Churches strug­gle with how to con­front racism

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Mark Cur­nutte Cincin­nati En­quirer | USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

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

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.”

Con­fronting in­jus­tice

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.”

Cru­cial con­ver­sa­tions

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.

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