The Most Segregated Hour in America?

 

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." How much have things changed?

 

The Multiracial Congregations Project http://hirr.hartsem.edu/org/faith_congregations_research_multiracl.html, led by Michael Emerson, a Rice University sociologist, defines a multiracial congregation as one where no one racial group is more than 80% of the congregation. Using that standard, Emerson has found that only 8% of all Christian congregations in the U.S. are racially mixed to a significant degree: 2-3% of mainline Protestant congregations, 8% of other Protestant congregations, and 20% of Catholic parishes. [Why these differences?] This seems especially surprising since Jesus made an effort to cross cultural boundaries in his ministry, and Paul made Christianity the first voluntary multi-ethnic organization by insisting that Gentiles as well as Jews should be part of the growing Christian churches.

 

The pattern seems no different in the New River Valley. There is less diversity in the NRV (9% non-white) compared to the nation as a whole (25% non-white), but even if we loosen the definition of a multiracial congregation to one in which no one group is more than 90%, such congregations still seem rare.

 

After the Civil War there were several Black churches established in this area, including St. Paul's AME Church in Blacksburg, and Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church, in Christiansburg. In 1881 the (white) Blacksburg Presbyterian Church decided to offer outreach preaching services for the local Black population once a month at night. The attendance was good at first, but soon dropped off. The church admitted "the colored preachers thought we were infringing on their rights," so the services were suspended. But perhaps the Black folks were beginning to realize what was recently expressed by Paige Patterson, a leader in the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention: "When it comes to rhetoric, the best Anglo preachers on their best days don't preach as well as a good black preacher on his worst day."

 

Integration in church worship did not come to Blacksburg until 1961. The minister at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, Rev. Ellison Smyth, was asked by his Ushers Guild what to do if Black folks came to a service wanting to attend. "What should you do? They are people, sit them anywhere they want to sit." Soon the church governing body approved a statement endorsing integration of seating, membership, and use of facilities. The lone dissenting vote against the statement was V.P.I.'s President Walter Newman, who then left the church. Thirty years later in an interview http://spec.lib.vt.edu/archives/blackhistory/timeline/smyth.htm, Rev. Smyth (for whose father Smyth Hall was named) reflected on the long-term effects of that statement: "our doors are open, but there are very few blacks that come. ...I don't think there's any drive because of the reluctance to do anything that might weaken the existing black churches. I don't know what the answer to that is." Though few Blacks go to traditionally white churches, even fewer whites go to traditionally Black churches.

 

It is possible to think of lots of reasons why people worship with people of the same race. [Brainstorm here.] People tend to want a multi-racial church only if others conform to their own culture-sing their songs, adopt their style, follow their minister. So an "open door" is not usually enough to gain diversity. People rarely think about leaving their own comfort zone to experience the religious culture of another race.

 

A recent book by Beverly Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, seems relevant to this issue. Tatum claims that people need significant places and times to develop their own sense of identity, including racial identity. For whites, these opportunities are pervasive, since racial sameness is the norm of experience for whites. But for Blacks, she claims, these opportunities need to be established and protected, since racial otherness is the norm of experience for Blacks in America. Perhaps Black churches play a valuable role for Black life, one for which there is no comparable need in white life.

 

Some multiracial churches are in transition and are unstable. Few multiracial churches are successful. One example is Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, in Decatur, Georgia-described in the book O, Lord, Hold Our Hands: How a Church Thrives in a Multi-cultural World, 2003. In the New River Valley, one church that I know of qualifies as multiracial-the Christian Growth Center www.cgcchurch.org/ -an evangelical church in Christiansburg which has roughly 65% white, 30% Black, and 5% Hispanic members. It was founded some 20 years ago and grew as a diverse congregation. Another local church that comes close to being multiracial is Dublin United Methodist Church. This church was created in the late 1960's by intentionally joining two previously segregated congregations. Currently they have more than 50 non-white members in a congregation over 700. If readers of this article go to churches where the majority membership is less than 90%, please share this with me at jklagge@vt.edu .

 

People whose interest in integrated worship goes beyond a simple "open door" policy may wish to consider these churches or think about more active ways of creating diversity. There is a list of over two dozen predominantly Black congregations in this area at: www.diversity.vt.edu/churches.html.

 

It remains an open question whether American Christians will achieve the diverse community of which Dr. King dreamed in which God's children-black and white-will join hands and sing together in church.

 

James C. Klagge

Klagge is a Multi-Cultural Fellow and Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Tech. He and his son Nick are members of Asbury United Methodist Church, in Christiansburg.