Why should we work to integrate the church? It seems like most believers, both black and white, are content to live and worship in separate communities. Why risk disrupting the peace of existing churches?
This is not a problem that can be solved easily or overnight. First we need to talk about why desegregation is necessary, and then how to move toward that goal. We must consider: why the church was segregated in the first place, why we are content to stay segregated, and what the segregated church says to the world.
How Did We Get Here?
In 1816 Richard Allen founded the first black denomination in the United States-- the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was a freed slave who was allowed to purchase his freedom. After being freed he became a minister and was eventually employed by St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia as a pastor to its black members.
As the number of black church members increased, their presence in the church became troubling to the mostly white congregation. First the church forced the black members to leave their normal seats and sit around the wall.
Then one Sunday morning the black church members sat in the balcony above the area where they regularly sat. As they knelt to pray the trustees of the church rushed toward them and telling them to get up because they "must not kneel here".
After the prayer the black members left, never to return. In 1794, Richard Allen founded Bethel A.M.E. so that the black believers could worship freely. According to the AME church website, In order "to establish Bethel's independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution."
The AME church was the first of many black denominations founded by Christians unwilling to accept segregated seating and unequal treatment in the house of God.
Why Are We Content to Stay Here?
1. We Underestimate the Power of Our Inherited Baggage
Historically many denominations used the Bible to justify slavery. As a result the general public believed that black slaves were inferior and that the slave trade was doing them a favor by allowing them to serve in such a great nation.
Slaves were kept in their place by a Biblical interpretation that commanded absolute obedience on their part, while simultaneously giving their master's the divine right to view them as property to be bought and sold like common animals.
The church's Biblical interpretation made it impossible for white Christians to accept black Christians as equals: especially inside the church. Not unlike today there were separate churches, separate neighborhoods, separate schools, and separate realities.
We are still paying the consequences for the misinterpretation of Biblical passages. We can't seem to shake the attitudes, actions, and in some cases the actual verses that aided the church in sin.
2. Fear of Interracial Dating and Marriage
After the emancipation of the slaves there was an overwhelming fear that the races would intermarry-- particularly black men and white women. Black men were cast as rapist animals intent on forcing themselves upon white women. You can see it in movies of the time like the popular Birth of A Nation which was released in 1915.
This fear fueled countless lynchings and unjust imprisonments during Reconstruction and in the time leading up to the Civil Rights movement. This view of African American men still haunts our church and our nation today.
Ida B. Wells, an African American journalist, anti-lynching advocate and women's suffragist who lived from 1862-1931, explained the situation in her famous pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases .
"Ebenzer Fowler, the wealthiest colored man in Issaquena County, Miss., was shot down on the street in Mayersville, January 30, 1885, just before dark by an armed body of white men who filled his body with bullets. They charged him with writing a note to a white woman of the place, which they intercepted and which proved there was an intimacy existing between them. Hundreds of such cases might be cited, but enough have been given to prove the assertion that there are white women in the South who love the Afro-American's company even as there are white men notorious for their preference for Afro-American women. There is hardly a town in the South which has not an instance of the kind which is well known, and hence the assertion is reiterated that "nobody in the South believes the old thread bare lie that negro men rape white women." Hence there is a growing demand among Afro-Americans that the guilt or innocence of parties accused of rape be fully established."
Interracial dating and marriage are still touchy subjects within the church. Many believers tolerate interracial couples but would discourage their own children and grandchildren from marrying believers outside of their own race.
"Show me one place in the world where interracial or interethnic marriage is frowned upon and yet the two groups still have equal respect and honor and opportunity. I don’t think it exists. It won’t happen. Why? Because the supposed specter of interracial marriage demands that barrier after barrier must be put up to keep young people from knowing each other and falling in love. They can’t fellowship in church youth groups. They can’t go to the same schools. They can’t belong to the same clubs. They can't live in the same neighborhoods. Everybody knows deep down what is at stake here. Intermarriage is at stake." - John Piper- Racial Harmony and Interracial Marriage
3. Failure to Address Racial Issues Within Local Congregations
I've attended white Southern evangelical churches my entire life-- churches pastored by intelligent white men. But in the first 32 years of my life, I never once heard a sermon from the pulpit addressing issues of race or racism. I thank God for pastors like John Piper who are willing to tackle the subject.
As one of the only black members in those congregations, I've experienced many things that have convinced me that racism is still an acceptable sin within the white church. A sin that many white pastors either fail to see or refuse to address.
These issues of race affect just about everything in the church: bias towards communities of affluence in our church planting, who we choose as our pastors, elders, and church leaders, what programs are offered, and which projects our churches take on.
4. Our Churches Are Focused On Personal Piety
The churches I've attended and the Christian organizations I've been a part of have largely been focused on discipleship. I think discipleship is very valuable. Learning to read, study, meditate on, and memorize the Scriptures is a good thing. Taking advice from people you respect is a good thing. Applying scripture to personal issues is a good thing, but it's not the whole of Christianity.
We subconsciously believe that the good works God has called us to can be easily summed up in a regimen of good behavior and sound theology. We believe that the Church should only tend to the spiritual needs of the people who come through her doors. But how does God define pure and undefiled religion?
We are supposed to be disciples of Jesus. He came down from heaven. He became poor for our sakes. He set aside his own glory to become like us, so that He might save us. He healed the sick, and caused the lame to walk and the blind to see. He cared for tangible needs as well as spiritual needs.
We may not live in heaven but for someone who grows up in the ghetto or in a poor rural town, our suburban enclaves look pretty stinkin' close. It's too easy for us to turn a blind eye to the poverty and other types of neediness within our communities and offer people an ethereal heaven in the future but no real hope for their present situations.
We wait for the world to come to us with its needs instead of searching out people in need. We prefer to gather a following of likeminded believers who will pat us on the back for our theology to getting our hands dirty helping people whose problems are so big and complex that we find ourselves in need of God's help.
I believe that as Christ's followers band together in prayer and action aimed at a broken world that desperately needs good news, there is a unity that surpasses color and denomination. We are able to get over ourselves and our preferences and get on with the hard work of true religion--looking after orphans and widows in their distress and keeping ourselves unstained by the wealth, power, and cultural preferences that have long ensnared the church.
What The Segregated Church Says To The World
Unfortunately, White Jesus only cares about people who look like him. White Jesus eagerly gives money to aid foreign missions but often fails to consider the ghetto downtown as an area worthy of his attentions. White Jesus forcefully points out the sawdust in his brother's eye while living blissfully unaware of the plank that blinds him. He says "Let those gang bangers in the city kill each other, I don't care as long as my children are protected." What White Jesus doesn't see and understand can't really exist.
His arrogance prompts voices from around the world to cry out in frustrated unison that our White Idol is no more than a figure of our collective American imaginations.