Home > Our World > News > News - Recent Headlines
Commentary: U.S. churches still segregated

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. C. Anthony Hunt*

Feb. 18, 2009


The Rev. C. Anthony Hunt
 

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.

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 unequal.”

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 America.

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 ago.

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.

Christ’s inclusiveness

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 community.

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, D.C.

Related Articles

Agency plans more advocacy against racism

Commentary: A look inside the black church

Police chaplains bring church, community together

Resources

Racism-related Articles

Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference

Lewis Center for Church Leadership

Commission on Religion and Race

Ask Now

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.

Phone
(optional)

*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add this address to your list of approved senders.

Would you like to ask any questions about this story?ASK US NOW

Contact Us

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.

Phone
(optional)

*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add InfoServ@umcom.org to your list of approved senders.