the shape of leadership

Crossing the Lines That Divide

A conversation with Sam Huddleston and George Westlake III

Influence Magazine on May 5, 2021

Sam Huddleston and George Westlake III know what it takes to lead across the dividing lines of race and ethnicity.

Huddleston, who is Black, is assistant superintendent of the Northern California & Nevada District of the Assemblies of God, which is majority white. Westlake, who is white, is lead pastor of Sheffield Family Life Center (AG) in Kansas City, Missouri, which is majority Black.

In this interview, they share the lessons they have learned from providing day-to-day leadership to organizations in which they are racial or ethnic minorities.

INFLUENCE: Why is it important to form relationships across dividing lines of race and ethnicity?
I have two words: my grandchildren. I did not know how important it was when I was a child, but I have come to realize that my life is much richer because of the diversity I experienced early in life. My father had relationships with all men in our diverse community. They worked together. Some went to church with him. He showed me that relationships were important by how he lived his life.

I want to leave my grandkids the same legacy.

WESTLAKE: It’s important for growth, understanding and perspective. But most of all, it’s important for the unity such relationships provide. They’re not just a task, not just a mission. They’re life. They’re relationships of genuine love, and that is beautiful and enriching, inspiring, and very educational.

Do you think your children and grandchildren have a different racial and ethnic future than you had growing up?
Yes and no.

I have 13 grandchildren. When the older ones were in high school a few years ago, some of them wanted to change schools because they got tired of their white friends peppering them with questions like, “Hey, can I feel your hair?”

I had to live through those questions when I was their age; now they are. So, no.

On the other hand, yes, because they’re dealing with it differently. It’s a whole new world. Three of my grandchildren are half-Black, half-white. Everything’s different. They’re not just one race or ethnicity.

WESTLAKE: I believe they face the same reality, but with different avenues of approach.

Some of the things we’ve seen over the past year or so are similar to what happened 50 years ago. I’m talking about racial and ethnic disparities in education, poverty, encounters with law enforcement, incarceration, and the like. I’m talking about things that appear to be injustices, everything from George Floyd to the mistreatment of a Black man walking into a grocery store that I witnessed last year firsthand.

The avenues of approach are different, however. The generations coming up now — millennials and beyond — look at these matters differently. They don’t have the biases that generations before them had. They’re much more inclusive. So there is progress. The avenues are broader. There’s more traffic allowed on those streets.

What cultural competencies do church leaders need to develop personal friendships across race and ethnicity?
We need to develop the aptitude for continually shaping who we are. Who we are shapes what we do, and who we are comes from what we see and hear.

So we need to develop the competency of learning and experiencing new things. Relationships with people who aren’t like us is a great way to do that. Diversity in relationships is very rewarding and beautiful. But if you don’t cross cultural dividing lines, you’ll never learn this.

As you experience life with diverse people, you start to realize that someone doesn’t have to be like you to be right. They don’t have to be like you to be acceptable. If pastors get that, they’ll begin to see beauty in things they’ve never been willing to see or hear before.

HUDDLESTON: The one thing that stands out is empathy. Let me explain.

When I was 17 years old, I was away from God and my family. Like the Prodigal Son, I was in a far-off land.

While I was running from God, my dad sent me a poem he wrote that radically changed my life. My dad wrote it from the perspective of a young man in the condition I was living in, though he had never been in such. But his poem described exactly how I was living and felt. I remember thinking, How could my dad know these feelings?

Then it hit me: Every day I was gone, he was with me.

Until someone else feels another’s pain, they don’t experience it. By God’s grace, though, you can enter the other person’s experience with empathy and feel what they’re walking through. This is a game changer.

My dad’s empathy changed my life so much that I vowed I would never again cause the pain he was feeling. And I never did. I, like the Prodigal Son, came home to my family and my father’s God, who became my God.

How can pastors lead their congregations to develop cross-cultural competencies?
The first thing is to be prepared for a challenge.

Second, my staff always looked like the church I wanted to pastor. From the day I planted a church in my living room, we planned for diversity.

My wife led worship and would make us learn praise songs in other languages. People would ask, “Do we have people here who speak that language?”

She would say, “No, but when they show up, we want them to know we’ve been waiting on them.”

Pastors have to project a willingness to change in order to welcome others to the congregation. This must be seen in who leads from the pulpit, what gets sung, how messages are preached — every aspect of a church’s life.

I took my leaders to the community where I was raised. That community was very diverse — Filipinos, Asians, Blacks, whites, Hispanics. And then I told my leaders, “When I think of the Church, this is what I see, and this is what I want our church to be like.”

WESTLAKE: We need a genuine display of acceptance and appreciation. And we have to honor the culture that is not ours. We have to honor the people who represent that culture. We have to give them influence, not just involvement, and decision-making power, not just participation in activities.

As church leaders, we have to grow sociologically as well as theologically. When those two things develop together, we move forward and we grow.

The counterfeit of genuine honor is tokenism. There’s a difference between intentionality and tokenism. Intentionality says, “We honor this person by giving them leadership, giving them a place of influence.”

Tokenism says something like, “We want people to think we’re about diversity, so we’re going to stick a non-white person on the worship team so people can see them.”

“We need a genuine display of acceptance and appreciation.”
— George Westlake III

As the lead pastor, I sit in the front row during worship service and just listen to a Black or a Hispanic preacher, minister or singer. I show by how I sit, by my posture, that I receive their leadership and honor them for it. As a white man, it is very important for me to show that I listen to and honor a leader who is not white.

HUDDLESTON: Let me put some more meat on what George said. I was the youth pastor for Terry Inman, who is white. I’d never been on staff with someone white. He made sure I was at every board meeting for the entire time I worked with him.

I remember one particular board meeting. A guy said something that was wrong. I stood up and raised my voice. Now that can be scary to some whites. They may see me as an angry Black man. One of the other board members says, “Pastor Sam, calm down.”

And Pastor Inman said, “He is calm.”

In that moment, my pastor empowered me to be me.

One of the main reasons I’m the leader that I am today is that Terry Inman gave me an opportunity to develop and helped me with the rawness in my heart that I didn’t even know was there.

What are some obstacles to developing relationships across lines of race and ethnicity? What price does a leader pay? And could you comment specifically on how politics divide people?
This season of politics and controversies we’ve been through the last year has created amazing divisions — amazing in a bad way. There are cultural differences that people don’t take the time to understand. These become obstacles or choke points.

I think history plays a big role — the history of your race or ethnicity, of your family, of where you grew up, or how you grew up. That’s a huge part of what shapes us. It can create beauty and acceptance, or it can create obstacles and division.

Take a list of words and mention them to a diverse group of people. Reparations. See what you get there. Slavery. Mention incarceration, systemic racism, police brutality. You will get a plethora of emotions, reactions and viewpoints. And those end up being choke points.

One person is going to say, “I don’t understand this. This is not an issue.”

But another person will say, “This is the issue. I have to think about it every day I live.”

These choke points become the building blocks that have shaped us into who we are.

If I’m going to understand another person, then I have to give the same grace to them that I expect from them. It’s easier to receive grace than to give, though.

HUDDLESTON: I don’t think politics is the problem. How we live out our politics is the problem.

As a pastor, I’d tell my people that when it comes to elections, they should study and find out what candidate or issue is best and vote that way.

Then I would ask questions like this: “How many funerals have we mourned together? How many times have we celebrated Communion? How many times have you been on vacations together? How many of your children are dating?”

Finally, I gave them this warning: “If you allow your political viewpoint to separate you from your friends, I will personally ask you to leave this church, because we have worked too hard to maintain the peace that Jesus went to the Cross for!”

When bad things happened in our community or in the nation, we would come together and talk about them. Some of those meetings were heated, but we never let that divide us. Whatever political party you want to be, that’s on you. They all have their pluses and minuses. But as a church, when we make our politics a doctrine to align with, we have a problem.

The list of other obstacles is long, and it will differ depending on the people involved. I don’t know whether a lot of people want to pay the price you have to pay to have the kind of relationships George and I are describing. But once you build them, you realize something was missing beforehand.

I remember a church member who taught Sunday School. He was elected mayor of our city twice. One day, he stood up to speak to the congregation:

“I’m always bragging about our multiethnic church, what God is doing here. But the other day I was praying, and the Lord said, ‘That’s good, but I have questions for you: Who do you hang out with during the week? Who comes to your house for dinner during the week? Who do you go with on lunch breaks and all the rest? You have a Sunday morning thing, but it’s just not a part of who you are.’”

And that man challenged all of us that Sunday when he stood up to speak.

In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” How do we follow Paul’s example when it comes to developing diverse relationships?
I think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan made the move the other two were not willing to make. He had a different heart. Like I said earlier, what we do comes out of who we are.

Jesus said, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

HUDDLESTON: You can’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing when you’re starting to build diverse relationships. You will. It’s inevitable.

I have a new white friend, Ed. We started walking together last year. Then all hell broke loose culturally and ethnically throughout the nation. We just kept walking. Our conversations are enriching. From the beginning, we both said, “We’re going to probably say the wrong thing from time to time. So we’re going to extend grace and forgiveness to each other, and we’re going to help each other.”

Racism is not one-sided. Nobody wants to be a racist, whether you’re Black, white, green or turquoise. We have to give each other grace.

What helps me the most is Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

This is a spiritual battle we’re in. People who love Jesus — whether Black, white, Hispanic or Asian — must remember that the devil has been cast down. He knows his time is short, so he’s trying to destroy everybody he can. Unfortunately, sometimes we’re too stupid to realize who the real enemy is.

It’s been said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. If readers want to follow you on this journey across the dividing lines of race and ethnicity, what’s the first step they can take today?
HUDDLESTON: Realize the need beyond yourself. So much of what we do is all about “me.”

It’s not about me. It’s about the kingdom of God. And I’d build relationships across all kinds of lines because I want to enrich the Kingdom.

WESTLAKE: Begin by expanding your circle. Read and listen to voices that you wouldn’t normally listen to. Read opinions that you might find culturally offensive. Broaden your relationships, and put yourself in a position to be a minority. Doing that will help you understand the other person’s point of view.

This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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