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KANSAS CITY, Missouri — When George Westlake Jr. became pastor in 1973, Sheffield Family Life Center in Kansas City, Missouri, had modest digs for the 400 white attendees. Over the years the neighborhood began to change, and Westlake figured the church better change with it to survive.
Congregants against the idea of becoming multiethnic soon left, but the church began to grow and thrive. By the time Westlake retired in 2006, thousands — over half of them nonwhite — worshipped at Sheffield Family Life Center every week.
George Westlake III succeeded his father as pastor, and now the church is even more reflective of its metropolitan neighborhood, with 75 percent of attendees being African-American.
With 5,720 regular attendees, Sheffield Family Life Center is one of the largest congregations in the U.S. Assemblies of God. It is one of, if not the largest, black AG churches in the nation. The huge church edifice, built in 2000, rises in the midst of older compact houses and sprawling factories. A gymnasium and youth center, where basketball leagues play games and self-defense karate classes are taught, are located across the street from the church.
These days the church’s constituency also includes a lot of single parents, low-income families, the disenfranchised, and new Christian converts.
“Being in the urban core is kind of like being on the mission field,” says George Westlake III, a youthful-looking 54. “It’s a different culture. You have to learn the culture and love the culture, or you’re not going to be able to reach the culture.”
Of course some white people have left Sheffield Family Life Center because they thought the church has become too black, while some African-Americans won’t stay because the church has a white lead pastor.
George Jr., now 85, remains pastor emeritus and still teaches a Wednesday night Bible study.
George III intentionally hires nonwhite associate pastors because the community is largely African-American. Ray Mabion II, senior associate pastor at the church, came on board 10 years ago shortly after George III became lead pastor. Mabion believes the multiple races worshipping together offers a glimpse of heaven.
“The African-Americans in the congregation see Pastor George’s connectedness with them and the community,” says Mabion, 46. “Regardless of color, if you have a genuine heart for your people, that stands out more than anything.”
The two morning services are reflective of black culture: a robed choir that sways during worship, older members in their Sunday best, gospel songs that emphasize words more than instrumentation, a choir number, congregants who actually read a printed Bible rather than looking at verses on their smartphones, animated sermons punctuated with applause and “amens.”
Westlake is an apparel outlier, most comfortable in blue jeans, Chelsea boots, and a T-shirt.
Racial reconciliation is a frequent theme in sermons. While whites may not intentionally hate or be prejudiced against blacks, Westlake stresses the importance of races linking hands with people who look differently.
“As a white male, I cannot understand, fully, what an African-American male my age has been through,” Westlake says. “Caucasians must be willing to try to understand the real reason why younger black males feel it’s dangerous to drive down the street.”
Mabion says the church offers a variety of benevolence ministries, including monthly food distribution to over 1,000 people a month, to meet the needs of those struggling economically in the neighborhood.
“It’s beautiful to see a line of people at 7 in the morning outside the church and down the street waiting for groceries,” Mabion says. “It’s awesome to bless people in need living right next door.”
IMAGE - Sheffield Family Life Center