|Commentary: U.S. churches still segregated|
A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. C. Anthony Hunt*
Feb. 18, 2009
In reflecting on the church and race relations over the past 40 years,
and whether it is possible or even desirable for us to strive toward
becoming color-blind, I have been recalling what was occurring in
American society in the late 1960s.
The Rev. C. Anthony Hunt
It was a time of great racial tension in America. The Kerner
Commission Report, commissioned in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson,
summarized the state of race relations in America by noting, “America
is a nation of two societies, one black and one white, separate and
The death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968,
spawned a proliferation of violence in cities across the United States.
In the aftermath of King’s death, cities such as Detroit, Washington
and Baltimore turned upon themselves in acts of violence and
destruction. The images of large business corridors, residential
communities and places of worship being burned and looted are still
vivid in many of our memories.
In light of the state of race relations in the church then and now,
what might have been the hopes and dreams of those who engaged in those
earlier efforts toward dialogue, cooperation and conciliation?
I suspect that many people of all races in the churches 40 years ago
would have hoped and expected that the church of the early 21st century
would be a church where racism no longer exists, and perhaps that the
churches would be color-blind. But we know this is not the case.
Only 5 percent multiracial
In many ways, a pall remains over much, if not most, of today’s
church with regard to how it has dealt with the race problem in
In their 2001 book “Divided by Faith,” Michael Emerson
and Christian Smith developed a theory to explain why churches are
racially exclusive enclaves, despite Christian ideals about
inclusiveness: Americans choose where and with whom they want to
worship and race is one of the most important grounds on which they
choose. So, the more choice they have, the more their religious
institutions will be segregated.
Through sociological analysis, Emerson and Smith tested that theory
and found it to be valid. Churches today are more segregated than
schools, workplaces or neighborhoods. The least segregated sector of
American society is also the least governed by options: the military.
Because U.S. Protestants offer the largest number of churches from
which people may choose, their churches remain the most segregated. The
authors point out that 95 percent of churches are made up
overwhelmingly of one race or ethnicity (80 percent or more of their
members coming from one group). The result is that only about 5 percent
of congregations in the U.S. are considered multiracial.
In seminary classes I teach, I often ask students to look around their
classroom and observe the makeup of their classes in terms of race and
ethnicity, as well as gender and theological diversity. Then, I ask the
students to imagine what a similar class may have looked like 40 years
Clearly, the diversity in our classrooms today was not present in
generations past. Often, the same cannot be said of our churches. Many
look remarkably similar to how they looked 40 years ago, despite
decades of growing diversity all around them.
Where do we go from here? Near the end of his life, Dr. King published a book entitled “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
The book reiterated a point he had made on several other occasions: We
in the church and in society are faced with a choice in our life
together. We can either learn to live together as brothers and sisters,
or we can die together as fools.
The church of today looks quite different from the church of 40
years ago. Progress can be seen in many areas. And yet, there is still
much work that lies before us. We are not yet color-blind.
Although segregation continues in many churches, as it does in many
other sectors of society, I believe there is hope that someday the
church and society might be color-blind. My hope is rooted in the
possibility that we will continue to discover ways to capitalize on
those experiences and encounters that will lead to an inclusive
This is the hope that must be realized if we are to be the church, the Beloved Community, which Christ calls us to become.
* Hunt is superintendent of the Baltimore Metropolitan
District in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference of the United
Methodist Church. This article is adapted from a portion of a
presentation he made at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore
on Nov. 1, 2008 by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, Washington,
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