Monthly Archives: March 2013

A few observations as follow-up to my last blog. It seems many white churches are painfully aware of the problem of Sunday-morning segregation but have no strategy to change it. If they are waiting for that day when twelve families of color magically walk through their doors, they’ll be waiting a long time.

Last night, I performed one of the most painful exercises I have ever done. No, I’m not talking about barbell lunges. In an effort to find a church with a racially diverse congregation, my wife and I went through the entire directory and looked up the various churches on the internet. Websites can be very revealing. Photos even more so. For example, a friend had recommended a certain large church downtown, claiming that such an inner-city church must surely have a diverse body. We looked at the church’s website, but saw no people of color in the photos. Then we looked at the church staff page. I am sorry to say that of the twenty of so ministry and administrative staff positions, all of them were filled by white people. Every single one. The only people of color were on the custodial staff. (If you spent the time to scroll down to the bottom of the page, past the elderly lady who makes the sermon tapes, you might see them). What a statement! Sadly, this is only too common here.

As pastors, why would we expect a person of color to feel welcome or comfortable in our churches if we make no effort to show diversity in our staff, or at least in our worship team, announcements, or what we present from the altar? This makes a huge statement about what we value as a congregation. Some pastors may claim that there are no people of color in the congregation to draw from. That’s rather a passive argument. Okay, then hire someone. If we have no problem hiring a janitor with dark skin and trusting him with the keys to the building, then we can certainly hire a qualified person of color to make announcements from the pulpit, or lead worship–something! If this sounds unscrupulous to us, then I suggest we do not grasp the gravity of our situation. Or perhaps darker forces are at work here.

Another reason people of color may visit our churches but never stay long may be in the tone and content of what is presented from the pulpit. People of color may feel that we have no concept of how they live and the things they deal with on a daily basis. They’re right. Many white churches spend time praising the United States of America as if it were the greatest thing since aerosol cheese. This is a great country, but it is not so for everyone. It may seem hard for us to believe, but many people of color actually find it difficult to make it here. During a recent sermon one white pastor launched into an encomium on the greatness of the American justice system. I could not help thinking of how a person of color would feel hearing that (fortunately, there weren’t any near the place).

Sure the system seems great if it works for you, but that is because it is engineered to work for white people, especially the affluent ones. In reality there are really two Americas, one for the white and rich, and one for the poor and people of color. If we really want people of color to stay in our churches, we need to get to know that “other” America. We need to immerse ourselves in the issues and challenges they face, talk about things like racism, economic disparity, injustice. It will do us and our congregations some good. People of color also tend to vote differently (you mean it’s possible to vote “the other way” and still get into heaven? Amazing, isn’t it?) It’s time to break out of the white Republican bubble and see the rest of America.

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Just Decent Folks

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.—Revelation 7:9

“I hate it,” my four-year-old protested, as she listed her reasons why she refused to go to Sunday School that morning. “It’s boring,” she continued. “No one plays with me!” she added. We were still not impressed. Then, like Clancey, she lowered the boom, blurting out tearfully, her little lower lip quivering, “I’m the only one with brown skin!”

Since moving to the South, we have attended several churches in our effort to find a church home. They have all been filled with sweet, hospitable people. They could not have been more welcoming to us, as a white couple with a bi-racial child. They have all seemed theologically balanced. The preaching has been of high quality. There’s been just one problem: most of these churches are white. Not just mainly white, mostly white, or predominantly white. They’re so white they look like Lands’ End catalogues. Looking from the altar, you could go snow-blind.

It has been frustrating enough trying to find a church where we feel comfortable as charismatic evangelicals. (Churches here are mostly one or the other. A ridiculous choice, like having to choose between Jesus and the Holy Spirit.) But having to choose between an all-white or all-black church is just plain wrong. At one very large all-black church I visited, I thought I could get lost in the crowd. Fat chance. (Yes, I was stared at–exactly what a black person must feel in attending a white church). We also attended a Spanish church—our daughter was so excited to see people with brown skin! The people were great, but the language barrier was a problem.

Finally, we thought we had settled on a church. It was the best we could do, we thought. Then, our daughter gave us that wakeup call to jolt us out of our complacency. As a father I felt both frustration and conviction. Frustration over the racial ossification that so often passes for Christianity in this country, and conviction over my own complicity in both the wider problem and my own daughter’s pain.

In response to a question as to why the church was not taking more of a lead in the struggle for desegregation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked with sadness ,

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning, when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this.

Fifty years later, have we made much progress? I have to say that after a year and a half living here, I have met only a few people that I would consider openly “racist.”  So what’s the problem? Perhaps the problem is that racism is more often tacit than stated, complicit than active. These days it is expressed more in what we do, where we live, the relationships or schools we choose, than in what we say or consciously believe.

How is it that in 2013, we Christians, of all people, can still be so comfortable with the status quo of racial segregation? What bothers me the most is not that there are white churches and black churches, but that we all seem okay with that!

Of course, King struggled with this too. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), he wrote:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Ah. People of good will. Just plain, decent folks. Where would the world be without us? We are the mainstay of every culture, a bulwark against moral depravity and anarchy. Without us, things like democracy could not survive. Yet ironically, sadly, tragically, these same quiet decent souls are the very backbone of racism in this country—always have been and always will be. Frothing segregationists and white robed supremacists may capture the headlines, but in the end they are but a carnival sideshow compared to the mighty, destructive power of the decent folk like me, whose pressed white shirts and green lawns mask a savage indifference, a ruthless, murderous passivity. Slavery could not have endured so long without us, so warmly tucked into our beds in South and North. Jim Crow could not have kept its iron talons so firmly embedded for near a century. Eight million Jews could not have been so tidily eliminated without the blind complicity and willful ignorance of us, the infantry of inertia, the stalwarts of the status quo.

There are many kinds of racism. There is the loud-mouthed, ignorant, bullying kind, like Commissioner Bull Connor, who loosed attack dogs on little black school girls. There is the cowardly kind, who move in packs at night protected by white sheets. There are those possessed of a dangerous eloquence that can sway millions. But none of them could last a day without the silent blessing, apathy, or votes of us decent folks, whose passive kind of racism outsmiles, outlabors, out-Herods all the rest.

We’re not giving up, even if it means planting a church ourselves, or at least finding one where the leadership has a vision that both reflects and celebrates the cultural diversity of the kingdom of God.

“And a little child shall lead them.”

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