American churches are still segregated, and it is the way most of us—regardless of our race—would like to keep it. At least, so suggests the recent online CNN article titled, “Why Americans Prefer Their Segregated Sundays." Curtiss DeYoung, professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University, is quoted in this article as saying that only about 5 percent of American churches are racially integrated and half of those churches are moving in the direction of becoming all-black or all-white.
In his book United by Faith, DeYoung and his co-authors Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim, argue that when churches can be integrated they should. The reality of residential racial segregation presents a real and sometimes insurmountable hurdle to church integration. However, as inner-city gentrification becomes more of an established part of city life, there is a question about the church’s role in creating stable environments for integration, instead of merely transitional integrated bodies created by the market economy.
As Christians, we all agree that we should want racial integration in all facets of our lives, and, in particular, in our worshipping communities—right? Although the inexcusable sin of white racism still persists and is a major hindrance to church integration, John Blake insightfully reports what might be the most compelling example of why churches should remain segregated—the black church. Established as the result of white racism, the black church formed out of necessity. Historically referred to as the “Invisible Institution,” the black church flourished at the margins and gave its parishioners empowerment through leadership, dignity through shared cultural experiences, and hope through powerful and prophetic preaching. As Blake mentions, the black church still gives its attendees a “break” or a place of retreat from the wear and tear of present-day racism. Similar assets can be found in Asian, Latino, and Native American churches.
It is with this appreciation and recognition, however, that I reveal all of my biases. As a white Christian I have been abundantly and exceedingly blessed to have worshipped in two racially integrated church bodies. Words fail to express how these churches have shaped and transformed my understanding of God and my humble place in this world. For the people of color who have worshipped with me I know that it has sometimes come at a significant cost to them and invaluable benefit to me.
Ultimately, I agree with the authors of United by Faith because I believe that the biblical case for an integrated church is virtually airtight, and the witness it provides to a violent and bigoted world cannot be overstated. Still, the formula for the success of such churches remains persistently and frustratingly elusive.
It does leave me with one final thought. At the beginning of Blake’s article he recounts the fears expressed by black congregants whose church was experiencing an influx of white members. Their fear was that these new white members would take over, rendering its current members disempowered. I sympathize with this fear as it exposes what might be the greatest challenge to whites who want to lead on church integration – if you want to lead you are probably going to have to learn how to follow and serve. We progressive types may even have to learn the radical implications of terms we do not often use, like “submission." Yet this is the way of Christ modeled through his earthly incarnation.
Sondra Shepley is the speaking events manager for Sojourners.