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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Becoming Multiracial Congregations in Theory and Practice

Central Jersey Church of Christ via Facebook
The Unitarian Universalist Association has historically been predominantly white. There have been numerous racial problems over the years, stemming from a culture of white supremacy that made certain assumptions and biased heavily in favor of straight, white men. Even as women became 60% of UU clergy, people of color continued to experience discrimination in hiring practices and in their treatment once hired. These are matters brought into the light and examined in the recently-published 'Widening the Circle of Concern.' As this very progressive denomination engages in deep soul-searching and repentance, committing to dismantle systemic racism, some evangelical churches are taking the approach of simply diversifying the racial mix of congregations. It seems to me that no religious community should attempt to have one without the other.

A recent NPR report (audio embedded at the bottom of this post) shines a light on the situation in evangelical churches that attempt to integrate. Beginning in 2000, with the publication of his first book, Michael Emerson and others began advocating for a new church movement, with the following proposition: "If Christians of different racial backgrounds began worshipping together, he suggested, racial reconciliation could follow."

Having the benefit of a little exposure to critical race theory and anti-racism, the naivety of that proposal is immediately obvious to me. At the outset I want to make it clear that at least Mr. Emerson and his friends recognized a problem and attempted to do something about it. Too many churches and their leaders are more than happy to carry on with business as usual, pretending or believing that there is no problem with the status quo. 

In practice, some report that they feel their efforts have been successful. 

After reviewing Michael Emerson's books and videos on the subject, Lyle realized big changes at his church would be needed. He changed the sign out front to say, "All Races United In Christ." The staff bought new toys for the children's room, making sure they reflected racial diversity. They changed the artwork in the church, and Lyle organized a choir.

"When I first came here, I said, 'We're not going to do choir,'" Lyle said. "But then we began to think, 'This community is primarily African American and Anglo. Choirs are huge in an African American church.' So we realized we need to have a choir."

The effort proved largely successful. The membership at Meadowridge Baptist is now about one-third African American, and the number of Latino members is growing.

This is already setting off alarm bells for me. The white minister did some research and then led the white church into changing its marketing, sprucing up the decor, and changing the music to better suit black people. Nowhere is it mentioned that a black person was even consulted about any of these changes. The goal was evidently to make black folks feel more comfortable to be in the building, but without doing any deeper work on privilege and anti-racism. Although the congregation now has a good number of people of color, at least compared to how they were before, there were issues along the way.

"Sometimes, there was stares," she says. "People looking at you kind of strangely. And then I just made it my mission to hug. So I started hugging people."

The black woman had to take it upon herself to work on people's attitudes. This should never be a black person's burden, and yet it almost always is because white folks too often won't do the work on their own.

"Integrated churches are tough things," says Keith Moore, a Black pastor in Montgomery, Ala., who works closely with local white pastors. "When you see both African Americans and Caucasian Americans [in a church], it's more than likely to have a Caucasian pastor," he says. "I think it's sometimes more difficult for whites to look at a Black pastor and see him as their authority. That's a tough call for many." 

As a result, Moore says, African Americans ready to worship in a multiracial church are often forced to accept white leadership and a different worship style. 

"You have to abandon some of your ethnic culture and become more palatable to the majority white culture," Moore says, "give up some of the old traditional African American experience to fit in. So there is a sacrifice."

Anecdotally, I have next to nothing to dispute this opinion. Emerson, who literally wrote the books on racial integration in churches, has found this to be the case in his research.

"All the growth [in multiracial churches] has been people of color moving into white churches," Emerson says. "We have seen zero change in the percentage of whites moving into churches of color." Once a multiracial church becomes less than 50% white, Emerson says, the white members leave. Such findings have left Emerson discouraged.

People of color who find their way into multiracial churches have reported having to give up some of their cultural identity in order to conform. That conformity is what they are required to do on a daily basis as they participate in majority white culture in the United States. I can't help wondering why anyone would intentionally choose to be put in that situation on Sunday morning too. People have their reasons, of course.

My own experience with multicultural church is very limited. The congregations I've been a part of were all either majority white, or ethnically Brazilian, with the exception of Central Jersey Church of Christ. That church has its background in the infamous International Churches of Christ, which was understood by many to be a cult through the 90s and into the early 2000s. Their zealous proselytizing efforts, particularly on college campuses, along with their authoritarian discipleship methods, rightly earned them a bad reputation. Since then, however, they've significantly cleaned up their act, and during my brief time with CJCOC (2011-2013) I experienced none of that, and simply found a congregation that felt like the way we wish our extended families could be. In terms of racial composition, it is very truly diverse. The lead minister, Johnny Rivera, is Latino, and the leadership as well as the congregation is a thorough mixture of races and ethnicities representing the United States and nations from around the world. If it weren't for their conservative Christian theology, and my UU-informed, Humanist way of seeing things, I'd still want to be with them.

Despite all the above about CJCOC, I still believe that they would do well to explore the topic of systemic racism. What white folks there are most certainly need to hear about it. At the same time, for all I know, that's already happened. The problem is that in churches that aren't founded as multiracial, becoming diverse is often treated as a numbers game rather than a sincere change of heart. It rankles me that there are white people who immediately think that black folks want a 'more energetic service' or that theology and preaching style should attempt to approximate that of traditional black churches. Perhaps that is the right way to go, but shouldn't that be coming from people of color, rather than set up as an offering or enticement to black people? In Humanist circles I've met plenty of people of color who are actually turned off by the stereotyped black church, and who don't appreciate being pigeonholed into a particular style. 

My three points, to conclude, are these:

First, a white church that wishes to become multiracial must first do the hard work of unpacking racist assumptions, and learning what it means to be anti-racist. There are progressive congregations that remain convinced that they don't need to do any programming around becoming welcoming and affirming congregations, because 'of course the lgbtq community is welcome here.' Those are the churches that are often the least welcoming, because they still make incorrect assumptions, commit unconscious microaggressions, and generally don't understand how lgbtq folks experience the world. The same goes for any congregation that wishes to become multiracial. The leaders and members have to come to terms with their own biases and misunderstandings, recognizing their privilege, before people of color can really come to feel welcome.

Second, white people don't need to be making assumptions about what black folks want. Hire a consultant, perhaps the same person or team who helped the congregation through anti-racism education, and do research with them to identify ways to be more welcome. If there are already people of color in the congregation, invite (but do not compel) them to join in the conversation, and center what they have to say, de-centering white voices. 

Third, remain adaptable. This is a process that cannot be done overnight or solved in a brief span of time. Resolutions, training, and new approaches to ministry are not a silver bullet. There will be rocky times, and the congregation needs to be in for the long haul. 

Whatever else, don't take my word for it. I strongly recommend thorough research, valuing the insights of black people and particularly those of experts in the field who are people of color. I'm just a white guy opining on a blog. There are people who have dedicated their lives to promoting anti-racism and dismantling oppression. They are the ones who know. What I'm simply saying is that theory and practice must be united for people to be united. 


Further Reading: