young white families,” he said.
As the church serving this neighborhood, Bear Creek UMC had a steady growth from 1977 to 1991. “Then things started to plateau,” Tyler said. “All at once, things were changing. The neighborhood was changing.”
For too long, the church did not reflect these changes. The youth presence had diminished. The church did not reflect the growing diversity in the community. Membership waned, and finances were failing.
“By the time I got there, the church had been in at least a 10-year decline,” Tyler said. “It’s always scary when that happens. You think, ‘Am I coming in to close this church or to find a solution?’ But I never thought we would close. I never think negatively.”
Instead he held onto hope – and wanted to share that with members. “You have to know that it’s possible, that they can do this,” he said.
The church was ready to turn around – and Tyler to be its guide. The church was preparing for its 40th anniversary celebration, and in that history, Tyler was its first African-American senior pastor.
He was ready to bring the church up to a more diverse, more integrated future, to make it a place where everyone felt welcomed.
“Then, eight weeks into my appointment, Harvey said, ‘Hello,’’ the pastor recalled. “They saw a pastor in crisis. I just had to be the person coordinating things.”
Tyler credits his congregation for their generosity, perseverance and hard work in a time of need – even though dozens of members lost their own homes. Tyler opened the doors to the church for parishioners to take refuge. Then the building became a call center for rescues, a distribution center and a place to go for a hot meal.
“Bear Creek became a community center,” Tyler said. “The people were willing and ready to help. We were being exactly what we needed to be.”
Reaching out and becoming part of the neighborhood was, after all, exactly what the church hoped to be. And in the process, they were able to welcome more diverse neighbors to their services.
Tyler said that Hurricane Harvey sped up the process of building a multi-ethnic church. “I would have done it slower — but this was a perfect time,” he said. “We were going through change to make change. Change is always going to happen. It’s about how we deal with the transition.”
Already, Tyler had created a contemporary service to reach more ethnicities and younger families. Still, he recognized that church leadership and staff had to become more diverse.
“It all starts with leadership,” he said. “You need a place for all at the table.”
By the end of his first year, Susie Morales, a Hispanic woman joined the staff as Children’s Director, and Jonathan Sampson, an African-American man, became Youth Director.
Seeing a place for diverse staff opened the hearts of prospective members. After three years, the congregation transformed form 91 percent to 70 percent White. The preschool went from all white to about 40 percent and now includes 15 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African-American, 15 percent Asian and 2 percent Pacific Islander
“We are a safe place, where people who are different than you feel welcome,” Tyler said. “That didn’t just happen.”
Changing the church’s culture depended on building trust and relationships, making an investment in diversity, inviting the community into the church and creating strong leaders in the congregation that share the vision.
Being accepting and open required a holistic approach, Tyler said. “Our lasting purpose is to create a culture based on Christ’s love,” he added. “We all want to know that we are loved and that we belong.”
That means leadership should be looking towards the goal of building God’s kingdom, Tyler explained. “We have to be forward-thinking. You have to think about the future,” he said.
Bear Creek UMC wanted to become part of its community, to pull members in and to grow, Tyler said. As a leader, it was his role to join them on that journey and to help them define a new identity.
“I try to find people where they are and help them move to where they need and want to be,” Tyler said.
He explained that he believes a person is defined by their faith – not by anything else. “Your true identity is who you are in Christ,” he said.
And that’s a message that his congregation supports. The church is taking strides forward to a more diverse and inclusive future.
“We’re going to continue,” Tyler said. “We’ve got good things in place. We just have to keep doing it. We’ll get back to where we were before COVID – and then we’ll surpass it.”