The Pitfalls of Racially Segregated Worship
What began this series for me was the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1963 March on Washington in August, and my thinking about this landmark moment regarding school desegregation caused me to think about the church. When in 1968, just before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon at the National Cathedral said, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America,” I doubt that Dr. King could have imagined the small strides we’ve made in 50 years toward desegregating our houses of worship. While we’ve made huge strides in most arenas of public life, I believe Dr. King’s 1968 observation is just as true today as it was then. While some churches are fully integrated, many (dare I say a majority) of our churches don’t look much different in terms of racial and ethnic diversity than they did 50 years ago. How can this be?
First of all, we must establish why worshiping with people who are different than we matters in the first place. If everyone has the freedom to choose and houses of worship are open to everyone, what difference does it make if we choose to worship with others who look, act, and live as we? While we could beg the question about whether all of our worship spaces are truly hospitable and open to all (and I’m not confident that they are in many parts of our country), we’ll start with the question, “What will heaven look like?”
If heaven is our ultimate destination, we would be well served to consider worship in heaven and work our way back to how worship in the here and now ought to look more like heaven than reflect our preferences and biases. While all Christians believe that our ultimate gathering in the presence of Christ will be comprised of people from all walks of life and every corner of the earth, we fail to do what is necessary to bring about such a reality down here. With our world continually becoming more connected and our awareness of what others are doing increases, many people desire for their faith experiences to be more broadly connected rather than segregated, yet many churches are nearly homogenous.
Yet considering why churches are slow to change is important, particularly related to ethnic and cultural diversity. Church is often identified with tradition, family memories, and rites of passage. While these connections are strong in most congregations, they tend to be especially meaningful where minority populations are required to sacrifice much of their ethnic and cultural heritage in daily life. Church can be become a haven of safety, familiarity, and preservation. While our worship connects us to the cosmic history of God, our particular history of God’s work is often viewed through the lens of our experiences with our families and those closest to us. Since churches are places that change slowly, they are often havens for us to stay in touch with our cultural heritage.
Church change happens slowly, and it lags cultural change at large. Hence, while schools, restaurants, shopping venues, ballparks, and theatres have been racially integrated for decades, churches continue to trail other institutions. Church participation is sometimes sentimental, and we can easily fall into emotional traps of familiarity and memory. While our emotional connections are formidable, they may also hold us back.
So what would have to change for churches to become more hospitable and welcoming? What can we do to move closer toward an image of all God’s people worshiping together in heaven and on earth. Here are a few suggestions:
• We must begin by considering that to worship with people who are different than we allows for the possibility that as our relationships with others grow, our view of God expands. When we truly desire God, and we begin to fathom the enormity of God’s being, we are no longer content with a God who is made in the image of me and those whom I know. We then naturally seek others who, although different than we, are also made in God’s image and reflect God.
• We must embrace leadership from a diverse group of people. All studies related to building multicultural congregations agree that people come to church desiring to see at least a few people with whom they readily identify. This identification specifically must happen with those who lead us in worship – music leaders, proclaimers, readers, and prayer leaders.
• We must loosen the grips on our denominational affiliations when they hinder our progress toward racial and ethnic progress. Many denominations were built around their ethnic identity, and if we are to become more inclusive, we may need to start by re-imagining our denomination’s tenets.
• We must start to use a broader variety of music through which more people can identify (see this post). People often find their identity through music of diverse styles and genres. When we sing songs from different cultures and ethnic groups, the possibility of reaching out in hospitable ways increases.
• We must redefine preaching and proclamation. Since methods of proclaiming can be ethnic specific, re-imagining the way in which the Word is proclaimed is important. We might consider using multiple proclaimers in a single service, using media to assist with proclamation, employing a greater use of story and testimony, and more.
• We must come to grips with our biases and prejudices. Granted, all of us have blind spots, and a lifetime is too short to shine light on all of them. However, the process of change never launches from a place of denial. Interestingly, having lived in three distinct location of the continental United States, different geographical regions practice racial segregation in different ways. However, while easy to recognize in others, it is difficult to see in ourselves.
In closing, I offer a quote from Elmore Lewis, an African American man in Andalusia, Alabama, whom I met a few years ago while interviewing him for a local history project. Mr. Lewis concluded our interview with these words:
“And we feel like in the end of our life on this earth, we all are gonna be blessed to be with the Lord. So it’s not gonna be any race, creed or color. Everybody will be alike; so what we emphasize is practice down here. Let’s practice down here on how it’s gonna be when our spirit gets with Jesus. We always say, “If you can’t get along with your brothers and sisters down here, how you gone do when you get up in glory?” Are you even gonna be able to make it to Glory?”
These are big issues. I look forward to your responses and suggestions.