When you think of an inclusive, all-welcoming place, what comes to mind? Ok, besides heaven, it should be the local church. However, we are still so far from that reality.
Think about for a second. The majority of the time, people work together, shop together and then divide into predictable little clusters every Sunday single morning.
I don’t know about you, but it’s been this way most my life. Churches are the most racially divided public institutions on the planet, in my opinion. Same goes for Christian television. For instance, watch the Trinity Broadcasting Network; if they announce a a Black host, (often) the guests are going to also be Black or minority. Coincidence? I’m don’t think so. The church is color-stuck.
Back in the day….
I became aware of this dichotomy years ago. Growing up in the predominately African-American Church of God in Christ , Sheffield Family Life Center [church] was a culture shock to me. Newly divorced, emotionally broken and deeply wounded, I yearned for a “God-experience” and I found it there. Sheffield was my answer to prayer. Every sermon the pastor, Dr. George Westlake, delivered was spot on target and eerily spoke to very specific struggles in my broken, hopeless personal life. This went on for years.
In a short span of time, I was somewhat oblivious to the fact that the church was maybe 75 percent white. I just felt so loved and nurtured by those people, I forgot the dynamics of the congregation.
Honestly speaking, I didn’t really understand their music, the way they clapped or how they worshiped. But, there was no doubt- absolutely no doubt – in my mind that God called me there. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a initial inner battle being with so many people different from me. In the beginning it was incredibly rough, to say the least. To add ‘hot sauce to my onion’ was the fact that my friends (and even some strangers) criticized me for attending “that white” church.
One day, for a work project, I needed to meet with an older, prominent Black preacher to ask a favor on behalf of the nonprofit for which I worked. The meeting went well and he agreed to my work-related request. Then, at the conclusion of the meeting, he asked the loaded question.
“What church do you attend, dear?”
I can still remember the disappointment on that pastor’s face as I replied “Sh-Sh-Sheffield”. Although gracious, he let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I had “abandoned the churches of the Black struggle”.
Suddenly, I felt the weight of the entire civil rights movement on my shoulders. At one point, I thought he was going to get a strap and give me a “beat down”, but he didn’t – at least, not physically. I did leave there with my feelings hurt, but my heart was resolute. I was growing in “that white church” and that, for me, was priceless. I couldn’t have cared less what “color” that pastor was. I had the same determination as the woman with the issue of blood – I needed the help that only Jesus could give and didn’t care who could give it to me. Does that mean I could not have grown spiritually in a black church? Maybe so, maybe not. But, that church had what I needed at that time in my life.
Sheffield, over the years, grew more and more diverse and it’s composition now reflects what I think heaven will look like. For me, Sheffield represents a slice of the ideal – a whole bunch of people that look differently, speak differently (some even speaking different languages) -all worshiping a mighty God together.
Now, many years later, I’m married to a wonderful pastor in an incredible Black church full of loving, amazingly caring people. Let me tell you, these people love Jesus! And, I can see that diversity is finding its way to us and our arms are wide open. From time to time, we fellowship with other churches and Caucasian people have preached in our pulpit – and my husband preaches in theirs. Progress has made it’s first footprints.
However, some would say, it’s taking too long for the corporate Christian church to expand beyond race and ethnicity. I understand the dilemma when language is an barrier, but what about when it isn’t?