Churches struggle with how to confront racism
It’s Wednesday night at Crossroads Church in Corryville, a neighborhood in Cincinnati, and about 30 people, equal numbers white and black, more women than men, stand in a circle in a basement meeting room. ❚ A church leader asks them to give a one-word answer to describe how they feel about being a part of the Undivided racial reconciliation program. “Happy,” one says. “Hopeful,” someone else says.
At the same time, on a website that originates about 75 miles east of Cincinnati in Bainbridge, Ohio, an avowed neo-Nazi proclaims a different doctrine. Only a select group of white people is chosen by God, he says.
“Not the Jewish nation. Not blacks. Not Mongrels. Not half-breeds, yellows, Chinese, Koreans, homosexuals or bisexuals,” says the white supremacist preacher, Paul Mullet.
Everyone else is unworthy.
The messages could not be more different, yet both are based on an interpretation of the same Christian faith. Though Mullet is a fringe actor, his sermons are a reminder of Christianity’s complicated history with race in America — one stained by the justification and endorsement of slavery.
Though mainstream Christian churches don’t speak about race in the
hateful manner Mullet does, many don’t address race relations and racism headon as Crossroads attempts to do. Instead, they struggle with a more fundamental question: How should they speak about race at all?
Uncertainty about race in the pulpit often stems from the racial makeup in the pews. Almost nine in 10 Christian churches nationally are predominantly of one race group, according to a Tennessee-based religion information firm. That company, LifeWay Research, also did a survey in 2014 that showed that two-thirds of American churchgoers agreed with the statement that “our church is doing enough to be ethnically diverse.”
‘It has to begin with his people’
If there isn’t meaningful contact among people of different races and ethnicities, fear of the unknown and negative racial stereotypes can set in, says the Rev. K.Z. Smith, pastor for 30 years of a predominantly black Baptist church in Ohio.
“In Chronicles 7:14, God is telling us that if we seek his face, he will heal the land, but it has to begin with his people,” Smith says of the faithful. “The way things are, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to. I mean, I’ve had white people tell me they’d like to worship with us but are afraid they won’t be safe.”
Long-standing Protestant and Catholic churches are based in city neighborhoods or smaller communities and reflect their racial composition. The Cincinnati region, which includes Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana, is the nation’s 10th-most residentially segregated region, according to an analysis of 2016 Census estimates by Apartment List.com.
Individual churches and denominations, in addition to ecumenical and interfaith groups, try to break down some of those walls in programs that range from joint social justice projects to worship and pulpit exchanges.
“The race issue will continue to be a challenge for the Christian community and other faith traditions as long as whites focus only on race relations while ignoring society’s systemic ineq- uities that shape — if not predetermine — our race relations,” says Robert “Chip” Harrod, a longtime diversity and inclusion advocate.
In other words, when it comes to addressing race and racism, the Christian church in America remains a reflection of the larger society: a handful of successes to go along with the polite silence of the pulpit and missed opportunities to call out racism as a sin.
Or as the Rev. Wilton Blake, retired Presiding Elder of the Cincinnati district of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church says, “Bits and pieces but not the whole bite.”
Faith-based efforts to close the racial divide and the social damage it can cause are made in small and large ways.
One of the most overt racial makeovers took place beginning in 2001 at Peoples Church, formerly known as First Christian Assembly of God, in Corryville. At that time, it had a 98-percent white, commuter congregation. In 2004, in his third year as pastor, Chris Beard articulated a new mission statement: “to be a racially reconciling, generationally rich, life-giving church thriving in the heart of the city.”
Many white members left. Some eventually returned. Today, Peoples Church has a congregation that is 25 percent African-American, 25 percent international (representing 30 nationalities), and 50 percent white, a mix Beard and his congregants refer to as “heaven on Earth.” The staff and lay leadership also are diverse.
“It’s sinful that the white American Christian church has perpetuated a climate of white supremacy instead of repenting for the sins of the founding of America,” Beard says. “It’s humbling and scary to face our own sin, but without truth, there is no repentance.”
Adam Clark, Xavier University associate professor of theology, Africana Studies and in the university’s Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice. says justice remains the issue for churches coming to terms with racism.
The American Christian church has shown favoritism of whites and presented a narrative that Christianity moved from Israel to Europe, then to the Americas, he says.
“It kind of erases the history of the Ethiopian church, the Coptic Church in Egypt, how Exodus is an African story, how Jesus is obviously a Palestinian,” he says. “Blacks are marginalized Christians.”
The nation’s timeline since 2014 is dotted with racially charged incidents, including fatal violence that erupted at a white nationalist rally last August in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Starting with the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, racial events seemed to pull white from black, says Chuck Mingo, pastor of Crossroads in Oakley, Ohio.
In the midst of violence — including the massacre in 2015 of nine AfricanAmericans in a prayer group by an avowed white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina — Mingo says he wanted to start a church-based conversation about race.
That dialogue grew into the Undivided program, which in two years has shepherded 3,000 people through a six-week racial reconciliation process. Mingo says he has heard “story after story of hearts being broken and hearts being mended.”
As a black man from Philadelphia, Mingo says, he looks around society and Crossroads itself and knows that room for growth exists in Undivided.
“I feel most challenged by the young white guy because I know, given our culture and even the demographics of our church, statistically, they are going to be the least likely to be in relationships with people who really have different life experiences than them,” the pastor says.
The shooter at Mother Emanuel was a young white man, Dylann Roof, 21 at the time, a white supremacist who said he wanted to start a race war.
The Rev. Henry Zorn, the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Anderson Township, Ohio, formed Anderson Churches for Racial Unity in response to the massacre of the Emmanuel Nine.
Zorn’s congregation is one of eight Christian churches in predominantly white and affluent Anderson Township that have spent the past three years studying race by listening to guest speakers, screening films, discussing books and attending workshops. The Anderson churches developed a relationship with an urban black church, Allen Temple AME.
This month, Zorn and Allen Temple’s pastor, the Rev. Alphonse Allen, will preside over a third-anniversary commemoration of the Emmanuel Nine.
“God does give us diversity as a gift,” Zorn says. “You’re missing something if you don’t seek it out.”
Pastor Chuck Mingo of Crossroads Church wants to start a conversation about race.
Charity Wright takes part in a discussion about implicit racial bias during a meeting of the Undivided group at Crossroads Church.