An annual event exploring black and white Church unity takes place in July. Tony Cummings reports on the CROSS RHYTHMS ROOTS & BRANCHES festival.

Tony Loeffler & The Blue Angels
Tony Loeffler & The Blue Angels

Summer is festival time and today's Christian calendar is crowded with events large and small presenting numerous opportunities for fans of Christian music to catch up on the latest artists and get some spiritual teaching in the process. However, the Cross Rhythms Roots & Branches festival, due to be held at Dudley Castle on 16th, 17th and 18th July is unique in that it is a brave, and possibly prophetic, move to wrench the whole topic of church unity into local church debate, not by the means of a boring talk shop but by offering Christians a vibrant, multi-cultural event where believers from different cultural backgrounds can join together to learn from each other and enjoy God together.

Over the years Roots & Branches, as reflected in its name, has grown and bloomed in numerous ways. Pioneered by Les Wilkes and Roger Wilcox of Starburst Christian Arts as an indoor one-day showcase for Christian folk roots (remember Eden Burning?) it was its alignment in 1996 with Cross Rhythms which brought it to Dudley Castle, one of the most picturesque settings for any Christian event, that it progressed to become a fully-orbed three-day event. It then gained its focus as a genuinely multi-racial, multicultural event in 1998. Cross Rhythms radio presenter Hughie Lawrence, one of the organisers of Roots & Branches is passionate about the need for the Church to find ways of working together. "With the death of Steven Lawrence, the recent race bombings in London and the admittance on the part of the police authority of their institutionalised racist attitude, we can see the way in which racism has affected all our institutions, even tragically the Church. I believe the Lord is calling his people to make a radical, and indeed prophetic, response. I don't believe that we can any longer allow the concept of black Church, white Church, to continue unchallenged. Surely God's call to all his people is for a Church where multifarious cultural differences can be expressed, but which pursues unity with vigour and passion. In the words of the Apostle Paul, paraphrased by Rev Ian Sweeney (winner of the Times Preacher Of The Year 1998/1999 with his sermon Skin Deep Christianity), There is therefore neither Jews nor Gentiles, male nor female, graduates nor undergraduates, rich nor poor, Tutsi nor Hutu, Brahman nor Untouchables, east nor west, Catholic nor Protestant, small island nor big island, black nor white, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.' Roots & Branches has a key role to play in this."

The bill for Roots & Branches is avowedly multi-cultural. On the 1999 festival bill, the black majority Church is represented by ragga man The Watchman, gospel singer Dee Moore, Midlands' group Nu Life, rappers Gifted and The Witness and one of the best choirs in Britain, Remission while the white majority Church is represented by Tony Loeffler And The Blue Angels and Darrell Evans from the USA, David Evans from Australia and British artists River Deep, The DNA AIgorithm and David Scott Morgan. Said Hughie Lawrence about the Roots & Branches line-up, "Too often in the past, events have been designated either 'gospel' and the bill has been black artists, or 'CCM' and the bill has been white. All forms and styles of music can be enjoyed by both the black and white communities and the Church has a responsibility to lead the way in this area."

As a forerunner to Roots & Branches, a one-day event called Out Of Many One People was held in Stoke-on-Trent on 15th May. Amongst the diverse artists featured on that bill was the Rev Dan Willis, leader of one of America's leading multi-racial gospel choirs. Said Lawrence, "In many ways the Rev Dan Willis is living out prophetically something churches in this country really need to get a hold of. Rather than accepting the black Church, white Church divisions Rev Dan Willis of America has pioneered a genuine multi-racial, multi-cultural church growing from a handful of people to a congregation of over 1,000. We need to be open to what God is saying today and allow him to challenge our attitudes about race and culture and not simply accept a divided Church as something that we have to tolerate."

As well as its powerful musical line-up, Roots & Branches will also have an impressive selection of seminar speakers including the Rev Carver Anderson from the New Testament Church Of God, Bishop Joe Aldread from Centre For Black And White Christian Partnership (CBWCP), Tom Brock from Wave Of Life Ministries, Hawaii and Louis Els from South Africa. There will also be an opportunity to partake of multi-cultural food. Said Cross Rhythms administrator Jonathan Bellamy, "Roots & Branches survived a difficult birth and there is no reason why attendances this year couldn't go beyond last year's of 1,000 people. It really is an exciting opportunity for Christians of every tradition and culture to find unity as they relax, listen to great music, worship and learn. Last year the festival developed a fresh identity and we really hope that it will be used by those with a heart to see unity within the church across our cultural and racial divides, particularly those with a heart to work it out in the West Midlands." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.