When you think of an inclusive, all-welcoming place, what comes to mind? Ok, besides heaven, it should be the local church, right? However, we are still so far from that reality. Racial division does live in our churches; I fear it’s getting worse.
Think about it for a second. The majority of the time, people work together, shop together, and then divide into predictable little clusters every single Sunday 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 and anyone who says different is blind.
The same goes for Christian television. For instance, not so long ago, when you watch the Trinity Broadcasting Network; if they announce a Black host, (often) the guests were going to also be Black or minority. Coincidence? I’m don’t think so. The United States’ church is color-struck.
From a Black church to a White One…Racial Division in the Church.
I became aware of this dichotomy years ago. I had grown up in the predominately African-American Church of God in Christ. Newly divorced, emotionally broken, and deeply wounded, I felt rejected by my strict, legalistic church.
I yearned for a “God-experience” and, ironically, I found it in a church where less than 2% of the people looked like me.
You know, I didn’t even care.
One of the reasons I loved that church was because 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 fact, that’s why I stayed.
Not many Black people…but, I forgot… Of course, I “cognitively” knew I was one of few, but somehow I was oblivious to the fact that the church [was maybe] 75 percent white. I think I forgot to notice! I just felt so loved and nurtured by the people I forgot the dynamics of the congregation altogether. It didn’t matter.
Wait… truth check moment.
Honestly speaking, I didn’t really understand the music, the way they clapped, or how they worshiped. But, I had no doubt- absolutely no doubt – in my mind God placed me there.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t an initial inner battle being with so many people so very 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.
But, you’re a pastor, Man!
I have an example! One that blew my mind!
One day, I needed to meet with an older, prominent Black preacher in our community for work. I was to request 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 disapproval on that pastor’s face as I nervously replied “Sh-Sh-Sheffield”.
Although gracious, he let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I had “abandoned the churches of the Black struggle”.
I was floored. In fact, I was offended. Suddenly, I felt the weight of the entire civil rights movement on my young shoulders.
At one point, I thought he was going to get a strap and give me a fatherly “beat down”, but he didn’t – at least, not physically. He did verbally.
What that “white church” gave me.
I did leave his office with my feelings hurt, but my heart was resolute. Racial Division in the church was not going to be part of my story.
Why? Because I was growing in “that white church” and that, for me, was priceless. I couldn’t have cared less what “color” that the pastor was. In my view, he just happened to be white and I just happened to be growing spiritually. That’s all I needed.
I had the same determination as the woman in the Bible with the issue of blood – I needed the help only Jesus could give me and didn’t care about the package that help came in at all. Does that mean I could not have grown spiritually in a black church?
Maybe so, maybe not. But, Sheffield had what I needed at that time in my life.
Over time Sheffield became a melting pot congregation of various races and colors. It was beautiful. It did take a while and some people left as the church became more ethnically diverse. Still, that church was my answer to prayer.
For me, Sheffield represented a slice of the ideal – a whole bunch of people who look different from one another, speaking different languages, eating different foods – all while worshiping a mighty God together.
My life today
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 diversity is finding its way to us and our arms are wide open to it!
We reach out…
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.
Diversity has some challenges…
I understand the dilemma when language is a barrier to Christian fellowship, but what about when it isn’t? Why do we segregate on Sundays?
Is it because it’s better being around people we are more comfortable fellowshipping with? Is that right? I don’t think it is.
We shouldn’t be so lazy to reach across the community. Along the same lines, I don’t think our comfort is more important than true unity.
It really can be uncomfortable…
In fact, not long ago, my husband preached in an all Spanish church in our city. He had an interpreter. Their pastor preached at ours (he’s bilingual).
It was not convenient to drive so far from home to attend the church.
It was not convenient to try to interact with people who couldn’t understand me, nor me them.
It was confusing to sing songs in which I knew the melody but the words were different.
Yeah. It was awkward. Yet, it was one of the best Christian experiences I ever, ever had.
Let me tell you, I haven’t felt so loved as I did at that church service where most people couldn’t speak my language.
I felt Jesus in them and in their worship. I cried as the Holy Spirit showed me worship – and the Christian bond – transcends language and words. It was euphoric.
Truthfully, I wish I could share the name of the church, but I won’t. In the racist world we live in, I would rather protect them from the hate that exists in the nation.
What is the deal anyway?
So, I ask you regarding racial division in the church: why aren’t more churches more culturally diverse?
Part of it includes my 3 reasons for racial bias.
But, I’m not sure it’s that simple in church contexts.
Could it be about community demographics?
Do we attend churches closest to our homes?
Are we just more comfortable with people who share our race? If so, is it racist to be unwelcoming to those outside it?
Is it Godly?
What is the real issue in your opinion? Is the separation deep-rooted in America’s (or, in my case, Missouri’s) racist history?
Or again, are people just more comfortable worshiping with people who look like them? What’s the deal?