A Quiet Exodus: Why Some Black Worshipers, Such as Carla McKissic Smith, Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches and Abandoning the Vision of Multiracial Congregations

Charmaine Pruitt attending a service at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Worth in January. Ms. Pruitt has not regularly attended a church since the fall of 2016. Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Charmaine Pruitt wrote the names of 12 churches on a sheet of paper, tore the paper into 12 strips, and dropped them into a Ziploc bag. It was Sunday morning and time to pick which church to attend.

This time of the week two years earlier, there would have been no question. Ms. Pruitt, 46, would have been getting ready for her regular Saturday afternoon worship service, at a former grocery store overhauled into a state-of-the-art, 760-seat sanctuary. In the darkened hall, where it would have been hard to tell she was one of the few black people in the room, she would have listened to the soaring anthems of the praise bands. She would have watched, on three giant screens, a sermon that over the course of a weekend would reach one of the largest congregations in the country.

But Ms. Pruitt has not been to that church since the fall of 2016. That was when she concluded that it was not, ultimately, meant for people like her. She has not been to any church regularly since.

Ms. Pruitt pulled one of the slips out of the Ziploc bag. Mount Olive Fort Worth. O.K. That was where she would go that day.

In the last couple of decades, there had been signs, however modest, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning might cease to be the most segregated hour in America. “Racial reconciliation” was the talk of conferences and the subject of formal resolutions. Large Christian ministries were dedicated to the aim of integration, and many black Christians decided to join white-majority congregations. Some went as missionaries, called by God to integrate. Others were simply drawn to a different worship style — short, conveniently timed services that emphasized a personal connection to God.

The fruits could be seen if you looked in the right places, particularly within the kind of nondenominational megachurches that gleam from the roadsides here in the sprawl of Dallas-Fort Worth. In 2012, according to a report from the National Congregation Study, more than two-thirds of those attending white-majority churches were worshiping alongside at least some black congregants, a notable increase since a similar survey in 1998. This was more likely to be the case in evangelical churches than in mainline Protestant churches, and more likely in larger ones than in smaller ones.

Then came the 2016 election.

Black congregants — as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere — had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel. There was still some hope that this stemmed from an obliviousness rather than some deeper disconnect.

Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshipers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to N.F.L. players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Obama, claiming falsely he was not a United States citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were the compromised.

“It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” said Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta.

Early last year, Professor Walker-Barnes left the white-majority church where she had been on staff. Like an untold number of black Christians around the country, many of whom had left behind black-majority churches, she is not sure where she belongs anymore.

“We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people,” she said. “That didn’t work.”

It has been a scattered exodus — a few here, a few there — and mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage. Plenty of multiracial churches continue to thrive, and at some churches, tough conversations on race have begun. The issue has long shadowed the evangelical movement. The Rev. Billy Graham, who died last month at 99, bravely integrated the audience at his crusades and preached alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but kept silent at key moments.

But for many black churchgoers, the current breach feels particularly painful. Lecrae, a prominent black Christian hip-hop artist, has spoken openly of his “divorce” with white evangelicalism, Christian counselors have talked frankly of the psychological toll of trying to hang on in multiracial churches and others have declared it time to consider the serious downsides of worship integration.

“Everything we tried is not working,” said Michael Emerson, the author of “Divided by Faith,” a seminal work on race relations within the evangelical church. “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s about to completely break apart.”

‘This Is What I Need’

Ms. Pruitt had been a churchgoing Christian since the mid-1990s, first joining a mostly black megachurch in Dallas, where she was on the dance team. Inspiration began to flag after some years there, and one night she was drawn to a pastor whom she saw on television. He was, she later learned, Robert Morris of Gateway Church.

Gateway started nearly 20 years ago with a prayer group in Pastor Morris’s living room, and has in the past two decades grown to become a $140 million ministry, drawing upward of 31,000 people a week to six campuses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The scale and thoroughness of the operation are extraordinary: the attractive ledgestone-and-wood arena — with a coffee kiosk serving a Gateway blend — at the church’s Southlake, Tex., headquarters; the worship music booming over a first-class sound system; the robust programs for children, single parents and a host of other groups.

Above all, for many members, there are Pastor Morris’s weekly messages themselves: wry, often self-deprecating, sprinkled with biblical scholarship and often affectingly personal.

“This is what I need right now,” thought Ms. Pruitt, moved to tears when she first went to orientation programs at the church. Members who happened to sit near her at worship came to ask about her when she missed a service, and some came to her grandmother’s wake. One couple began to refer to her as a daughter.

The congregation is mostly white, but not entirely; the pastors at two of the six satellite campuses are black men. Church videos and promotional materials are intentionally filled with people of color. The goal, says Pastor Morris, who is white and has a black son-in-law, is to have a church that looks like heaven as described in the book of Revelation: “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

The general whiteness of the congregation is not something that every black worshiper dwells on anyway. To grow up black, said Carla McKissic Smith, who started going to Gateway in 2009, is to get used to being in the minority.

As the headlines of the outside world turned to police shootings and protest, little changed inside majority-white churches. Black congregants said that beyond the occasional vague prayer for healing a divided country, or a donation drive for law enforcement, they heard nothing.

Tamice Namae Spencer, who used to attend a mostly white church in Kansas City, said her fellow congregants did not seem to even know the name Trayvon Martin, the black teenager killed in Florida at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2012. And when Ms. Spencer brought up his death, she said white church members asked why she was being divisive.

“It’s not even on your radar and I can’t sleep over it,” she remembered thinking. “And now that I’m being vocal, you think I’ve changed.”

At Gateway, black worshipers would discreetly ask one another if they were the only ones who noticed that one could talk about seemingly anything but racism, a feeling one former congregant described as an out-of-body experience.

Jeremiah White, who is black, was so excited about Gateway when a friend brought him there years earlier that he insisted his parents come. Now a teenager, with his parents volunteering at the church for 12-hour days on weekends, Jeremiah had also begun to notice “the little details”: an associate pastor, trying to get the attention of a black man, jokingly referring to him as the one God left in the oven a little long; a youth leader suggesting Jeremiah must be new because he was black.

In the summer of 2016, Jeremiah made a cartoon and sent it to church leaders, depicting an elephant sitting on a man, squeezing out his insides. The elephant was labeled “Racism”; the man’s insides were labeled “Gateway Church.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times – Campbell Robertson