In 1963, after delivering a speech to the student body at Western Michigan University, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat with WMU president, Dr. James W. Miller, for a question-and-answer session. It was in response to one of the questions from Dr. Miller that Dr. King said these words: "At eleven o'clock on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this."
Just two years later, Dr. Clarence Jordan and an interracial group from Koinonia Farms were thrown out of a meeting in a "white" Southern Baptist church in Americus, Georgia. As they were leaving the church, Jordan was heard to say, "Well, everything in Americus is integrated now except the churches and the jails...And I have hope for the jails."
Things seem to have come a long way in almost fifty years. This summer at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in New Orleans the gathered representatives of the largest Protestant group in America elected the first African-American president of their convention, a New Orleans pastor, Rev. Fred Luter Jr. Luter's election is certainly a sign that the racial gap in American Christianity is somewhat slimmer than it was in the days of King and Jordan. Luter's election is made more significant when one considers that the SBC began in 1845 by a group of Baptist churches who were pro-slavery and in favor of appointing slave-holding missionaries. The SBC has gone out of its way to publicize the importance of Luter's election and what it means for the future and diversity of the convention, and I hope their visions of diversity and integration come to pass. I am afraid, however, that the words of Dr. King still ring as true today as they did in 1963: "Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning [is still]...the most segregated hour in this nation."
Why? Why is the worship hour on Sunday mornings "the most segregated hour in this nation"? Why is it that a people of faith who claim the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 ("There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus") can still gather in segregated congregations to worship the One True God?
Now, I have to pause here and say that this segregation is not universal among all congregations or denominations. Relatively, Catholic congregations tend to be more ethnically diverse, due perhaps to the church's ancient and international presence. Pentecostal and charismatic churches also tend to be more diverse primarily due to the newness of most congregations and their somewhat fresh approach to worship and community service. With that being said, there is still an obvious chasm between "white" and "black" mainline and evangelical churches, especially in the South, which still begs the question, "Why?"
I grew up in the deepest of the Deep South; I was surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors who all believed that one's worth was still somehow connected to the color of one's skin. Confederate flags were as common on t-shirts and vanity plates as mosquitoes in the summer. I was surrounded by a culture of conscious and subconscious racism, and everyone seemed to simply accept it-even me.
When I became a Christian at the age of eighteen I started reading the New Testament. The words of Jesus began to reshape the way I saw the world. I began to understand that a person's value was not determined by the color of his or her skin, the money in his or her bank account, or a family name. No, one's value comes in being a child of God, created in the image of God, yet we still try to create our own categories and say it's a matter of culture, tradition, or even faith. That's where the problem begins, when we build up our own walls and cling to archaic traditions and cultural misconceptions.
Unfortunately, for many people, churches go a long way in helping to erect and maintain those walls. Churches can become harbors for antiquated ideas that the rest of the world has long since passed by. Whether it's old-fashioned ideas concerning science or awful notions of racism and discrimination, individuals who share these ideas can come together and cloister themselves beneath steeples, buttress their positions with a surface-level understanding of Christianity, and go on living their lives disconnected from the life-changing and accepting love of God. To use a cliche often thrown around about churches, they can become social clubs where people who share the same cultural understandings can come together to encourage one another in their misconceptions and ignorance. They can sing words like "red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight," while somehow missing the true depth and acceptance of Christ's love.
I am convinced that this is why the worship hour is still the most segregated hour in this nation. I am convinced that there will always be "white" churches and "black" churches in the South as long as attitudes of discrimination, racism, and hate go unopposed by ministers and denominational leaders and churches become safe havens for these attitudes. I am convinced that until we begin to face these issues head on from the pulpits in this country (without concern for our job security), we will continue to hear stories about "whites-only" pastors conferences and churches that refuse to allow black couples to be married in their churches; we will continue to hear racist jokes being told in Bible study groups; we will continue to worship in segregated buildings on the Lord's day. Only if we are willing can we continue the long journey towards racial reconciliation by creating opportunities for community worship and dialogue. We can begin tearing down the walls created by sinful traditions and cultural misunderstandings by being honest about our differences and embracing our common calling as brothers and sisters. We can begin to live out Christ's prayer in John 17:11 ("Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one") when we put aside those things that separate us and embrace the fullness of Christ and the Good News of his kingdom.
When we erase the lines of discrimination and exclusion in our congregations, I believe we will catch a glimpse of the glory that is to come with the fullness of God's kingdom.