Integrating Churches Easier Said Than Done


One reason 11 a.m. Sunday remains the most segregated hour in America is because many church members want it that way, according to a recent article by CNN.

The Aug. 4 article quoted religious scholars and members of interracial churches who said both blacks and whites prefer segregated Sundays.

Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of United by Faith, a book that examines interracial churches in the United States, said he has encountered many African-Americans who said they want a racial timeout at church.

"They would say, 'I need a place of refuge,'" he said. "They said, 'I need to come to a place on Sunday morning where I don't experience racism.'"

DeYoung said about 5 percent of the nation's churches are racially integrated, and about half of those are in the process of becoming either all-black or all-white.

Advocates for interracial churches say churches should be ethnically mixed whenever possible to lead the way in reducing racial friction in society. That can be a struggle, the article says, as tensions arise over issues like power sharing and interracial dating.

Korie Edwards, author of The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, argues that interracial churches actually perpetuate the very racial inequality they aim to abolish.

Her research shows that mixed-race churches adhere strongly to white norms. African-Americans adapt their behavior to make white church members comfortable. Behavior that white members perceive as out of bounds seems limiting to blacks, but they conform to white expectations in church just as they do in society at large. Whites most often get their way, and people of color reinforce the process.

Edwards, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University and an African-American, said in a 2005 paper that even in interracial churches, race is a much stronger identifier for blacks than whites.

Asked how they identify themselves, African-Americans often mentioned race as the first or second descriptor, such as a "proud African-American woman."

Whites, she said, tend to view white as a neutral racial category. "Others" possess a race, but they are "raceless."

African-American evangelicals tend to explain racial inequality in terms of social structure, while whites are more likely to offer individually based explanations like attitudes or lack of motivation.

Most African-American church members relate to cultural disadvantages of being black, while most whites do not grasp the analogous concept of structural advantage.

In another article, Kirk Hadaway, David Hackett and James Fogle Miller note that most churches tend to residentially based, with a large proportion of members drawn from neighborhoods within a few miles of the church. That means members of another racial group would have to live fairly nearby, which is not typical given socioeconomic differences between blacks and whites.

Even churches with members from more than one race tend to be socioeconomically homogeneous, they say, meaning that visitors who are different in ways less obvious than race are the ones that get excluded.

In his 2007 book When All God's Children Get Together: A Memoir of Race and Baptists, Emmanuel McCall traces patterns of separate worship back to the Civil War.

During slavery, McCall says, Christian slaves either attended church with their masters--one architectural theory is that church balconies developed as a place to hold slaves--or separately, either in church houses built for slaves or in secret "brush harbor" meetings without their masters' permission.

Prior to the war, McCall says, blacks outnumbered white Southern Baptists, because households typically included more slaves than family members.

After the war, McCall says, the two races began to go their separate ways. In some cases, anger caused churches to expel newly freed black members who pressed for full recognition.

Different agendas developed, McCall says. Black Baptists emphasized education, public acceptance, trade skills and politics. White Baptists focused on recovery and reconstruction of their way of life.

McCall says racism blended with southern religion and culture to completely alienate the races in the late 19th and early 20th century.

While strong resistance to integrating white churches that existed during the Civil Rights Movement has waned, Samuel Hill wrote in his 1983 book On Jordan's Stormy Banks, neither blacks nor whites have shown much eagerness to build interracial congregations. Most progress, he says, has come in terms of respect and cooperation between black and white congregations.

For civil-rights advocate and author Will Campbell it all comes down to power.

"Integration in religion is going to be the last thing, I think, to go," Campbell said in an interview for an upcoming DVD on Baptists and race being produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics. "And it's not altogether the prejudice of white folks, and it's not really the prejudice of black folks, but there is a realm of power, of accomplishment, that the average First Baptist Church of New Orleans or Magnolia, Mississippi, or whatever is not going to hire a black pastor in my lifetime or yours."

Campbell, 83, said 11 o'clock Sunday morning remains the most-segregated hour in America largely because preachers--both black and white--want it that way.

"We're talking about integration of jobs, schools, buses--but not in church, because we run that," he said. "People do not want to give up positions of power."

"We don't mean what we say when we want to get rid of segregation," Campbell said. "We want to keep it when it's to our advantage."

"This should be the normal place where prejudice no longer reigns supremely," he said. "It should be in the churches, but it's not."

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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