Rejection and Silence: Our posture towards race in the Church.

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Race in the Church

KKK is welcomed to a church service in Portland, Oregon, 1922. (Credit: Oregon Historical Society)

A couple of months ago I was hired to write a short article for a magazine publication answering the question: “What still needs to change within the Church?” I spent considerable time talking with people both inside and outside the Church, people with great affection for and yes even disdain of the Church. The overwhelming response from these individuals–which comprised of friends, random strangers, and my coffee baristas: Why has the church been so silent on issue of race? I was surprised this was the overwhelming response, but it also lined up well with my research interests. I listened to their frustrations, to their pain, to their hope and decided to make the issue of race the focus of the article.

I worked to strike a balance in the article between challenging what is, and a hope for what could be. The article was rejected under the guise, “We’ve decided to head in a different direction…” Once again it would seem the white church has chosen to sweep the issue of race under the rug, even though our culture is screaming for a response. The white church has chosen silence. (Yes, “white church” is a purposeful distinction.)

Professor, activist, and scholar Angela Davis is attributed as saying, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist – we must be antiracist.” The same rings even more true for the Church. In the wake of the Southern Baptist controversy over their initial failure to adopt a resolution condemning white-supremacy (they did succumb to pressure the next day and adopt the resolution), and the continual non-humanization of black folk within our society, the Church must stand up and speak out. We can no longer remain silent.

I was encouraged by several friends to publish the short article here with a brief explanation of what took place so that silence will not win the day.

Below is the original, unedited article.

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Our damning silence on race.

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated—if not the most segregated hours—in Christian America.” These were the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an interview on Meet the Press on April 17, 1960. Fifty-seven years later, has anything changed?

Of course Dr. King was speaking before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act; he was speaking during the height of Jim Crow and Sundown laws. He was speaking before the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Selma, and the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi. He was speaking during a turbulent time of heightened racial tension, school segregation, and racially motivated assassinations.

It is easy for us to look back upon that period in history and say, “Yes, absolutely things have changed.” In fact, according to LifeWay Research, over two-thirds of Christians agree that their church is doing enough to be ethnically diverse and almost three-fourths say their church is diverse enough.

But do our opinions mirror reality or does the church still occupy the most segregated hour in America?

In United by Faith: The multiracial congregation as an answer to the problem of race, the authors show that major strides in desegregation has taken place in almost every aspect of life in the United States, with one notable exception: the church. They assert that only 5 1⁄2 percent of congregations are considered racially mixed (meaning no one racial group occupies more than 80 percent of the congregation.) If that number is not startling enough, compare that with the reality that 48 percent of schools are considered racially mixed. This means that schools are eight times more racially diverse than churches.

Dr. King implored the church to take the lead in bringing about racial reconciliation in that 1960 interview. Instead we have maintained Jim Crow levels of segregation within the church–this is sinful. This must change. We must change.
It is time for the Church to step up and lean in. We must take a closer look at ourselves, our attitudes, and our posture. But first, we must repent of our segregation.

While we may no longer be in a position to lead the way in bringing about racial reconciliation, we can still make a difference. We can still be a window into heaven. But we must take the first step and walk across the street, drive to the other side of town, cross the railroad tracks of division and say “hello,” and “I’m sorry.” It is a long road towards wholeness within the church, but in stepping towards and listening to the stories of our brothers and sisters whom we have forgotten, we will find the promise of reconciliation is not as far away as we thought.

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