Must We “Love One Another” Even in Church?

It’s no secret, while most of us abhor racial segregation in general, we seem to prefer it in church. A national survey shows that only 7.5% of congregations can call themselves multiracial, meaning no one race comprises more than 80% of the members. Activists who try to improve those numbers often run into a buzz saw of opposition and must ask themselves: is racial inclusiveness for one hour on Sunday morning worth the hassle?

Powerful Forces

Advocates must confront strong sociological, economic and theological forces underlying segregation in church.  Dr. George Yancey, a sociologist at the University of North Texas and coauthor of United by Faith, explains:  “while it’s a complex topic, obviously there’s a history of racial segregation” that spilled over into church.  Since then, we have tended to “integrate workplaces because we want to make money, but we don’t have the same incentive to integrate our worship.”  Instead, in church “we naturally drift toward our comfort zones.”  We stay with our own kind.

Through the history of segregated churches, “we developed unique cultures that got tied in with race and religion” and now “people continue to worship separately because of these long-standing cultures,” according to Prof. Michael Emerson, a sociologist at Rice University and Yancy’s coauthor.  Emerson also wrote Divided by Faith, a report on a nationwide survey he conducted to reveal attitudes toward racial integration in church.

Segregation on Sunday propagates itself as friends invite friends to join. Emerson argues long-standing segregated housing and social patterns mean most of us have friends of the same race, which influences how churches grow.  Religious leaders focus on enticing people to church and making churchgoers feel comfortable, so they may not press the racial issue, asserts Emerson.

Changing those patterns would require a Herculean effort. With our nation’s Constitutional separation of church and state, we do not use legislative and judicial tools to integrate our churches in the same way we protect civil rights. Further, in contrast to discrimination in the workplace and segregation in schools, few leaders have emerged to champion the need to desegregate Sunday mornings, according to Arturo Lucero, a California pastor and the founder of Multi-Cultural Ministries.

One approach involves starting new churches that deliberately target those who want to worship in a multiracial setting. But for people who want to stay in their current churches, “the hardest way to achieve multiracial worship is by converting an existing, successful mono-racial church,” according to Lucero.  In those cases, Emerson explains advocates face substantial inertia in the congregation as well as entrenched power structures.

Plus, according to Emerson, often churches wanting to diversify make the mistake of saying to the outside world: “Come and be like us.  But people don’t want to be like them.  They want to be like themselves.”  Conversion requires bridging many differences, from musical and preaching styles (both content and delivery) to decorum during worship.  Churches must confront, for example, the vitally-important, age-old issue: to clap or not.  With such tall obstacles, many efforts to desegregate churches fail.

Some efforts fail worse than others. In 1969, the Rev. Bruce Johnson actively encouraged Hispanic Americans, particularly young Puerto Ricans, to attend his predominantly white United Methodist church located in a historically white, but changing neighborhood, on the north side of Chicago.

But Rev. Johnson’s church didn’t embrace the Hispanic youth.  As the youth arrived, most of the white church members stopped coming.  Then the death threats started.  Forty years ago this month, on September 29, 1969, Rev. Bruce Johnson and his wife Jeannie were brutally murdered. The killer stabbed Bruce 18 times, in their home, as their three young kids slept in an adjacent room.   Nothing was taken.  The Chicago police never solved the murders, although they reopened the case a few years ago at the request of a Hispanic gentleman who knew them.

In 1969, I struggled to understand why anyone would kill my Uncle Bruce and Aunt Jeannie, but also why my aunt and uncle would risk their lives by not heeding the threats. Eight years old, I lived 20 minutes away, but in a completely different world: the suburbs.  Their cause, if I understood it at all, seemed very foreign to me.

While closely related by blood, my uncle and I could not be more different. In high school, my essentially all-white class of about 850 elected me “Most Conservative” just before the Reagan years.  While my uncle decided at an early age to dedicate himself to the Lord, like my father I pursued corporate law. In short, I’m the type of person my uncle opposed, vehemently. Even so, intrigued by what my aunt and uncle saw as important enough to risk death, I spent the last two years investigating multiracial worship.

Three Friends

In 2008, despite the odds, a group of North United Methodist Church members in Indianapolis sought to achieve greater integration in their worship. Stimulated by a lecture Prof. Yancey gave in Indianapolis and led by an articulate Indiana University professor who teaches a class on the challenges of multiracial worship, several members petitioned North Church.  In their predominately white church, these members wanted to incorporate music and content to make the service more inviting to a diverse crowd.  For the most part, though, an emotional backlash greeted their efforts.

Facing the negative reaction, three women petitioners, each of a different race, made the decision to pursue their cause in a different way. Rather than preaching to others about how they should worship, these women decided to live by example and let others see the light if inclined.  So these friends worship together, and serve their church.

On the one hand, these women could not be more different.   Lisa Hamilton, a Caucasian, 48-year-old mom, stays at home to care for four children.   Her father served as the pastor at North Church, and she comes from a politically well-connected family. Her Uncle Lee Hamilton served as a longtime congressman from Indianapolis, President Obama picked her brother, David Hamilton, for a U.S. Court of Appeals slot, and the President nominated her sister-in-law, Dawn Johnson, to a high-ranking Justice Department position.  Lisa and both of her brothers graduated from Harvard or Yale.

A 60-year-old African-American nurse, Rennett Smith grew up in a poor, almost exclusively African-American neighborhood. The first in her family to attend college, Smith earned degrees in nursing and history.  Through much of her life, she attended church episodically until she joined North Church six years ago and became active.

Hsiao-Han Daphne Chiu, a 34-year-old citizen of Taiwan, came to the United States with limited English language skills to study for a doctoral degree in environmental engineering at Purdue University.  Raised in the Buddhist tradition, her family prizes education and most of them achieve significant levels.  She came to North Church initially at the suggestion of her new husband and his father, a Methodist pastor. Chiu works for the City of Indianapolis on water treatment issues.

Setting aside the differences in race, age, family backgrounds, religious traditions and experiences, these women share a common intellect and moral center.  Apparently that’s enough for them to forge close bonds.  Tightly knit, they work within North Church to spread the word about multiracial worship.

Both Hamilton and Chiu have gifted singing voices and serve in the North Church choir.  Early in the efforts to intentionally pursue greater diversity in the church, these women and the Indiana University professor (also a choir member) focused on the type of music sung on Sunday mornings.  That’s when the conflict started.

Hamilton, Chiu, Smith and others suggested a broader range of music to attract people of other races, such as the large African-American community immediately around the church.  Other choir members earnestly pointed out they already did some diverse music and, as a predominantly Caucasian choir, lacked the training to sing in other styles. North Church has a reputation for an outstanding music program, and indeed this summer several members performed in Carnegie Hall.  As Lurceo explains, an Anglo-American soloist trained in 17th century classical music “cannot simply start singing gospel with authenticity.”

After much discussion, the church decided to invite a few more outside musicians and choirs from other churches, and to set up a special choir to sing culturally diverse songs. Unfortunately, only a handful of women signed up for the new choir, and almost no men. Given the imbalance, the small choir simply could not hit all the notes they needed, and the choir disbanded earlier this year.  Presently there exists a somewhat uneasy détente, with both sides feeling some pain.

Apart from choir activities, Hamilton chairs the churches’ Committee on Lay Leadership.  Given her long tenure at the church, Hamilton knows personally many of the members. She takes it upon herself to recruit and nurture minorities with leadership potential to bring them into the churches’ organizational structure.  Unfortunately, she has difficulty finding enough people of color with the needed background and willingness to serve in leadership roles.

Despite Chiu’s introverted personality and then-limited English skills, one of the pastors at the church, herself a young woman, recruited Chiu to join the church’s membership committee.   On the committee, Chiu makes it her mission to reach out to the minorities living around the church, hoping they will join.   She wants not only to get them in the door, but to pair them with existing church members to mentor their early involvement. Wherever possible she likes to pair people on the basis of common backgrounds, but Chiu sometimes finds it difficult to get enough member mentors.

Smith focuses her energies on race relations within the church.  In order to foster a more open and honest dialogue about the current state of race relations, Smith works through the church to set up Race Relations Study Circles, part of a national program organized by Everyday Democracy.  Through a series of six highly-structured weekly meetings, about a dozen people dissect and debate the causes and nature of racism, as well as possible ways to address it.

To learn about the program, I joined the group last spring.  As an exercise at one of the meetings, the moderator, Smith, asked a series of questions designed to identify how much individual group members advanced race relations. Standing in a circle, about 30 feet in diameter, facing the center, members stepped toward the center if they could answer yes to a given question. The questions included, for example, “If you have spoken up to defend the rights of people who are not from your own background, take one step forward.”   After nine such questions, I was standing alone exactly where I started, looking at all the other participants huddled in a tight group in the center of the room.  I told you… I’m not my uncle.

All three women from time-to-time feel intense frustration. It’s hard, Chiu says, not to be more strident in pushing others to support the activities needed to add diversity. Hamilton too feels disappointed at the pace of progress.  The advances seem slow and small.  At many church events, Smith feels church members who don’t know her assume she’s simply one of the African-Americans in the neighborhood who came looking for aid.  The Indiana University professor who spearheaded the petition seems to be drifting away from the church.

The Lights

But through their struggles, the women see glimpses of light.  And each one has found something to hold onto.

For Smith, a woman with an obviously sensitive, caring soul, life revolves around relationships. She simply would like to be a friend to anyone, without race getting in the way.  While she grew up in a poor neighborhood, she works as a nurse for the lead doctor at one of the largest cardiology practices in the country. Now living in the predominately white, affluent suburb of Carmel, Indiana, she challenges the old housing patterns.  She hopes her neighbors will see she is just like them, with the same values and beliefs.  With the trembling voice of one who has been hurt but who nonetheless puts herself out there, she wants her neighbors to understand they don’t need to fear her because she is Black.  Looking at this woman, I’m not sure how anyone could be afraid.

At church, Smith co-chairs the mission area for Care & Nurture, and within that leads the Bereavement Ministry.  When people have suffered the death of a loved one and “are grieving and at their most vulnerable,” she finds they are open to a much deeper connection. At these times, church members come together solidly as one family, regardless of race.   

Poignant for Smith is a friendship she developed with an older woman. When the woman’s husband died, Smith comforted her.  They became close, encountering each other periodically at church. Smith believes “Because they were white and I was black maybe if we had not belonged to [North] Church, we never would’ve .. [become friends], just because of the way life is in America for Black people and White people.  But what a wonderful thing it was that … this church brought us together.”  Add to that the close friends she found in Chiu and Hamilton, and her involvement in the church radically changed her social interactions.

Chiu found something else in her quest for multiracial worship: purpose and meaning. Arriving at the church as a shy Chinese girl with little command of English, she has blossomed into a determined woman on a mission.  In her quest to get to know the people in the neighborhood, Chiu became a regular volunteer at the churches’ soup kitchen called Bread n’ Bowl.  There Chiu developed personal relationships with many of the customers, as well as with the other church volunteers. 

Until the arrival of her new baby, every other Tuesday Chiu worked with a consistent group of five other women to feed perhaps 100 people. She became close with Charles, Ella and Eric, frequent guests at the kitchen.  Charles and Ella, an older African American couple, moved a little slower, and Chiu always made sure they got whatever they needed as the serving line formed.  Eric was about 10 years her senior, “and always picked on” her good-naturedly. The relationships with her guests became “very personal”, and she grew to worry about them a lot.  Chiu hasn’t seen Eric in a long time, and none of the other guests seem to know what’s happened to him.  She hopes and prays for the best.  It’s all she can do.

As another outreach effort, the church sponsors a Farmer’s Market every Thursday afternoon during the summer.  To become a vendor, produce suppliers must accept coupons under USDA’s Women, Infant and Children program. The result is that many of the lower income people from the neighborhood can buy fresh produce they couldn’t get any other way.  It also brings them closer to the church, at least physically.

One day while visiting the market, Chiu noticed an elderly Chinese woman standing a bit frozen near the entrance to the market.  Taking a chance, Chiu said “hello” to the woman in Mandarin.  Her eyes lit up, and questions started to pour out in Mandarin. It seems the woman, there with her grandchild and not speaking any English, had no idea how to navigate the market.  Chiu helped her get a free blood pressure check and do her shopping.  A couple weeks later, Chiu saw the woman with her family at the Sunday service and guided her again. They wanted to learn about the church. Chiu felt her encounters were not by chance.

For Hamilton, the beauty and community of the service keeps her going.  Influenced by her mother, a music professor, Hamilton appreciates music and the feeling of being part of something bigger than herself.  “Some of my most intense spiritual moments have come as part of the choir,” she explains.  Singing in a choir creates a connection with the rest of the group and with the Lord that’s hard to put in words. The “emotionally powerful” music comforts her.

While the choir may not consistently select the diverse music Hamilton wants, they do periodically.  According to Hamilton, last year they had “a particularly marvelous piece of music that involved practically everyone who had any part in any choir in the church … It took … lines of music of different styles and wove them together over a rhythm that was just wonderful and compelling. It included Amazing Grace, two different African chants and a Gregorian chant in Latin.”   That it all came together so seamlessly, and produced a perfect blend of styles, blew Hamilton away.

But the beauty of the children’s choir really stirs Hamilton.  The two children’s choirs are more racially diverse than the adult choir, and include Hamilton’s two adopted African-American daughters. Hamilton observes “I look at those children and know that they don’t see those distinctions among each other the way we adults see them.”  At the same time, Hamilton adds, “we adults look at them and see a vision of what we wish the world was.”  The music, while less than perfect technically, radiates innocence and joy.

Rev. Felipe Martinez, a Presbyterian minister who immigrated from Mexico at a young age and who sometimes attends North Church with his wife (a member), identifies a biblical basis for worshiping with people unlike ourselves. In his doctor of ministry thesis, Rev. Martinez suggests the Book of Ruth stands for “courageous kindness.”  With the deaths of their husbands, the law no longer bound Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi. But as Rev. Martinez explains “Ruth stepped forward, with fresh tears in her eyes, and said in effect: I will not desert you.” Ruth offered love to someone society didn’t require or even expect her to befriend.  While the story seems a little far fetched in today’s world, it makes a bold point.

The Future

Prof. Emerson notes reason for hope.  For protestant churches of more than 1000 members, the number of racially mixed churches has tripled in the last 10 years.  Admittedly three times a small number is a small number, but trends need to start somewhere.   Some feel that churches will only make real progress when they grapple with drawing in younger people from large cities who expect more diversity.

Lucero believes the major denominations do not actively promote true multiracial worship. “They want to integrate the denomination but [do] not [try to integrate] the local church.”  Erin M. Hawkins, General Secretary of the General Commission on Race and Religion of the United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., acknowledges most of their efforts to date have emphasized the need to support and preserve minority churches within the denomination.  However, she says “society is changing and people’s needs are changing” and they want to do more to encourage multiracial worship in the future.  The Commission, a department within the Methodist Church, currently supports local efforts with a manual on effective strategies for multiracial worship, and questionnaires for monitoring a churches’ progress.  The national body does not require local United Methodist churches to use the materials.  North Church in Indianapolis does not.

Many people say this effort to integrate our Sundays is idealistic, impractical, doomed to fail.  It flies in the face of human nature, so it will always be small in its successes.  They’re probably right. 

For the same reasons, we probably should not try to address world hunger.  Although we have the land and the technology to solve it, hunger exists because of deeply-entrenched human nature: selfishness, political systems, economic systems and just plain apathy. Trying to change something so large, so structural, so entrenched, probably won’t succeed.  Human nature includes a dark side; always has and always will. 

Still, helping a hungry neighbor, even if just one, feels good. And if I join with a friend of a different race to feed that neighbor, frankly for me it feels even better, as it does for Hamilton, Smith and Chiu.  I will certainly never be like my uncle:  I am too filled with faithless fear.  But over the last couple years my experience worshipping and serving with people of other races fills me with hope, as impractical as that is.

October, 2009

© Bradley Merrill Thompson

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