MLK Day: The Dream is Not A Reality

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.

 While we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr, the church in the US remains horribly divided.

A couple of years ago, I took a road trip across the country with my best friend. We took our sweet time, rolled the windows down, and let our hair whip into tangles. We wandered off the beaten path a few times: the largest catholic church in Kansas, the Precious Moments museum in Missouri. When we were in Memphis, we just happened to remember that this was the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was shot. On a whim, we stopped by the memorial, complete with a tour of the museum erected at the hotel where the tragedy happened.

The sun beat down on us as we looked at the balcony where he once stood and saw the wreath hanging on the door of the infamous hotel room. We stayed for a moment or two, the sweat running down our backs as we thought our uncomfortable thoughts. And then we prepared to go on our way, off to the next adventure on our road trip.

But we were stopped by a large crowd gathering in the parking lot, everyone milling about and dressed in matching white clothes. Was this some sort of family reunion, or a tour group with a dress code? We watched as the crowd assembled in front of the place where MLK was taken from us, and we watched as everyone grew silent and still. Even the little children were sober-faced, heartbreakingly spotless in their white sweater vests and dresses.

The solemnity of the moment became very clear at once. While we were sight-seers in the land of oppression, for many this place was something akin to a pilgrimage. We watched as people paid their respects, tears in their eyes. And as we drove off, my friend and I suddenly felt like the outsiders we were. We tried to push away the uneasiness we felt, the words we couldn’t then begin to articulate. We had just wanted to pay our respects, to see a historical site. But instead we had witnessed collective grieving, had gotten a glimpse into what Dr. King had lived and died for. Even now, looking back, I have to wonder: were the pilgrims that day crying over his death? Or were they crying for our country, and how few of MLK’s dreams had come true?

I have the distinct pleasure of living in the most diverse neighborhood in America, tucked into the forgotten urban center of our nation’s heartland. The exact city isn’t important—urban areas as a whole are growing larger and more diverse every year. My neighborhood is an amazing mix of cultures, languages, and customs. Everywhere I go, I am surrounded by the glorious chaos that is a global world—everywhere, that is, except the church.

MLK loved to quip that 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. Since he spoke those words, since he inspired us with his prophetic dreams and visions for a reconciled world, not too much has changed for churches. Estimates put the number of multi-ethnic churches hovering around the 7% margin. In our increasingly diverse world, this just doesn’t make sense.

I grew up a pastor’s kid, lived my life in the pews and at potlucks, coloring pictures of a snow-white Jesus with a blue sash running down his shoulder, perfectly matching his eyes. Either rural or suburban, the churches I grew up in were all uniform in ethnicity, and this did not trouble us for even a moment. It was just the way things were, a matter of preference. The older I got, the more this line of thinking settled into my soul. Like surrounds like; nothing wrong with that.

Now, I live in the city. My husband and I have been on a hunt, looking to find a church in our neighborhood that was representative of the people who live here. Without fail, churches tend to be homogeneous in multiple ways. This, after all, is what grows a church—years of studying growth principles prove that when you target a specific demographic (by say, having a great children’s program or killer fair-trade coffee in the foyer) those people will come. Capitalizing on people’s preferences to hang out with others just like them has become big business in the church, and has altered the ways we worship. But even among those yearning for another way, the road is still rocky. My husband and I have showed up to multiple churches that claim to be “multi-ethnic”, “urban”, or “diverse” only to be disappointed by the crowd of people just like us. Diversity, be it racial or ethnic or cultural or denominational, is neither the reality nor the priority for the American church goer. When did this become acceptable?

Scripture speaks a different story, one where we are called to lay down our lives for our neighbors. For our increasingly urban world, the verses speaking about the lack of distinction regarding class or ethnicity or gender find new meaning. We read about Jesus, who in relating to both Jews and Greeks said that “He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14) The problem is, we don’t live in MLK’s time anymore. The majority of us don’t believe we live in times of outright hostility, of oppression, of racism. We’d like to forget the sins of the past and get on with the present (for example, see The Naked Racism of Obama America). But unfortunately for us, the present is just as segregated as the past was. At least, it is inside the walls of church.

Mere preferences does not even begin to explain the story. I recently heard a sermon by Jin Kim in which he detailed the history of our lack of diversity in the American church. His words were hard to hear for a girl who would desperately like to believe that we are all doing a good job.

But his words in regards to our acceptance of churches based on racial preferences are sharp and true: “Black people did not invent the black church—white people did.” Kim went on to point out that America was the first country to introduce the concept of chattel slavery—condeming someone to slavery for life based solely on the color of your skin, with no chance of working your way out of it. Our forefathers quickly realized that they would retain their control better if they could carefully “Christianize” their slaves in regards to what the Bible has to say about obedience to masters (but they had to prohibit them from learning to read, lest they see all the parts about freedom, liberation, and equality). In effect, Christianity was used as a tool to promote slavery, to continue to oppress people.

It has been well-documented that African-Americans were not welcome in white churches, even up to the latter half of this century. Slower than government policies, the church held tight to racist ideologies that prevented them from breaking bread with fellow believers from different backgrounds. Even in the north, black parishioners were first asked to move to the back of the sanctuary, then the balcony, and then finally, out the door.

This is not some distant history; this happened in this century, on our soil.

Yet today we shrug off the racial divisions in our church as a mere product of musical taste, a style of dressing, a predilection for a certain pastor. When truly, our divisions are based in the sin of exclusion, of our forefathers’ rebellion. And as people who benefit, both directly and indirectly, from the oppression of others in our past, we must be at the forefront of the reconciling movement. It isn’t enough to rush apologies, to immerse ourselves in cultural sensitivities, or even move into the most diverse neighborhood in America. What we have to do is give up our preferences, to value our neighbors higher than ourselves, to align our lives in such a way that we are in relationship with people from diverse backgrounds.

This may sound simplistic, but it is anything but. Once you are aware of your slow drift towards anyone and everyone who looks, thinks, or acts just like you, it takes a radical change to start moving in the opposite direction. And even if your intentions are good, the truth is that you will have to work hard to have friends who are different from you. The relationships won’t be easy, or conflict-free. But they will be worth it. And the more we break bread with our brothers and sisters from different backgrounds, the easier it will be to one day find ourselves singing songs together, just like MLK would like.

The segregation of the church started long ago, in the hearts and the minds of our forefathers. And it is in us too, in our homes and neighborhoods and schools. We have long been busy re-building dividing walls that Christ came to tear down. It is time to take a good long look at our homogeneous lives, and to uncover the sins that masquerade as preference, and the systematic ways we have sought to distance ourselves from others who are different from us. Dr. King, much like the author of the book of Revelation, prophesied to us about the future. Instead of pretending our past does not exist, let’s fix our eyes on the promise of a church where all tribes and tongues worship together. May we work toward it now, as it will be in the kingdom of heaven.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield's life is about 90% mundane and 10% cray-cray. She loves food and books and a good outsider perspective portrayed in pop culture. She gets very, very excitable when anyone mentions the phrases "kingdom of God". You can find her blog here and on twitter as @d_l_mayfield.

  • sims key

    love the attention to the heart’s prejudices, but this is a tricky topic. God has also mandated culture and that culture looks different for every neighborhood and demographic. Asking a church to create a culture where every demographic is ushered into God’s presence equally successfully is a tough task. There is a reason that church services look VERY different from nation to nation and tribe to tribe. We should definitley become unified in worshiping God and loving neighbor. But, is the road to that paved in uniformity? I think by asking a church to be multi-racial on this side of new heavens is perhaps asking it to shun culture maybe a little too much. But then again, maybe I am just trying to justify the lack of diversity at my church. Great topic of conversation either way.

  • sims key

    *sorry for the typos

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    This: “It isn’t enough to rush apologies, to immerse ourselves in cultural sensitivities, or even move into the most diverse neighborhood in America. What we have to do is give up our preferences, to value our neighbors higher than ourselves, to align our lives in such a way that we are in relationship with people from diverse backgrounds.”

    I’ve noticed the lack of diversity in my burgeoning community here but I haven’t known what to do about it. I’m still not entirely sure but this convicts me to do *something.*

  • Andrew

    Well meaning article but you aren’t offering practical solutions.

    Black people and white people still occupy a very different world. In both the north and the south. This is unfortunate but what is the solution?

    Making black friends …. going to a black church …. becoming the token white friend? I have done this in my personal life.

    What starts happening is you listen to music you don’t like, food you don’t like, sermons you don’t like, all so you can have the swelling pride of being more sophisticated and kingdom minded than your white friends? I don’t know, there is a balance I think.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I go to a predominately white church. My gravitar to the left should tell you a predominantly white church is where I “belong.” In that predominantly white church, I listen to music I don’t like and I’m predisposed to not like most sermons I hear. I’m also a picky eater. The problems you cite seem like inconsequentialities to me—kind of like the Orange County kid complaining that his steak was medium-rare instead of medium when there’s a whole world of people who don’t get to share the luxury of being able to eat a New York strip, either medium or medium-rare.

    I get the idea of wanting to be comfortable in luxuries. I enjoy the feeling myself as often as I can. I’m just not sure our preference for luxuries is a fit reprimand against an article that by its own admission is struggling to find a solution to what appears a pretty obvious dilemma.

  • Jon

    It is by no means impossible to have a mixed congregation. My own church has people with varying backgrounds, including white and black. Lots of people get involved all over the place.
    I can’t speak for what the “magic” is that’s let this happen, except that we openly accept these people and treat them like brothers and sisters in Christ.
    This is by no means proof it’s “easy”, but it is proof it’s entirely possible.

  • Kasey Henton

    As an African American who goes to a predominately white church but is on my way back to the black church, I’m starting to think that not all segregation is a bad thing because, far too often, trying to become a multi-racial church means that minorities have to give up too much of themselves in order for whites to feel comfortable with that church.

    Church is the one place where a person should be able to bring their whole self, and most multi-racial churches that I’ve seen aren’t when it comes to anything but music. Racial and ethnic churches allow for people to be themselves in a way that multi-racial churches aren’t ready for yet. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever be; but not yet.

    I know this response isn’t inspiring; but it’s the truth as I know it.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Again though, I’m not sure church is where we’re suppose to bring our whole cultural selves. It is, instead, a place of sacrifice and revels in sacrifice. I go to a predominantly white church and am myself white, but with the breadth of cultural distinction between myself and my fellow congregants, by your measure I probably shouldn’t be there at all. Fact is, by your measure, there probably isn’t a church alive that wouldn’t ask me to sacrifice large portions of my cultural and personal identity.

    The model you propose, Kasey, just doesn’t sound like church to me. Because a body of Christ that doesn’t sacrifice constantly of itself to be the body of Christ is a body that doesn’t really reflect very much the spirit of the New Testament, I think.

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com D.L. Mayfield

    Kasey–I totally get your point. I would propose it must go the other way around–indeed, more white people need to put themselves in the place of being the minority (and learning under leaders of different races). We are the ones who benefit overall from the system, and we need to be the ones to put ourselves in positions of risk. That’s all I can say about that.

  • Kasey Henton

    I think church is the place where we should be the most vulnerable, which is what I mean by bringing our whole selves in. Plus I don’t see how worship and praise can be truly real unless my whole self is there. So I’m guessing we have different ideas about the role and function of both the church and worship.

    But it could be that I disagree with your premise that you have so many cultural differences from other whites that “there probably isn’t a church alive that wouldn’t ask me to sacrifice large portions of my cultural and personal identity.” This is something that I’ve heard before from hipster whites and it just doesn’t sit well with me. Yes, there are differences in culture in and amongst whites depending on where in Europe your forebears came from, but sometimes history and circumstance matter. I’m guessing your forebears didn’t come over in chains or have to suffer the indignity of being lashed with a whip. I’m guessing your forbears didn’t have to go through being interred (like the Japanese). Did any of your forbears go through the ‘Trail of Tears’? That’s why, to me, racial and ethnic churches are important. These groups of people have a unique experience of G-d that is different than the European experience of G-d. And while a multi-racial, multi-ethnic church is a worthy goal, it doesn’t replace the need for “niche” (not the right word, but the word I can think of right now) churches.

    Like I said originally, my response isn’t inspiring. It just is.

  • Roshoy

    This was a very good read. I feel the same way too.I live in an urban area and the churches are just as you have described.

  • http://www.chrisruch.com Chris Ruch

    What if those of us who want to be involved in a multicultural church … committed to a church that has “most of the things” we want/need … then we start inviting people of other cultures (and praying for them to come)?


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