“The most segregated hour …”

hands 01Every serious student of recent American history and religion knows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about racial segregation and Christian churches. But few surely know the ways in which little has changed from King’s day. They would do well to read a CNN article on the subject.

Reporter John Blake’s story
was one of unusual power and honesty. Rare is the mainstream newspaper article that tells uncomfortable truths about both black and white Christians. This is one of those stories. Consider Blake’s lede:

The Rev. Paul Earl Sheppard had recently become the senior pastor of a suburban church in California when a group of parishioners came to him with a disturbing personal question.

They were worried because the racial makeup of their small church was changing. They warned Sheppard that the church’s newest members would try to seize control because members of their race were inherently aggressive. What was he was going to do if more of “them” tried to join their church?

“One man asked me if I was prepared for a hostile takeover,” says Sheppard, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, California.

The nervous parishioners were African-American, and the church’s newcomers were white. Sheppard says the experience demonstrated why racially integrated churches are difficult to create and even harder to sustain. Some blacks as well as whites prefer segregated Sundays, religious scholars and members of interracial churches say.

Later in the story, Blake elaborated on the reasons for the racial segregation. He summarized the views of the pastor of one inter-racial church this way:

Woo doesn’t say his church has resolved all of its racial tensions. There are spats over music, length of service, even how to address Woo. Blacks prefer to address him more formally, while whites prefer to call him by his first name, (a sign of disrespect in black church culture), Woo says.

The second sentence in this passage hit home with me. My Catholic parish technically is almost all black. I go there for confession and for morning Mass; I revere the pastor, a priest of uncommon holiness and charity. Yet I don’t take my wife and daughter there because the Mass is too long. Our 14-month-old can barely tolerates a 60-minute Mass (at the heavily white parishes), let alone a 150-minute one.

These long services survive regardless of the pastor. The lesson is clear: the black congregants prefer long services. Yet it is also clear why few black Catholics attend the local white Catholic churches. Every third or fourth sermon is a variation on the Jesus-loves-you theme. Whether this message would resonate with local working- and middle-class blacks is doubtful.

Perhaps I digress. Regardless, Blake’s story also showed a firm grasp of the New Testament and Christian theology. Besides the impressive conclusion, Blake summarized the theology of inter-racial parishes this way:

interracial church advocates say the church was never meant to be segregated. They point to the New Testament description of the first Christian church as an ethnic stew — it deliberately broke social divisions by uniting groups that were traditionally hostile to one another, they say.

DeYoung, the “United by Faith” co-author, says the first-century Christian church grew so rapidly precisely because it was so inclusive. He says the church inspired wonder because its leaders were able to form a community that cut across the rigid class and ethnic divisions that characterized the ancient Roman world.

“People said that if Jews, Greeks, Africans, slaves, men and women – the huge divides of that time period — could come together successfully, there must be something to this religion,” DeYoung says.

The passage above was not perfect. A brief passage examining whether segregation is itso facto bad would have been great. Catholic parishes were, and to an extent still are, segregated by ethnicity. Is it un-Christian that Hispanic Catholics have their church, while Irish and Italian Catholics have theirs?

But those are quibbles. Blake’s story did more than Get Religion. It is one of the best newspaper stories I have read this year.

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  • http://christian-apologetics-society.blogspot.com Timothy

    >”Catholic parishes were, and to an extent still are, segregated by ethnicity”

    My church in the inner city of a Southern city is anything but segegated. Usually, I have African immigrants in front, Indian nuns behind, with Polish, Korean and others scattered about. I have so many cultures to keep aware of. I sometime bow when I should shake. Our church is known as the “stained glass” parish for its diversity.

    Most of the segregation at nearby parishes is due to language, English versus Spanish. Most black Catholics in our town don’t worship in Spanish.

    God bless…


  • julia

    The Southern Illinois Catholic scene is pretty much like that, too. The Italians, Polish and Irish don’t separate out any more. The blacks are not all congregating in one parish any more. The one parish favored by Hispanics is at least half 3rd generation Mexican and Polish.

    Early in the 20th century the local “Irish” parish was interdicted by Rome for refusing a German pastor and posting armed guards to prevent him from settling into the rectory. Those days are pretty much over. My own parish has Filipinos, blacks and Hispanics as well as whites.

  • Jerry

    “stained glass” parish

    That’s a beautiful image.

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  • Ken

    Great post, but I must ask — What makes your Sunday Mass two and a half hours long? It must be something outside the regular Catholic liturgy. And from what I have seen of black Catholci parishes, there seems sometimes to be a whole other rite they use with extra additions outside regular Catholic rubrics.

  • Don

    How refreshing to read an exploration of this subject without having racial guilt shoveled at you. The whole question of race is a perplexing one. Skin pigmentation has only the tiniest bearing on it. It is the cultural and social differences that make people uncomfortable or uncertain about their associations with others. Not only language barriers, but accents too can subtly move us to gather with those who are “more like us.”

    Here is the question I would like to see explored further: a photo of a congregation with black, hispanic, asian, and causasian appearing faces might suggest that these people love one another beyond the norm, but does it really mean that? Or is it possible that a congregation that was more racially homogeneous could still prompt people to say, “See how they love one another”?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Ken writes,

    Great post, but I must ask — What makes your Sunday Mass two and a half hours long? It must be something outside the regular Catholic liturgy.

    The Sunday Mass is two and a half hours long for three reasons. The choir sings full songs at every opportunity; the pastor’s sermons are 45 minutes long; and there is usually an acknowledgment of parishioners, such as their ancestors and those who have graduated from middle school on up.

  • Ken

    Thanks. I’ve been to Masses at our cathedral here in St. Louis that have been very long (Holy Week, especially) and have never felt them to be too long. Church service should be the focal point of Sundays, and I admire this about black churches … along with their idea that people should get dressed up for God and not call the minister by his first name, though I find a formal version of the first name to be OK (It’s Pope “Benedict” and at Mass we pray for our bishop by his formal Christian name.

  • Darel

    It is not simply parishes/congregations in America that are segregated. Denominations are as well, and not simply by race but also by social class. It’s no mere coincidence that Episcopalians and Unitarians are nearly all white and wealthy while non-denominational churches are more economically down-scale and multi-racial.

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    To that last block quote about how Christianity should not be ethnically divided: it is actually against Church Canons to be so. I wouldn’t expect a reporter to necessarily know that bit of detail, but it comes up A LOT in the EOC. The fact that Church Canons address it is a good indication that this is an ancient problem in one form or another. That fact would have given this story some extra context.

  • http://www.parablesofaprodigalworld.com raffi shahinian

    Great thoughts. Big issue. Actually, I was struck by one particular section of the CNN article, the one that claimed that these issues were not around in the early church. My comment morphed into a post.

    Grace and Peace,

  • http://leitourgeia.wordpress.com Richard Barrett

    My Orthodox parish has white Anglo-Saxon folk, Greeks, Russians, Arabs, and Romanians. I wonder if we’d be considered segregated?


  • Dave

    Darel (#9), it is not true that Unitarian Universalists are uniformly wealthy. Alas, UU congregations are often very white.

    In general: The fear that “they” are taking over is not limited to race; it seems to be a frequent response to change. I was in a UU congregation that was just getting some Pagans, and soon I was hearing that the Pagans were taking over. I did an analysis of our past membership directories, and was able to show that the only outstanding characteristic of the Pagans was that none of them had left the church, versus our usual rate of attrition. All this was within about the first year of Pagan influx. Sure enough, some of them started to leave in statistically predictable numbers, and the “takeover” scare receded.

  • Sean Hirschten

    I second Dave’s (#13) point that UUs aren’t uniformly wealthy. My wife’s church (I prefer to not worship god on sunday morning by sleeping in, she prefers to not worship god in a church) is solidly middle class. There are almost no wealthy people, but there are also few truly poor people.

    The congregants are, however, quite well educated (we’re in a midwestern college town), lots of advanced degrees, but not lots of money. The Church of Christ in Knoxville, TN I grew up in had a lot more wealthy people. But the UUs here in middle america are pretty white, though not by any means universally so.

  • http://www.angelfire.com/realm/blackcatholics/ James Wesly Smith

    re Ken and liturgy…
    with respect, know that:
    The Black Catholic liturgy is indeed catholic (and the root most ancient), but the 1 /12 to two hours long comes from making a joyful noise as the Bible says (see David).
    St. Augustine used to dance up the aisle (or what counted for an aisle back then) tradition says (Black Catholic parishes have that, too. (Liturgical dancers).
    And the songs resemble what used to be called the High Mass (in the old Latin mass), However our songs may be from Kirk Franklin, or Marvin Sapp, instead of Kyrie Eleison (still said, however), including introduction of visitors, Indeed, if the song) Communion antiphon or what have you, brings down the Spirit, there might be several refrains of it, with attendant “Amens” hallelujahs, and Eulalating.
    The sign of peace might even last 10 minutes.
    And before we get on “out of the catholic liturgy” one must realize most of the liturgy and writing of the ancient Catholic Church in the beginning was an African one. (Indeed, The oldest national Church in Christendom is the Ethiopian Coptic-=-around 40 or 60 A.D. through St. Mark, St. Phillip, St. Matthew, Nathaniel Bartholomew—LONG BEFORE CHRISTENDOM RECHED EUROPE.
    An African people express collegiality (isn’t that what the mass is about-look up the definition of the word-outside the liturgical aspect).
    As to themost segregated hour—well that’s on the people attending the varios churches. It still does not negative our Mystical Body of Christ is the Church of many tribes.(See the “white robes” in Revelations).

    Pax Christi

    James Wesly Smith
    Black Saints, Mystics, and Holy Folks (The Ancient African Liturgical Church, Vol.I)

  • Ken


    Well, yes, but …

    Correct me if I am wrong. I am speaking as someone very familiar with Roman Catholic liturgy. Are there separate liturgical documents for Roman Catholic parishes that happen to have black parishioners?

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    We worship as full human beings when we worship according to our culture. Each culture brings something different, neither good nor bad.

    Catholic immigrants were often given ethnic parishes so that they could hear the sermons in their own language, and have the mass and customs in their culture. With assimilation, these churches closed. But we still see parishes with large populations that hold festivals and even masses in the language of the immigrants, whether they be Filipino or Mexican or Vietnamese.

    It’s not a “black” thing, or racial. It’s sociology and psychology.

  • Jesi

    The United Methodist Kansas scene is very similar. I’m a youth heavily involved in conference events, and we struggle with racial and ethnic division. Most churches in our conference are not diverse with large majority white populations. We have several Hispanic, Korean, and African-American churches, but for the most part these churches do not participate in events outside of their local church. This is understandable, when the largest conference youth event this year had 2 African-Americans in attendance, no Hispanics, and no Koreans. This was out of an attendance of almost 100. Also, these 2 African-Americans did not come from one of the African-American churches, but rather from predominately white churches. It’s a constant struggle in our conference to try to be racially inclusive and ethnically diverse when sometimes it feels like the non-whit e minority doesn’t want in.

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